Instagram has changed the way people experience art

Instagram’s 800 million users and the number is growing every day, made it inevitable that Instagram would disrupt the art world. Media have accused Instagram of fostering a narcissistic culture of selfies. In galleries, however, the research shows that the positive aspects far outweigh the negative. Instagram has changed the way that we share and experience our exhibition visits, as well as how we view art.

In fact, art institutions are actively courting Instagram users. The Museum of Ice Cream is one of the top Instagrammed exhibits in the US, with more than 125,000 hashtagged photos. The exhibition included Insta-friendly displays such as giant cherries and suspended bananas. It also featured a rainbow sprinkle pool.

The current Triennial exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria includes several large and Insta-friendly installations. Visitors can lie down on Alexandra Kehayoglou’s carpet work Santa Cruz River, which depicts an Argentine river that is the subject of a controversial damming plan. They are then invited to take a photo using a ceiling-mounted mirror.

Yayoi Kusama is also at the Triennial and uses space, light, color, and patterns. Her exhibitions are popular on Instagram. Kusama’s Obliteration Room is currently on display in Queensland. It’s another popular and Instagrammed experience that invites visitors to stick colorful dots over a room. The NGV has a similar piece that covers a house’s interior with flowers.

Perils and Possibilities

The increased use of visitor photography in museums and galleries has been controversial at times. A visitor to Los Angeles’ pop-up gallery, the 14th Factory, recently destroyed $200,000 in crown sculptures. The sculptures were placed on top of a set of plinths. While he was attempting to take a selfie, the visitor fell and knocked the plinths over in a domino-style chain reaction.

Another instance occurred in which visitors caused damage to an 800-year-old coffin located at the Prittlewell Priory Museum, UK. Visitors lifted a child into the coffin over a barrier to take the perfect picture. They knocked the ancient artifact off its stand, resulting in the large coffin piece breaking off.

Most galleries prohibit self-portraits. These restrictions are often justified by copyright concerns, concern over the visitor’s experience, or potential damage to artworks caused by selfie sticks and flashlights (although flashes may damage art).

It could be interpreted as elitism to ban photography because it interferes with the visitors’ experience. This would be a statement that art is only appreciated traditionally. Instagram can also be used to give a whole new perspective to artists, curators, and exhibition designers.

Recent research conducted at the Gallery of Modern Art Gerhard Richter exhibit in Queensland showed that visitors use Instagram to enhance their aesthetic experience. Participants uploaded Richter’s artwork to Instagram, immersing themselves creatively in the image. They wore clothes that matched the art and copied Richter’s blurred style.

A second study conducted at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Recollect Shoes exhibition found that Instagram was used primarily by audiences to interact with exhibition content, not for selfies. Visitors mainly photographed the intricate details in the shoe’s design.

This result was also found in a study that centered on Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Instagram is far from the narcissistic, selfie-obsessive behavior that many media reports claim to be occurring. Instagram gives visitors agency and authority to share their experiences.

This allows audiences to connect with museum content through a meaningful and controllable experience. New research shows that this activity is also linked to place, the museum and beyond.

Instagram is a complex tool to use in public places like museums and art galleries. This is part of larger research which shows that social media usage in public places challenges a variety of social norms.

We, as researchers in this new field, see the value of curators and designers using Instagram to plan exhibitions. It could be used to reach new audiences and improve connections with current visitors. We believe that, while it may not be possible to remove all restrictions on visitor photography, visitor expectations and experiences are now different. Instagram is a vital part of the future of cultural institutions.

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