We’ve got 99 problems but the museum selfie ain’t one

In 2015 the museum selfie was taken hostage and used as a cultural lightning rod. What is proper museum behaviour? The discussion is almost comically separated from reality but its very intensity makes one thing clear: Something fundamental is at stake.

Follow Danish public debate on museums? One permanent fixture of the past year was the museum selfie controversy. Mirroring an international debate, Danish news media displayed quite a bit of concern over the behaviour of museum guests and the priorities of museums as regards “user involvement”. A few examples:

Later followed by:

Having museum practice debated in national media is a fine thing indeed. But there’s something strange here as well. Excepting the personally normative criticisms of current practice in Kristeligt Dagblad (which are fully legitimate even if I heartedly disagree) the selfie “problem” is a victimless one.

None of these articles point to concrete problems nor showcase one single guest (apart from art critics) interested in voicing their discomfort.

This rhymes well with the volume of complaints that we have received at the SMK. Now, there may be letters I haven’t seen and comments at the ticket counter that I haven’t heard (and I’m not saying the sentiment cannot possibly exist), but I have a pretty decent idea of all feedback from digital channels and adding everything together across all these platforms gives a huge big… zero. Also known as “nothing”.

The SMK has received some media flak for our “selfie room” constructed as part of our Eckersberg exhibition. The room in question is a small one in which the guest may climb a small staircase to make the perspective fall into place and thus place herself “inside an Eckersberg painting”. Opposite the staircase is a mirror to observe the effect. Number of hashtags, camera pictograms and use of the words “selfie”, “photo”, and “Instagram” on the walls in total: None.

Equally interesting is the number of guests who actually do post selfies from this room. Doing my best to monitor social traffic related to the museum I have probably seen around 10 selfies from this room and certainly no more than 15 (my guess would be that the actual total posted online is far below 100). If nothing describes the room as a selfie room and almost no guests use it as a selfie room, is there then actually a selfie room? It’s not that we’re super holy and cannot see why the thing has selfie connotations, but the answer to this philosophical conundrum is surely not a given.

The perspective room
Yours truly taking a picture into a mirror. Okay, okay, it’s a selfie.

And yes, you’re right. The whole thing is a smoke-screen. Journalists (apart from, I suspect, sometimes simply finding the combination of lofty “museum” and profane “selfie stick” fascinating) are picking up on the larger debate. Or, in the case of newspaper art critics, they are simply addressing larger issues through the selfie example.

We are talking here about The Proper Way to Enjoy Art. No, that’s not actually precise. We are talking about the proper way for others to enjoy art. With the possible exception of Louisiana’s wildly successful (and visually stunning) Kusama exhibition no-one visiting SMK, the National Museum or indeed any other Danish museum can possibly have their museum experience negatively affected by other people’s mobile phones.

You may wish that these other people would approach the art without further mediation but as I often tell my daughter when she makes unreasonable demands: “Yes, and I would like a sports car delivered to my door”. Now, I’m sure that is a very annoying comment but there are many things we cannot – and have no business trying to – control.

So, let’s by all means keep the discussions going, but here’s to worrying mainly about, oh you know, real things in 2016.

See also:

Lucky shots of 2015

Assorted highlights from this year’s camera roll, that (for reasons sometimes surely obscure to others) I happened to like.

The worst of times

Shot at Glyptoteket during Kulturnatten, it’s admittedly just your average sculpture but there’s a nicely ambiguous narrative here.

 

That's shocking news!

My daughter with a landline phone and mysterious random stuff (at SMK’s Laura Lima exhibition). Mostly I like the look on her face – what shocking news is she receiving?

 

Kids in museums: The Truth

The internets are awash with well-timed shots of nicely groomed youngsters respectfully contemplating our shared museum heritage. Here’s a glimpse behind the scenes. It’s the #nofilter version of the museum child shot.

You should try it yourself sometime

Pictoresque evening by the sea with flying rock. Dramatic background and plenty of movement.

 

The prophet and the smartphone dude

The über-serious meets the utterly irreverent.

 

Østre Anlæg, Copenhagen

The SMK, also known as “work”, on a particularly colorful day. I later realized that the light effects were mainly due to a irreplaceable nearby building being on fire. Hmmm.

 

Marktstrasse hangabouts

Hipsters of Hamburg hanging out. I like the way they are totally framed by the semi-abstract background.

 

Untitled

Selfies can be ok, as long as they are pretentiously abstract.

 

Wanås Slotspark, Sweden

Nice contrast between the stable composition and the implied movement. Also, people with hats are awesome.

 

Towers of FlorenceBecause Florence.

 

Casentino landscape

Kind of a dreamy phone shot taken during an evening walk in the hills of Tuscany. As you do.

 

Streets of Chicago

It’s a cliche and also probably a bit too HDR. But come on, it’s a train up in the air!!

 

Chicago morning

This phone shot captures well my sense of Chicago (on those particular days in April). Impressive, and grey, and often empty.

 

SMK as seen through a tiny round window

Nothing special. But you’ve gotta love those highly alternative takes on familiar subjects.

 

The Thermes Ruler

At the Royal Cast Collection the light is just pretty good sometimes.

 

Creative colleague's office

I like the way it takes some time before you notice my colleague Michael among all his assorted, well, necessities.

 

Copenhagen Springtime

I never really fell in love with the VSCO Cam app, but it does have its uses.

 

Photowalk at the Royal Cast Collection

Nice lines and fortunate composition – at the Royal Cast Collection.

 

Ancient faces

Someone set up these beauties in a pretty strong relationship – at the Royal Cast Collection.

 

Leaving work the other day

Caught this leaving work one winter evening. It’s the magic of dusk along with the welcoming window light. Also, it’s the good old blue/orange combo.

Measuring Instagram reach with barely any magic

Instagram reach can be measured. At least sort of. Here’s the SMK approach.

I’ve been describing our approach to Instagram measurement in a number of emails now, so I thought I’d just outline it here.

For those of us who like to track what we’re doing the whole problem, of course, is that Instagram does not provide any behind-the-scenes metrics. Thus, while you can add up engagement numbers (numbers of likes, numbers of comments etc.) you can’t tell how many people actually saw your masterful squares.

But that’s just one problem. At SMK, we really prefer to look beyond our own channels and include what museum guests and others are sharing. We like to see ourselves as initiators or inspirators of conversation, but we certainly don’t see worthwhile activity as confined to the channels that we happen to “own”.

Here’s what we do: First of all, we try to catch the largest possible amount of Instagram activity related to the museum. For this, we use the wonderfully flexible IFTTT (If This Then That) web service. IFTTT users can set up simple “recipes” using “ingredients” in the form of web services and selected actions. For instance, a recipe can be “Send any image uploaded to a specific Facebook page to a specific email address”.
We’ve set up IFTTT to track Instagrams posted at the two locations of SMK and/or with one of the hashtags often used by museum guests.

IFTTT recipe
IFTTT recipe

When such a photo is posted, IFTTT adds it to a Google Drive spreadsheet immediately. The spreadsheet fills up with lines like this:

Instagrams in a spreadsheet
Instagrams in a spreadsheet

At this point, what we have is just lines in a spreadsheet. Getting to reach requires a combination of math and guesswork informed assumptions.

We counted the number of followers for all posters in one whole month and it turned out they had an average of 400 followers. To measure reach for any month, we thus multiply the number of photos with 400. Obviously, however, Instagramers don’t see all images in their feed – and there’ll be a certain overlap of followers – so we’ve found it appropriate to divide by three.

Now, the ‘three’ is highly arbitrary. Is three the optimal number? Almost surely not (it is a prime number, though, shouldn’t that count for something?…). You might suspect that the resulting number will be too high, but our logic is that the IFTTT does not capture everything posted from the museum (i.e. everything not geo- or hashtagged) and so we compensate upwards. Thus, the SMK formula is:

Instagram reach = Number of photos posted in a month * 400 / 3

Of course, you can adjust the 3 any way you find appropriate.

Feel free to argue, but my logic is this: Our formula is not perfect, but it is the most reasonably approximation we can currently come up with. Also, while the actual number should be asterisked with disclaimers, the math here is simple and gives an easy way to track development over time. In short, we are happy with it until more precise tools come around.

Squaring the museum: A year of Instagram at SMK

For the past year we’ve hosted a small series of Instagram events at the National Gallery of Denmark. The result is a diversity of perspectives and quite a few masterpieces.

Given enough eyes, if you’ll pardon the paraphrase, all corners of the museum can be made photogenic. A year ago this August we had our first Instagram event at SMK, giving a group an exclusive tour an hour before opening to the public (a tour where I elegantly managed to get myself locked all alone into the permanent exhibition in ways still somewhat unexplained).

And just to be clear: It is a truly great thing. Inviting visual creativity inside is a real pleasure and a great way to engage with the art in new ways (not to mention the staircases and each and every reflective surface). In this post, I’ll sketch our experience so far.

Instagramers getting ready
Instagramers getting ready (August 2014)

For our very first attempt at the genre, Instagram staff members – in town for Copenhagen Fashion Week – actually handled logistics. A group of 12 specially invited IG’ers were taken for a “empty museum” walk under the #emptysmk hashtag. Yes, we bent our hashtag model which is always SMK-something to associate ourselves just a bit with the fabulous #emptymet series of events.

Going on instinct we’d asked a guide to lead the way, speaking knowledgeably about the collection. This effort turned out to be wasted, however, as the photography mission left very little mental room for taking in art history.

Some of the photos from this first tour are shown here:

One more from #emptysmk > discovering colour with @kjwww // #artwatchers #timeforteal

A photo posted by Hannah Waldram (@hannahrw) on

Soon after the walk we were contacted by Instagramers Denmark, and with that fine association we made a similar setup (only after hours, not before). About 15 people went for an #emptysmk walk, once again with great images to show for it:

tak @igersdenmark @smkmuseum for en hyggelig fototur i #emptysmk. A photo posted by laurenlila (@laurenlila) on

  One more from the event today // #emptysmk @smkmuseum   A photo posted by Judith Stohn (@jstohn) on

 

Wanting to try our hands at something slightly more focused we held our next event at the Royal Cast Collection, which is in a separate location from the rest of the museum. As it was now winter and we had to plan for late in the day, we arranged for some simple extra lighting in the form of two strong photographer’s lamps that we could move around to try different setups. Again we worked with Instagramers Denmark to invite 15 people for an atmospheric tour of the collection. Incidentally, 15 is our preferred number as larger groups become too difficult to move around and as we like to keep the atmosphere relatively casual and be able to answer everybody’s questions. This photo shows a bit of context:

Photo event at the Royal Cast Collection
Photo event at the Royal Cast Collection

A couple of shots from the talented IG’ers:

Went on a cosy walk on SMK Cast Museum today – thanks for inviting us :) // A photo posted by Bobby Anwar (@bobbyanwar) on

Golden light

A photo posted by Oliver TCB (@olivertcb) on

Night at the museum… Thank You @igersdenmark for a fun night at The Royal Cast Collection. A photo posted by Abdellah Ihadian (@mr_babdellahn) on

For our next event we went anti-empty and invited photo folks for our grand opening of the “What’s Happening?” exhibition. The idea was to show the museum full of life and activity, which is a nice idea, but not necessarily one the IG’ers went for as you can see here:

Museum | kunst

A photo posted by Oliver TCB (@olivertcb) on

The | bag – thanks for the invite @smkmuseum ✌️ #smkmuseum #communityfirst #copenhagen

A photo posted by LittlemyCPH (@littlemycph) on

A photo posted by Oliver TCB (@olivertcb) on

But okay, you can’t always have (or plan) them all.

It’s been great seeing the museum through so many talented people’s lenses. We look forward to new adventures in square format in the time to come.

If you have any questions about our initiatives, don’t hesitate to ask.

Feel free to join our SMK photo events Facebook group.

For details, metrics and other wonderful things, see my Museums and the Web paper on The Me/Us/Them Model.

The new museum conversation is not about you

We used to fret over directing traffic to our own websites. Then we expanded our perspective to include all our channels. It’s time for the next leap: The one where we forget ourselves entirely.

It comes up all the time. The disparagement that museums (and indeed other institutions) are not fulfilling the true potential of social media. The idea – if you’ll allow me to paraphrase – that social media should usher in a golden age of democratic equality where museums are but partners in an enlightened, free-flowing dialogue. If you subscribe to this ideal, and then glance at the Facebook pages of your local museum you are likely to despair. What you see, very often, is at least partly marketing-like (“Oh no, look! They’re doing push communication!”) and dialogue is often sparse.

But here’s the thing: DON’T look too closely at those official feeds. Doing so is akin to your reporting in 2005, the time where your main measure of online success was traffic to your own website. Thankfully, we (mostly) managed to challenge this too-simple metric to include all our channels. Of course, we said, it does not make sense to think of the website as the ultimate destination when people can be inspired on Twitter, sign up for events on Facebook etc. It was the right argument at the right time. But now we need a similar shift in our priorities, our thinking, and our reporting.

Most of our social media strategies specify conversation and community-building as main goals of our efforts. In my view many museums are doing really important work to stimulate these conversations, but we don’t necessarily see it on our “owned” profiles. We see it as the result of making high-quality content easily available, of changing photo policies and of inspiring guests to talk and share. Museums provide building blocks and frameworks for conversation but these conversations largely take place in whatever contexts people find relevant.

In other words: We need another KPI revolution. We need to further minimize the us/them distinction. I like to say that “the strategy isn’t us, it’s them” but let me be clear: It’s really both. Museums can play an important role in stimulating conversations around their subject matter – a job that requires time and effort – but to measure that success in likes, engagement and mentions to some degree misses the point. We need to measure how our materials are used and the far more indirect ways in which we stimulate interest.

Is this broader conversation much harder to measure? Yes. Are our reporting tools tailored to this broader perspective? No. But if we allow ourselves to be guided by our tools we’d still only be comparing unique visits via Google Analytics.

On an endnote: To the skeptic this may sound like a cop-out. Like changing our reporting just because we couldn’t fulfil our goals. But it really isn’t. The goals remain (largely) the same, the effort required is equal or greater, and it’s only our old-fashioned – and rather self-centred – KPIs that need to change. And once we do, it’s very likely that we’ll stumble on all those conversations that some people vainly want to only appear in the official Facebook feed.