The Instagram Museum — The Secret to Growing Your Audience

The old museum model no longer works in the smartphone-fueled attention economy.

What is a smart museum?

It’s an organization that is data-driven, develops new audiences and works every single day to be publicly relevant. The smart museum does not commission a 55-page consultant report that collects dust nor does it shy away from providing immersive experiences that the general public wants.

The majority of museums struggle to consistently make data-driven decisions and usually blame financial reasons for limiting audience growth. The truth is that the old museum model no longer works in the smartphone-fueled attention economy. Museums are now competing with a wide range of fun and rewarding activities from music festivals to a Netflix subscription. The numbers show outside of big markets such as New York City or Tokyo, art and history museums are facing declining attendance. The smart museum professional understands that a key factor to public relevancy and audience engagement is making sure your museum fits within the social activity spectrum. Simply put, is your museum fun and social media worthy?

A few smart museums such as the Hirshhorn and The Broad have figured out that curating an Instagram moment is an effective method for growing audience engagement and boosting public relevancy. The Hirshhorn channeled the excitement of Yayoi Kusama‘s mirror rooms to increase its membership by 6,000 percent. The mirrors rooms captured the perfect Instagram moment, a fun and rewarding experience to share with friends — whether in-person or online. The Broad picked up on this new audience trend and instantly had sold out crowds for Kusama’s installation in LA. The concept of smart museums is not limited to art institutions with large budgets. The National Building Museum in D.C. first launched The BEACH in 2015 and the exhibit broke all previous attendance records. The exhibit brought in over 180,000 visitors over the span of eight weeks. The idea of a pool full of 750,000 white plastic balls in the middle of a traditional architecture museum resulted in large growth from entirely new audiences. It was such a perfect Instagram moment that the museum had to stop selling online tickets to control visitor demand.

Some museums may have internal or structural limitations stopping them from creating an immersive environment worth sharing online. No worries, branded experiences such the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC) or 29 Rooms by Refinery 29 have stepped up to fill-in visitor demand for thought-provoking visual experiences. However, these organizations are not mission-based. Commercially driven, they often strip away historical knowledge and societal context in pursuit of profit. Since opening in 2016, MOIC has reportedly made over $20 million in sales. It hijacked the name “museum,” yet it approaches educational output with blatant indifference.

Not all is lost. One museum director is leading a data-driven quest to build the smart museum roadmap. Charles Venable of Newfields (formerly called the Indianapolis Museum of Art) said, “We went and asked some people why they didn’t visit, and they basically said it was because they wanted to be social and they didn’t want their friends to say, ‘You wasted my precious Friday night with a boring, static art-museum experience.’” During Spring 2017, Newfields launched a beer garden alongside spring flower blooms and generated significant new audience traffic: more than 50 percent of visitors were between the ages of 18–44, and the biggest segment was 18–34 in comparison to the previous Spring. Ethnic diversity was increased as well.

Part museum exhibition and part immersive environment, the smart museum lays the foundation for audiences to seek and create Instagram moments. Since this is a fairly new trend, please share your thoughts and drop a comment.


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