Theme: Social Media

Museums – Media – Power or: The Main Thing is Liking? 1)

By Michael H. FABER

© Photo: Michael H. Faber / AVICOM

The shock is deep. Museums have just announced on their websites that they will grant asylum seekers free entry in the future to make it easier for them to access the culture of their host country. Now the museums are facing a storm of indignation: Not only that their mailboxes are filled with nasty emails. Within hours, hundreds of angry “taxpayers”, social benefit and pension recipients who felt that they were “only entitled to a discount” and all sorts of exasperation, who now finally saw the downfall of the West in favor of those from the East, posted their regular table arguments. The museums are not prepared for the spelling mistake of hate speeches, including threats (“Let’s just storm the museum” …) that are quite criminally relevant. Day-to-day business with urgent other tasks is interrupted, crisis meetings are called, people think about and coordinate with the museum organizer how to return as soon as possible and in the most friendly, objective and qualified manner possible.

But soon relief arises. A host of people who are enthusiastic about the new entry regulations are starting to form on this Facebook. They pull out to counterattack, out of sheer sympathy, giving the museums five stars even if they have never visited them. Both the Shitstorm and the responding Candystorm show similarities in their discourses: it is not primarily about the museums concerned, but about frustration, envy, pity, intolerance and tolerance, about worldview. But it hits the museums. The storms, unprecedented, show the museums what power people can exert when they use the power of social media.

A second case of the unforeseen, whose immortalization on the Digital Net would have been just as predictable as in case one: at a major event in an open-air museum, hundreds of spectators witness an artist falling off the high wire. A few hours later, smartphone videos of the accident were posted on YouTube. A TV broadcaster, incidentally a public service broadcaster, uses these posts for its reporting. The violation of rights (“in the image of oneself” and also “in the image of oneself” is accepted. The example shows that the topic of museums and social media also has something to do with prevention trained personnel from the affected open-air museum should use a specially developed privacy screen set in the event of damage.

Privacy? Anyone who, as a museum professional, takes a close look at all the photos on Instagram and the videos on YouTube, which were recorded in the open-air museums, which are considered to be particularly photogenic, will discover a pronounced variety of motifs in which subjective perceptions such as curiosity or prettiness of things are present , Atmosphere and personal emotions are more likely to be expressed than the museums’ actual intentions to mediate. They also use the picture platforms themselves to profile themselves and convey museum goods – a good example is the “Advent Calendar”, with which an open-air museum presents 24 motifs from its inventory with a good description and thus tries to retain followers even during its winter break , However, the number of pictures that visitors put online is much higher: Often there are constellations between them and objects with no discernible value, they are selfies for the sake of own memory and self-portrayal – although some museums also request that they be made, for example by making them available scenes made for this.

Are Instagram and YouTube now changing the way museums are perceived? What influence can the museums themselves have on their perception through their own contributions? Do museums also pursue mediation concepts tailored to their self-image and their core tasks and marketing strategies tailored to their own online presentation of visual material, or is it not coincidence, the spontaneous idea of ​​museum directors or their PR managers that determines what could be put online?

The contribution and subscription figures for Instagram appearances by German museums are initially undermining concerns about the significant influence that such portals have on museum identity: for example, the contributions in the Instagram appearances of the popular and accordingly well-attended open-air museums are currently under 200 and those Subscriptions under the two thousand mark. The House of History with its branches comes to around 400 contributions and almost 3,500 subscriptions. Only the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, which is very much on its own initiative with picture posts, is currently being the lone Instagram leader with over 1,000 contributions and over 44,000 subscriptions. In terms of the number of visitors, the contributions and subscriptions are not yet much. In view of this, the question arises of the museum benefits of such platforms, of which Instagram is currently the most powerful. In addition, it remains useful to question the fairness of the topics and exhibits of so many museum-initiated Instagram campaigns – such as those “insta-walks” that are hard-working, generate hardly any visitor numbers and retain only a few visitors, those online happenings in which followers digitally alienate exposed cultural goods or many smartphone / selfie campaigns offered in exhibitions. Even if the museums are harvesting a few smilies online for this: “The main thing is, liked”? In her critical contribution in “Die Zeit”, Larissa Kikol tracked down absurd developments when museums rely on the power of social media.

The museum as a declared smartphone-free refuge for contemplation and recreation outside of a digital world? Or as a place where today’s habits of perception have to be fulfilled unconditionally? The smartphone has also become an important organ of perception in museums. But it can also annoy fellow guests in exhibitions as well as in an open-air concert: if you have a clear view of the originals, here the smile of little Mona L. and there the Mick J. fidgeting on a distant stage through a variety of devices held up is denied?

Or “Museum made for Instagram”? Photogenicity of exhibits, exhibitions and events above all? The wrong lighting, the dust on an open-air museum object, crumbling plaster on a museum monument, deserted people at a beautiful event in itself … put on the net by visitors by photo, this can contribute to anti-advertising. It may be that museums must pay more attention to photogeneity than ever. But does everything really have to be photographed? When does the general “photographing desired” follow a general “touching allowed”? When do copyrights and conservation standards start to be at stake?

Under the influence of changing expectations and reception skills, a paradigm shift in self-image has long taken place in museums. Museums are exposed to the dictation of visitor numbers like never before, react with spectacular exhibitions and campaigns, develop productions, features and communication formats that address specific types of visitors and with which the most heterogeneous audience can be addressed and bound. The increasing number of exhibition apps for mobile devices – why is it that analog information and the use of local AV media in the exhibition are no longer sufficient? – is a result of this effort. The museums meet special needs with inclusive offers – also online. The use of social media – as a way of communication among others – can make a contribution to this. A good example is the Youtube video of a visually impaired person known by his own channel “Mr Blindlife”, in which he tests an exhibition in the House of History for accessibility – also available on the HdG website. With all the most ambitious aid from social media to improve inclusion, it is important not to miss the problem of the “digital gap”. In our society, the digital divide is hardly characterized by demographic differences in access to electronic communication technologies and forms. However, there is a marked demographic difference in willingness to use them.

The paradigm shift in museums manifests itself – in addition to its opening to social media – in the increasing preparation of collections, documentation and research projects for the digital network. In principle, it is good if cultural heritage and cultural discourses are made more accessible to research and education, the media and interested audiences, and if cultural exchange is promoted. So far, however, the spectrum of detailed analyzes of the use of such databases has been manageable, which makes it difficult to decide what and how with regard to content, structure, design and usage options. Incidentally, there are probably not a few museums that are forcing the establishment of such databases – not infrequently due to the dictation of the museum sponsor and the possibility of using external funding for this – while the inventorying, documentation, conservation and restoration (even according to the minimal standard) of some Old stocks are overdue and adequate treatment of new additions remains by the wayside.

Museums cannot and should not shut themselves off from an increasingly digital world. Curators, once responsible for the objects and their understanding, must now feel obliged to serve heterogeneous needs via the web. More than ever, they have to deal with how the digital experience space can be used to ultimately make the analog and thus the original tangible. Despite all digitization, museums are and will remain analog.

The critical tones in this article may stimulate a critical reflection on what is essential with a view to the use of the digital and, above all, communication via social media and what is dispensable, priority and secondary, meaningful and senseless. It is undisputed that social media have become an important tool for museum public relations. It is easily overlooked that they can only cover one area of ​​strategically structured content marketing. It is also undisputed that social media like never before possibilities for the active, creative and constructive involvement of community resp. open specific communities into museum work. The use of social forums such as Facebook, the creation of an account area for members on the website of your own sponsorship association and the target group-specific digital linking to suitable history associations can be very helpful, for example, when looking for contemporary witnesses and obtaining private documents and exhibits for a contemporary exhibition project ,

To use the spectrum of the digital sensibly, of course, much more precise efficiency analyzes are required than have been available to date. It is certainly a task of the museum associations to carry them out. The results of such analyzes form the indispensable basis for the development of algorithms for the not only contemporary, but also future-oriented digital and analogue work – and thus the effect – of museums. However, the fact that such algorithms and their compliance do not only fail here and there has something to do with the question of feasibility in view of the often inadequate human resources. Developing strategies here, defining needs and postulating them to museum sponsors is one of the many tasks that the national museum associations, especially the National ICOM Committees, should take on.

1)  Slightly modified, translated version of the article: Michael H. Faber: Museums – Media – Power or: The main thing is liking? In: ICOM Deutschland Mitteilungen 2019. Berlin 2019, pp. 35-37
2)  See Larissa Kikol: Hauptsache, gelikt. Neuerdings setzten viele Museen auf die Macht sozialer Medien. Eine widersinnige Entwicklung. In: Die Zeit 38/2017, 14. September 2017 (; invoked 08 January 2019)
3)  See Wolfgang Ullrich: Kommunizieren mit Kunst. Museen und die Sozialen Medien. In: (invoked 08 January 2019)
4)  An introduction to the use of social media, but without sufficient consideration of the need for an overall strategy that also includes the analog:  Axel Vogelsang, Bettina Minder, Seraina Mohr: Social Media für Museen. Ein Leitfaden zum Einstieg in die Nutzung von Blog, Facebook, Twitter & Co für die Museumsarbeit. Hg. v. Hochschule Luzern – Design & Kunst. Luzern 2011.

All rights reserved. Copyright: Michael H. Faber

The following source must be given for excerpts and quotations from this article:

FABER, Michael H.: Museums – Media – Power or: The Main thing is Liking? In:, invoked (Date)