JR and the missing pyramid at the Louvre

by Katherine Hall, Staff writer

Over the past several Art of Technology columns, we've covered how large format technology can help museum visitors actively engage with art, and how apps can help visitors navigate large collections. Today, we will begin to look at how the internet, and specifically, social media, creates new ways for people to experience art and become part of a museum community. Lately, social platforms that are grounded in visual communication, such as Instagram and Snapchat, are making gains over text-based platforms like Twitter; they are particularly well-suited to showcase visual art. Social media serves as an important tool for arts and cultural institutions, helping them engage with people that don’t regularly visit and, especially, younger audiences.

In California, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is using Snapchat to playfully attract a new generation of museum goers. The image messaging platform’s use rbase skews much younger than more popular counterparts like Facebook and Instagram, with 49% of users under the age of 24. Snapchat also has one of the highest engagement rates among social media sites. These factors combine to make it one of the most powerful ways to attract younger audiences. LACMA was one of the first museums on Snapchat—and they're still leading the pack. Rather than featuring typical captions noting artist and title of a work, LACMA’s Snapchat stories feature famous movie quotes or song lyrics paired with thematically appropriate works of art from their collection. The stories are often hilarious and are an easy way for followers to enjoy the LACMA collection on a regular basis.

While Snapchat remains somewhat niche, Instagram, with a larger and more diverse user base, has proven one of the most successful platforms for engaging users’ interests in the arts. Most major art museums have a profile on the site and an active posting schedule. A standard feed will include posts marking exhibit openings, highlighting events and celebrating holidays and artists’ birthdays. However, some institutions have gone beyond this typical programming and created campaigns that resonate deeply with users. #EmptyMet is one of these extremely successful exceptions.

A record breaking 6.7 million people visited the the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in fiscal year 2016. Needless to say, most visitors experience the word famous collection as part of a crowd. The #EmptyMet project allows a rare look at a tranquil museum devoid of the masses of daily visitors. The project was started by David Krugman, a photographer who was an early adopter of Instagram and quickly saw how the new platform could help cultural institutions attract younger audiences. While the museum maintains control of their account, Mr. Krugman helps arrange for groups of photographers and influencers to visit the museum outside of normal business hours to participate in the #EmptyMet sessions. The participants are free to roam through the collections and grand spaces, capturing stunning images that they post to their own Instagram profiles using the hashtag and mentioning @metmuseum. Since the #EmptyMet images originate on the influencers’ accounts they reach a broader and more varied audience than just the @metmuseum’s follower base. The museum can then repost the images on their own profile, and clicking on the hashtag to see all of the compiled posts is yet another way for people to discover the museum. #EmptyMet has captured the imaginations of social media users by giving them a glimpse of what the museum looks like without the ubiquitous crowds.

A more recent social media sensation was the collaboration between the Parisian street artist, JR, and the Louvre Museum. For his summer 2016 exhibit, JR disappeared one of the most recognized and iconic pieces of architecture in the world, IM Pei’s pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre. The artist documented the process of covering the pyramid with a street-art style poster wrap depicting the traditional palace architecture on his Instagram. This tongue-in-cheek work made it impossible for visitors to take one of the most common tourist photos of all time, a forced perspective shot where the subject appears to be holding the top of the pyramid. Even though JR’s exhibit disguised one classic picture, images of the disappeared pyramid went viral and were picked up by news outlets across the world.

Social Media has completely changed the way that people interact with each other, brands and institutions. Museums are no exception, and these days it seems that for an exhibit to be a blockbuster it must include a highly Instagram-able attraction. Katharine Schwab has written more extensively about this new phenomenon in an article titled, “Art for Instagram’s Sake” for The Atlantic. As social media grows an even larger audience and adopts and absorbs the latest technology (like 360-degree video), it will truly be fascinating to see how it continues to influences the reasons and the ways people interact with and make art.