From Visitors to Users: 
Museum Practice in a Time of Social Media and the Neoliberal Market Economy

Over the last decades, museums worldwide have become more and more invested in creating an online ‘voice’ on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to get in touch with their potential audiences. Hence they are coined ‘users’ instead of ‘visitors’. As every aspect of global culture is taken by social media, museums have to move along this trend, many blogging professionals (such as Nina Simon, Jasper Visser, Russell Dornan ) state. Creating a ‘community’ of actual visitors seems hard in a time of social change that goes along with the omnipresence of the social media and new digital technologies. However, social media should remain to the task of connecting audiences to museums, without them intervening too much in the content of exhibitions. Museums are spaces that have the ability to break with the daily perception of the world — now riddled with the distractions of social and digital media.

One blog post of The Museum of the Future by Jasper Visser, a consultant for cultural organizations to find their possible audiences, is about the role museums should play in a time of social and technological change if they are to survive. He lists the changes that have occurred in the 20th and 21st Century in terms of technology: television, internet, and social media as a new means of communication. As a result, Visser rightly states, “we’ve become easily distracted people in a super high-speed world.” He then states that this trend is asking the museum, among other institutions, to change their practices accordingly. It needs to become a “more social institution”, Visser proposes, devoting the rest of the blog to elaborating four key concepts that should achieve this: (1) value, (2) community, (3) engagement and (4) co-creation.

While the latter two seem to me to be meaning the same, value is ‘redefined’ by Visser in a quite obvious manner: not only as profit as he states many organizations including museums do, but also creative, cultural and societal. Hereby he is dismissing that historically it was always the most important task of museums to create a certain cultural and moral community, as Simon Sheik has shown in an article in Curating Subjects (2007). Visser makes another misstep by stating that the coöperation of The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam with Etsy to invite people with the collection online was a success since it “adds tons of value to the lives of creatives”. With 115 cases of this collaboration, one could however hardly call it significant.

The museum remains foremost a physical institution, and this is also where its central strength as an institution lies: by being a place that you can actually visit and where you can engage with the art directly, it is distinct from all the daily online happenings. The impact of this social media trend seems to become more prevalent in museum exhibitions content as demonstrated by the new permanent exhibition of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam: Stedelijk Base. Here, visitors have the same kind of freedom they have on the internet: thin walls are positioned playfully, giving the visitor the imperative to walk along a timeline, leading to more open spaces that are categorized thematically such as De Stijl or Constructivism. As if you are browsing on the web.

But most importantly Visser misses a fundamental factor in his analysis of the museum in the present: to speak about increased “participation” of museums means speaking about the market. This is a point that is Visser implicitly making, but does not voice apart from acknowledging that many museums are indeed struggling to keep their doors open. Off course social media have become a necessary tool to stay in contact with their potential visitors or community: they have become the prime channel for information. At the core of the issue —income to support the institution — therefore lies a much more fundamental change that has to do with a shift not in technology, but in politics.

As governments have committed themselves more to deregulation and the privatization — loosening the control on the market and stimulating consumerism — museums have become one of the first to be hit. Their existence has and still is tied to government subsidies. Without them many would have no budget to maintain the buildings they are housed in, to conserve the collection, to hire (permanent) staff and curators, to acquire works of art, and to conduct research. To me it seems the issue museums are facing is not so much an overload of information or ‘infobesity’ but rather a shortage of subsidies to keep them running, and more importantly to give them artistic autonomy and freedom. They need to “keep their own pants up”, while it is exactly the artistic realm that is what makes them different from other institutions driven by making profit. Without funding, they have to seek for new means of attracting a public, and some are therefore conforming to the rules and logic that exist in the online world.

Information technologies are a means to lure in visitors, but there are always new technologies that ask for different approaches to reach the public. The Jewish-German philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) already noticed in his essay ‘The Storyteller’ (1936) that such technological changes had a significant impact on the way people experience, and our time is no different. What a museum primarily needs, however, are inspiring and relevant exhibitions that give other perceptions of the world, not ones that repeat those audiences’ can find online. To achieve that they must not be afraid to become more prescriptive and of doing something different. Museums should not be spaces where visitors have their own perceptions spoon-fed and repeated. What would be the cultural and societal ‘value’ of that? We must not be tempted to go along with the idea that a greater participation of audiences necessarily means increased democratization. Consumerism is not the same as democratization.

Residing in Bologna for three weeks now, I also went to visit some of the museums of this historical city. In the Palazzo Albergati I saw an exhibition about the Surrealist movement and its roots in Dada. As I live close-by the Palazzo, I passed by quite often and noticed that especially in the weekends visitors come en masse to see the exhibition, cuing up in long lines. The exhibition was named Duchamp, Magritte, Dalí. Indeed, people want to see big, established artists. Similarly, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is not by chance one of the most prosperous institutions in the Netherlands today. It is thanks to the process of the canonization and the commercialization of art (the museum shop offers sunflower pens and bags) that it keeps on attracting large audiences. If we want more museums to be successful, creating a multiplicity of museums instead of a singular and self-amplifying cannon, subsidies are needed to guarantee artistic autonomy. Thus we need to make first and foremost a political choice: do we let market forces decide what has a right to exist, or do stand behind the richness that culture has to offer us?

Beneath you see a picture of me at the exhibition in Bologna, where I was sitting uncomfortably in a surreal dimension of the Museum of the Future:



Benjamin, Walter. (1936). ‘The Storyteller. Reflections on the works of Nicolai Leskov’ in: Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Ahrendt, translated by Harry Zorn. London: Pimlico, pp. 83-107.

Sheik, Simon. (2007). ‘Constitutive effects: the techniques of the curator’ in: Curating Subjects, edited by Paul O’Neill, p. 175.

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