Social media has slowly, but surely, crept into our daily lives. We like, comment, and share posts with such regularity that these activities have become almost mundane. Whilst it can be easy to brush off social media as ‘simply’ marketing and communication tools, the power these networked technologies enable should not be ignored. Museums have adopted social media to engage with their communities and they are slowly adapting their use of these tools towards more participatory dialogue. Since museums are a reflection of their communities and their environments, and as they are not neutral or objective organisations, they often use their resources (i.e. collections and expertise) to participate in, and comment on, broader contemporary events (and trends).
An example of this type of participation is the recent performance project by Sonia Boyce at the Manchester Art Gallery, where the J.W. Waterhouse Hylas and the Nymphs painting was temporarily removed.
The performance seemed to have a double aim: to spark dialogue about the representation of the female body in the particular gallery space where the painting resides, and to question how items on display (in general) are interpreted. When the painting was removed, the Gallery invited visitors to leave their thoughts, comments, and responses on post-its ‘on display’, as well as invited visitors and audiences to converse online by using the hashtag #MAGSoniaBoyce.
The days that followed this performance brought a barrage of responses onsite and online. Most notably, the Gallery and the Contemporary Art Curator were accused of censorship and of ‘piggybacking’ on a serious social movement as part of a marketing stunt. The ample flood of reactions was so unexpected that it quickly became known as #nymphgate amongst Gallery staff.
My doctoral thesis explores how museums use social media to build, communicate, and expand on their brands (their identity and personality) – in it I propose that museum audiences and visitors (including non-visitors) have an active role in the brand-building of museums through their engagement on social media. The performance event at the Manchester Art Gallery is a timely case study that I aim to include in my thesis. Through the collection of social media data and a series of interviews, I aim to understand the process that led up to the performance (including decision-making, individuals involved, and communication strategies), as well as to understand the (un)intended role that social media played throughout. Furthermore, I aim to understand how the responses, particularly online, affected the organisation – for example in ways of working, public expectations, and the Gallery’s reputation.