29 April 2013

Does social media have a place in an art museum?

Dana Allen-Greil posted an article recently, “Everything that’s wrong with society”? Facebook Home in museums. The post was triggered by a TV ad from AT&T in the US, for a mobile phone running Facebook Home (an app that fills the home screen with a steady stream of Facebook posts). In the ad, a woman in an art museum is shown being bored and disengaged. But then she checks Facebook on her phone and suddenly she ‘tunes into’ the art. Grell asks,
“Is it a provocative take on how technology might bring museums to life by honoring the personal interests and experiences of visitors? Or a depressing documentary on how nothing—not even the rare beauty of great art—can earn appreciation and attention in a world obsessed with the immediate?”
Many people are offended by this ad and I know why. Yes, it would be a pity if an art museum visitor failed to engage with the art surrounding them because they were distracted by the ‘chatter’ of social media, and this ad seems to be encouraging exactly that. But, on the other hand, art museums often take their audiences for granted, assuming that all they need to do is put their ‘masterpieces’ on display and get people to come and see them.

Shortly after I started working as an art museum educator in 1982, there was a TV ad in Australia for Kit Kat chocolate bars, featuring a famous painting* from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where I worked:


While the ad was current (and for some months afterwards), whenever I took a school group into the room containing that painting, one of the students would suddenly exclaim “The Kit Kat painting!” and the whole group would rush over to see it. At first I was thrown by this, because it upset the flow of my planned talk. But then I discovered that if I went with it, rather than resisting, the students would seem to get much more out of the rest of my talk, and their museum experience generally.

At the time, some of my colleagues expressed their horror that this iconic artwork was being ‘cheapened’ by commercialism. But I maintained that a connection was being made between the world of art (19th century art, in this case) and the students’ world (albeit mediated through mass media), and so it was in fact a positive thing.

I personally have no problem getting visitors (and not just school students) to imagine what a work of art would taste like, what piece of music would go with it, what sport the people in it might play, what it could be used to advertise, or what they could write about it on Facebook. As long as the artwork has a role to play. And, who knows, maybe further down the track some of these people might see this artwork again, feel some connection with it, and decide they want to know more about the artist, the period, the style. But, if not, that’s OK, too.

[* Incidentally, the painting is On the wallaby track, 1896, by Frederick McCubbin.]

Update: Nina Simon has written a blog post about this same ad, on Museum 2.0.
 

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