The museum has always been regarded as the official caretaker and preservation institution of expertise and knowledge. It is characterized by accuracy and objectivity, and conducts knowledge propaganda and education in the form of monologues to the public. Museum experts with specialized knowledge consider themselves producers of knowledge and proper protectors of heritage (Fouseki & Vacharopoulou, 2013). This top-down mode of operation has affected the participation and acceptance of knowledge by the general public, and also violates the original intention and goal of the museum, which is to ensure that all people have equal rights and equal access to knowledge and heritage (Schavemaker, 2019). In order to realize this ideal, we must break the existing power relation dynamic. The method for this, as museum innovator Nina Simon mentioned in her book The Art of Relevance (2016), is that museums must hand over the key (cf. the power) to communities.
With the emergence of Web 2.0, the Internet and social media have brought changes and development to various industries, and museums with intellectual authority are among them. Social media claims to be a space for everyone to communicate and obtain information on an equal basis, transforming users from content consumers to content producers at the same time. This way of declaring democratic participation seems to be suitable for museum reform. In recent years, digital innovation has become the center of museum reform, and museums of different sizes and natures have actively participated in it. Steven Zucker who is the principal of Smarthistory.org and dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), has described it as a transition from Acropolis—that inaccessible treasury on the fortified hill—to Agora, brainstorming market fairs, forums for civic participation and debate, and opportunities for various encounters between audiences and museums (Proctor, 2010, p.36). This change in museums is not unwelcome, but we may question whether it really promotes democracy. In this article, I will discuss related controversies and observe and analyze the digital collection of the Van Gogh Museum in the Netherlands on Instagram. Look for answers to whether the relationship between museums and users is democratic in the context of social media.
How does the museum use social media?
To discuss whether the relationship between museums and users is democratic in the context of social media, we need to first look at how museums use social media.
The social media platforms that are used by museums include Flickr, Wikipedia, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, etc. According to a survey conducted by Lazzeretti et al. (2015) on the use of social media in the Museum of Natural History of Florence, museums use different social media platforms to achieve different goals. They can be divided into the following categories:
- Introduction and promotion of collections, including collections with user-generated content
- Introduction and promotion of museum news and additional activities
- Improve the visibility for visitors and potential users, manage and strengthen user contacts
- Link to related platforms to promote educational significance
Next, I will discuss whether the museum’s use of social media can achieve a true democratic relationship between the museum and its users.
A new democracy of knowledge
It seems obvious that social media has brought the democratization of knowledge to museums. The introduction of collection information using social media becomes dynamic and storytelling. It makes the collection no longer just objects, but a vivid story. And it also allows other voices to tell the story of the collection from a wider context. Collection information is no longer trapped in the linear narrative of traditional exhibitions, but gives a larger space for the presentation of the personality of the public (Cameron, 2003, p.336). The museums’ social media collections can not only stimulate the interest of the audience, but also promote users meaningful participation (Haskins, 2007, p.408). It allows and advocates two-way communication among users, and guides users to act as “citizen curators” (Poole, 2009) by organizing related activities to reproduce human cultural heritage and thus form new cultural heritage.
Social media has added a “bottom-up” operating model to museums, which greatly increases the availability of heritage and knowledge to a wider audience (Taylor & Gibson, 2016, p.410). This also relies on one of the characteristics of social media, that is, to break the barriers of geography and time. People no longer need to travel to physical museums across cities or even countries, nor are they restricted by the opening hours of museums. Moreover, the museum’s social media collection is also different from the museum’s official website. The former is more flexible and user friendly, and also has more opportunities to attract potential audiences to realize the visibility of heritage and knowledge. Just as Gonzales (2017) claimed that short-form media platforms such as Facebook are more conducive to the rapid and effective dissemination of information, and it is also easier for users to participate in them. The museums’ social media collections are easier to link with other social media identities of its own or other museums, cultural institutions, etc., forming a broader educational significance and reaching more audiences. The collaborative decentralized form of network cooperation replaces the tradition of extreme individualism and cultural gatekeeping, making museums and curators one of the nodes in the social technology portfolio (Dekker & Tedone, 2019).
The power to grow secretly
The museum’s social media “new identity” seems to have brought an unprecedented democratic relationship. However, the existing power relationship between the museum and its users still grows secretly like moss plants all over the ancient city walls, and it is difficult to fade away. Although the consumption of heritage and knowledge is indeed more extensive than ever before, especially since social media provides space for collections and new voices to express opinions, these developments themselves are not completely democratic (Taylor & Gibson, 2016, p.409). The museum is still the initiator of most activities and the decision maker of the collection. Even though the museum advocates fair participation and equal dialogue to the public, the selection of content and the mediation of mainstream information make the existence of non-democratic elements subtle. It can be said that the values of the public are expressed within a predetermined framework (Taylor & Gibson, 2016, p.416), and museums still shape their users in secret places. Transferring the identity of the curator in the traditional collection to the identity of the person in charge of operations in the digital collection of social media, supervision still exists. As Hague and Harrop (2013) discovered, the challenge of contemporary democracy is due to professional regulation rather than authoritarian ideology.
In addition to the difficulty of eliminating the inherent power relationship between museums and users mentioned above, social media also comes with its own power inequality. Equal access to social media depends on digital infrastructure that can be distributed equally. However, the global inequality in this regard has yet to be resolved. Specialized personnel with equipment and related technologies have more power to speak and even control and manipulate the transmission of information. In addition to elite decision-making, there are also algorithmic biases in social media and regional cultural biases, including the use of written English as the main language of the Internet (Richardson, 2014). These prevent the Internet from becoming a truly neutral space, and even indirectly destroy the democracy of heritage and knowledge.
The digital collection of the Van Gogh Museum on Instagram
The Van Gogh Museum in Museum Square, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, is the highest collection of Van Gogh’s works in the world. In recent years, museums have joined social media platforms, and the Van Gogh Museum has also established its own Facebook, Instagram and other platform accounts. Today I will observe the digital collection of the Van Gogh Museum on Instagram and analyze its impact on the democratic relationship between the museum and its users.
Enter “Van Gogh” on the Instagram platform, you can easily find the museum account. After clicking to enter, you can see that the account has 1.8 million followers and 2211 posts have been published. At the same time, in the self-introduction area of the museum, the information displayed includes that they are the museum with the most collections of Van Gogh’s works as I mentioned above, and that the offline museum is currently closed. In addition, there is “enjoy your daily inspiration” that can be regarded as the goal of the digital collection. Through a series of information, it can be considered that the target audience of the digital collection are all Instagram account owners. The goal is to hope that through this digital collection, audiences or potential audiences interested in Van Gogh’s works uninhibited by location, can get in touch with and be inspired by the museum’s culture, collections and stories in daily life. The museum also uses this method to increase visibility and reach more potential users.
Before entering the official collection of posts, the account has set up a series of small functions and links to meet the functional needs of the museum using social media. Including links to the museum’s official digital platform for users to open virtual tours of museum collections. After following the account, the function of contacting and sending messages to the museum was opened, trying to build a two-way communication bridge. Click the inverted triangle button next to it, and the platform will recommend other accounts to users. As can be seen from Figure 2, this account recommends other European museum accounts. It can be guessed that this is because the algorithm pushes according to the user’s preferences. The information users receive in the field of social media and their choices and preferences for knowledge are still being shaped and defined imperceptibly.
The interface and content of the digital collection are very clear and coherent. There are 5 colored buttons on the interface for the introduction of online activities held by the digital collection, introduction of daily news and information of the museum, and other ways of viewing the exhibition and link to the museum’s YouTube account, so that more users of related platforms can learn more about the museum’s collections and stories in the form of videos. Among them, the button named “Inspired” is particularly noticeable. After clicking to enter, you can see the recent event named “#UnderVanGoghsSky” held by this account. The method of participation mentioned in the event introduction is that anyone can post and share related content photos and @vangoghmuseum and @themuseumofmodernart.
So far, I have indeed found evidence that the museum is actively reaching out and inviting users to participate in the creation and participation of heritage and knowledge. But don’t rush to cheer. Let me search for the event on the Instagram platform to see how the event is going.
A total of 372 works has participated in the event so far. I clicked on most of the most popular works and a few recent works and found that almost all of the works were from other museums or art institutions. Even for individuals, they are limited to professional personnel such as artists and writers. In particular, the producers of some works have a certain connection with the museum itself (as shown in Figure 5, the knitting doll in one of the works is sold in the museum shop). Although I don’t know whether the exhibited works were selected by the museum, judging from the results, the event does have certain limitations. It has not reached the museum’s claim that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate. Some works may be issued by museum employees. In the survey of the Museum of Natural History of Florence by Lazzeretti et al. (2015), it can also be seen that the museum staff acted as “social media advocates”, but the enthusiasm and hard work of the staff did not achieve a relatively high level of users’ participation.
The situation of inviting users to participate in special events is not ideal, so let me take a look at the interaction between the museum and the users in the ordinary posts of the digital collection.
As can be seen from the posts in Figure 6 and most of the posts on this account, the narrative style of the digital collection is presented in Van Gogh’s works and stories. In order to conform to the style of social media and to narrow the distance with the audience, the narrative language is mostly colloquial, and the narrative method adopts the form of combining Van Gogh’s works with the audience’s daily life.
It can be seen that the museum has indeed adopted a different posture on social media from authoritarianism to humanism. Regarding itself as the sharer of knowledge, not as the sole proprietor. However, in the comments of most posts, it can be found that although the museum hopes to promote equal dialogue in this way, the result has not reached true “equality”. The degree and number of answers to user questions are worth exploring. Of course, this is related to the lack of relevant personnel and technical support within the museum caused by the short-term reform of the museum.
As a means for museums to enhance user participation, social media has brought a subversive change to museums as a “legal” knowledge institution. It is undeniable that this ongoing change has achieved certain positive results. The museum’s efforts on social media platforms should not be ignored. Through posture adjustments, humanization of narrative methods, active user activities and even internal staffs’ support, the museum’s collection knowledge is more accessible and users’ wisdom is added to the creation of heritage, which promotes the inclusiveness and relevance of the museum, and is more in line with the original intention and ultimate goal of the museum.
Although such positive effects are encouraging, we may question the extent to which democracy has actually been promoted in the changes that have taken place. Especially considering that the “top-down” power relationship between museums and users has been around for a long time, museums inevitably monitor professional knowledge, and museums are difficult to achieve true equal dialogue in the short term due to personnel and technical restrictions. In addition, social media itself will add unequal power issues to the relationship between the museum’s digital collections and users. This is not only reflected in the global inequality of Internet technology and facilities, but also in elite decision-making, algorithmic bias, regional cultural differences and even Internet language. In other words, the road to a new democracy of knowledge is difficult. But through the awareness and awakening of more and more museums, as well as the joint efforts of relevant stakeholders, I believe that there will be more and more equal opportunities for the public to acquire knowledge and participate in heritage creation.
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