Museums and Social Media: Is Instagram damaging to museum practice?

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Susanna Connolly, Third Year BA (Hons) History of Art and Design student assesses the use of Instagram in current museum practice.

Tate one-minute challenge Instagram post, 29 March 2020

Over the past decade, museums have begun to embrace social media as a promotional tool and a means to encourage engagement within the museum setting. Critics, however, are concerned about how engaging in social media devalues the museum experience and undermines museum authority. This discussion has become more relevant with the global pandemic forcing many museums to re-evaluate their practise and broader role within their community. Within this piece, I argue that utilising social media platforms such as Instagram can be extremely beneficial in creating and consolidating connections with museum artefacts and audiences.

Instagram is a social media platform that is centred around the posting and sharing of images. Designed to be accessed predominantly through mobile phones, the platform encourages personal photography grounded in individuals’ everyday experiences. The rise of Instagram has been closely entwined with the selfie phenomenon and as a result, holds negative connotations with critics believing the site fuels superficiality and vacuous entertainment.

With the events surrounding the global COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March 2020, museums and cultural institutions were forced to close their doors to the public. In doing so, these institutions had to re-address relationships with its visitors with social media platforms to reconsider how to overcome physical barriers to access. I decided to use the @Tate Instagram page to examine how museums used social media to encourage interaction, engagement, and education with their collection.

Over lockdown, Tate sought to engage their audience by organising various art related challenges and promoting entries on the Tate Instagram page. An example of this was the one-minute sculpture challenge. Posted on the 29th March, Tate challenged followers of their Instagram page to create a one-minute sculpture and post it on their personal account, tagging Tate so that entries could be shared on the Tate platform.

Tate shared 86 responses to the challenge which are pinned permanently to the highlights section of their account. The entries featured responses from a diverse range of participants, suggesting how social media can be an accessible site to engage with art and art institutions. The quality of responses was also varied, implying that difference in art ability was welcomed and encouraged. The one-minute element of the challenge made it easy to engage with and informal which encouraged participation. As mentioned in the announcement, the challenge was inspired by the work of the artist Erwin Wurm, and information of his art practice alongside photos were also shared on the Tate Instagram page. This is an example of how Tate was able to use Instagram as a platform to reconcile accessible forms of art education while encouraging audience participation and entertainment.

A benefit of utilising social media platforms is that they can eliminate not only physical barriers to access but social ones too. Anyone with an Instagram is invited to participate within the one-minute challenge. This active engagement centres the viewer within the experience and consolidates informal learning. The immediacy of social media allows for objects to be re-framed within current cultural contexts, making them more relevant, and draws out different understandings of the artefacts. Involvement within challenges such as the one-minute challenge was a much-welcomed escape from the anxious realities many of us were facing during the first lockdown. Within these uncertain times, museums can provide a sense of community and escape, vital for collective mental health. With this considered I would argue that museum social media profiles foster interactions with the audience, which in turn, can be beneficial to both the public and museum practise itself.

The Digital Dress Historian: Is Social Media Expanding the Field of Fashion and Dress History?

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Elena Field, Third Year BA Fashion and Dress History student shares her research and reflections on how social media expands dress history.

Bernadette Banner. 1890’s Ball Gown Instagram post. 5 October 2020. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/bernadettebanner/

In Doing Research in Fashion and Dress: An Introduction to Qualitative Methods, Yuniya Kawamura states that ‘it is the responsibility of fashion/dress scholars to elevate the importance as well as the interests of the topic in academia.’ Through my own personal experience, I have seen that one way this is being done is through the circulation of research on social media platforms, which has in turn created global dress history communities. Amanda Sikarskie, in her Digital Research Methods in Fashion and Textile Studies, has termed these communities as ‘the crowd,’ claiming that members are able to help each other through sharing knowledge. Social media can also aid academics when conducting research, as hashtags may link them to different primary and secondary sources relevant to their research that they might have been unaware of. Online events and discussions additionally provide a platform on which dress historians and museums can collaborate. This is especially important for museums in the time of Covid-19, as they are able to directly engage with visitors.

I am particularly interested in how YouTube offers a means for historical dressmakers to contribute to dress history studies. To give an example, the Costuber and Dress Historian Bernadette Banner uses her YouTube account to post videos on a variety of dress history related topics, from pointing out inaccurate costumes in television series and movies to making her own historical outfits, such as her video on making an 1890s ball gown. Hilary Davidson, in her essay The Embodied Turn: Making and Remaking Dress as an Academic Practice, argues that making historical dress is a form of research, in which the dress maker can develop a deeper understanding of a garment’s construction and embody the seamstress who would have made the original piece. Therefore, it is my opinion that Costubers like Banner are actively contributing to academic research in the field of the dress history, as well as sharing it with the wider public through digital platforms.

Cheyney McKnight. Not Your Momma’s History Instagram Post. 14 October 2020. Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/notyourmommashistory/

The combination of social media and historical dress, especially in the case of donning historical clothing for re-enactment purposes, is also a way to decolonise history. One predominant example of this is Historian Cheyney McKnight, who uses her social media account and company, Not Your Momma’s History, to navigate her discussion on black history. An example of her work is the project #slaverymadeplain, a series of performance art, where McKnight dressed as an enslaved woman in public in order to prompt a discussion with passers-by into how the effects of slavery are still relevant in American politics and African-American lives. A discussion on this subject is continued on her YouTube account where, through her use of historical costume and re-enactment, she has created content on such topics as her life as a black re-enactor, harassment and sexual assault experienced by African-Americans and slavery.

Though there is always a question over the historical accuracy of the content published on social media, it can be deduced that social media  should and is being used to expand the field of dress history and its academic standing, concurring with Yuniya Kawamura’s statement.

Investigating a Retro Marks and Spencer Biscuit Barrel

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Kay Lawrance, Third Year BA Fashion and Dress History student, shares her research into a charity shop find.

M&S biscuit barrel

Marks and Spencer Biscuit Barrel. c2004-2014. Stoneware. 18cms x 15cms diameter. Personal photograph.

As part of our Third Year module The Past in the Present: Retro, Vintage and Revival, we were asked to choose and research an item directly related to the themes of the module.  I chose this stoneware biscuit barrel produced for Marks and Spencer.  The exact date of production is unclear, but from the style of the backstamp, it was produced sometime between 2004 and 2014.  I bought it from a charity shop a few years ago so I am unable to date it any more precisely than that.

At the time this was produced there was a trend in homeware and home furnishings which is commonly called Mid-century Modern.  Interiors were heavily influenced by the 1950s, with Ercol furniture becoming desirable, and the sludgy browns, dark teals and mustards of this biscuit barrel reflect that.  The Pantone colour of the year 2009 was Mimosa, a sludgy yellow, and 2010s was Turquoise – slightly lighter than the mugs on the biscuit barrel but a similar shade.  In 2009, Sanderson, manufacturers of furnishing fabrics and wallpapers, released a design by Fiona Howard called Dandelion Clocks which they describe as ‘a fun and funky 50s retro design‘, available in similar colours.

The underglaze design on the biscuit barrel is printed with a black outline and colour infills that are deliberately mis-aligned.  This captures the style of the scourer pot in the image below, which, coincidentally, I also bought in the same charity shop as the biscuit barrel, but at a different time.  This small scourer pot by the Toni Raymond Pottery in Devon was produced somewhere between 1956 and the mid-seventies.  However, unlike the M&S biscuit barrel, the designs were all hand painted and the “approximate” painted infills were part of the style.

This images is a scourer pot and is copared with the M&S biscuit barrel

Toni Raymond Pottery Pot Scourer Holder. c1956-1976. Ceramic. 7cms x 9cms diameter. Personal photograph.

In Retro: The Culture of Revival Elizabeth E. Guffey suggests that the term retro ‘serves as shorthand for a period style situated in the immediate post-war years’ or ‘material culture at mid-century’ and that is exactly the feel of this design (2006: 9-10).  She describes how ‘retro does not seek out proud examples of the past; it shuffles instead through history’s unopened closets and unlit corners.’ (2006: 14) Although the pottery produced by studios such as Toni Raymond was hugely popular, it was domestic and reasonably cheap and not what I would describe as a “proud example of the past”.  Many homes had a piece, or something similar, but it was usually something as useful and at the same time as unconsidered as this scourer pot.  Items that were used and seen have become an almost half-forgotten memory.  I was struck by what Guffey wrote about the word nostalgia originally being used to describe a kind of homesickness, but that it has now come to mean a ‘bittersweet yearning for things […] of the past’ (2006: 19), a kind of time sickness, and it seems to me that this is captured in the feeling of this design.  And yet, the retro design is just slightly too good.  The misaligned print is too precisely done.  The edges of the infill are too sharp to be hand painted.  It is a knowing copy designed to be read by knowing consumers.