Instamuseums and the Tyranny of Engagement Metrics

Pop-up “Instamuseums” are a thing, according to this video from Vox and this article by Sophie Haigney in The New Yorker: people will queue around the block and pay $40 for the privilege of taking photos of themselves alongside works of installation art specifically designed for social sharing at places like the Museum of Ice Cream in New York.

I’ll spare you extensive thoughts on influencer culture, and instead say this: this kind of degradation of any actual discernible point to museums was an entirely predictable consequence of arts policy. I don’t particularly care about the pop-up $40 influencer museums. That is a transaction between an influencer and a commercial operation. Sure, it might be making travel, restaurants and much else besides into a blander and less interesting experience, but that’s only to be expected. Where it becomes far more interesting is the role of this kind of social media engagement obsession with publicly funded and charitable cultural institutions.

For the last decade or so, museums, libraries and other cultural institutions have been assessed by governments and other funding bodies using measures of “impact” and “engagement”, a repurposing of Key Performance Indicator-style targets from the corporate world into cultural institutions.

The debate around smartphones and selfies in art museums has almost always been framed as stuffy museum curators who don’t like the kids of today taking selfies in front of the Great Works of Art vs. a younger, hipper curatorial class who reframe teenagers Snapchatting themselves in front of Picassos as an inherently good thing for the future of cultural engagement, because at least they are engaging with the paintings.

What this extremely individualised debate ignores is that the bizarre reliance on social media engagement metrics flows from the demand by the political and managerial class to assess and measure “impact” as the summum bonum of museums and cultural institutions. Instead of hiding behind management-speak, let’s just admit that for the people who make the decisions, the ability to see J.M.W. Turner paintings in the flesh really can be quantified using some strange Benthamite utility calculus alongside the ability to get a decent latte from the café. No point in being coy about it. The first step on the road to recovery is to admit that one has a problem.

According to engagement metrics, a visiting art historian who has flown from Australia to London in order to inspect the museum’s collection as part of writing a book aimed at changing how the world thinks about their particular area of expertise has contributed some quantifiable unit of ‘engagement’, just as a passer-by in the street who wandered into the museum to use the lavatory or buy a coffee. Those values might be different and may need a bit of statistical tweaking to be properly weighted, but the goal of today’s museum is to maximise quantifiable engagement, just as it is the goal of medical commissioning under the NICE regime to maximise “QALYs”, Quality Adjusted Life Years. Again, whether we like it or not, let’s not be in denial about this reality.

Instagram influencers using the museum as a photographic set-piece is engagement, and museums are now duty-bound to deliver, quantify and work to increase engagement. In fact, given said Instagrammer is more likely to post their photos on a high-influence account with lots of followers and the appropriate hashtags than the average visitor, they are far more likely to positively influence the museum’s engagement and impacts metrics than the average person on the street. If engagement is the metric you measure the success and worth of a museum, the increasing role of influencer culture to museums is just a logical consequence. After all, their social media profile shows them to be good at it.

Whether one welcomes selfie-takers and influencers or decries them as the first step towards barbarism and cultural decline does not matter: metrics maketh the museum. That is what the government and the funding bodies have decided and it doesn’t really matter if you or I think it boorish or philistine. Any objection to the reductive project of trying to apply the culture of metrics, KPIs and management consulting to museums earns a condescending response: “well, we just need better metrics”. The answer to the failures of metrics is always more blasted metrics to ensure the graph continues to go up, regardless of whether it measures anything actually worth measuring.

The result of this trend towards bureaucratic quantification is a blander, more mechanised culture, created and distributed without recourse to actual human judgement. This has been ghastly in every other sphere it has been tried: in libraries in the United States, librarians have been found setting up fake borrowers to check out books to save them from algorithm-driven culling precisely because they know that algorithms don’t understand human value. Romance novel writing is now as much about reverse engineering Amazon algorithms as it is about character or plot development. Kids videos on YouTube are now a hellscape of dodgy low-quality CG assets being robotically mashed together with no human involvement at all in order to game the autoplay algorithm. Architects design the public spaces of our cities with a keen eye on Instagrammability (one wonders where accessibility for people with disabilities sits in the desiderata compared to social media engagement). Universities are now ruled by impact measures as part of the Research Excellence Framework. Sure, your local university may not not have a modern languages department anymore, but they do put on an excellent TEDx event where people talk about “disruption” and “transformation”.

The only way to win this game is to stop playing. Imagine, a major international museum or gallery publishes a statement on their website saying “we won’t be ruled by KPIs or algorithms or social media or engagement metrics or blather from consultants: we are going to try and find, preserve and restore objects that tell a story about human culture and existence that we think is worth telling, and put them in the museum so you can look at them”.

That would require courage and a commitment to the distinctly untrendy idea that culture has intrinsic value that cannot be quantified in a spreadsheet, so it won’t happen.