Interstitial spaces: social media as a tool for community engagement

Seema Rao, Brilliant Idea Studio, USA


Social media offers platforms and venues to develop interstitial spaces between museums and visitors. Encouraging such interstitial spaces, fostered through shared ownership with audiences, can be instrumental to expanding and diversifying museum visitorship. With social media, museums have the opportunity to relinquish authority, develop shared meaning, and increase stakeholders involved. Additionally, the creative nature of social media, such as Instagram, allows innovation and action in a large-scale manner. This paper will share one such project, Clevelanders, an Instagram challenge implemented during the Cleveland Museum of Art’s centennial year. This project was conceived as a response the museum’s founders, who began their collection by acquiring numerous Colonial American portraits. The museum invited the Cleveland community to create and digitally display 1,916 portraits of our community. We explore how social media can catalyze community action and creativity as a means of expanding the museum community. We will share challenges and successes. The team will then extrapolate ways that such projects can support and foster community engagement and audience development work in museums.

Keywords: social media, community engagement, diversity, creativity

The project: Clevelanders: Portraits of our Community

Clevelanders: Portraits of our Community (Clevelanders) is a project that was developed in October of 2015 by the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA). The project was initiated to activate visitor participation in the museum’s centennial year (2016) in the social sphere. Portraiture has a long history in the museum. The early founders felt that collecting colonial portraits was essential in creating a museum that rivaled any in the country (Turner, 1982). In celebration of its centennial year, the CMA launched a program to bring in masterworks on loan from other museums throughout the country, many of which were portraits. During the centennial year, the institution hoped to focus programming around the portraits that resided in the museum’s collection. In order to highlight these objects and engage visitors in our vast portrait collection, Clevelanders was developed to ask our community to be inspired by our collection and the community around them to create portraits and self-portraits.

The impetus

Clevelanders sprung from the original impetus of the museum’s founders to foster social experiences. The museum structure was erected in 1916 with a mission-determined raison d’etre of being “free to all” (Cleveland Museum of Art, 1916). The original patrons ascended a flight of marble stairs and entered a large bronze door flanked by imposing columns. The building, inaugurated in 1916, evoked Greek temples; peons of knowledge and learning. Within those hallowed walls (still very much intact), the museum’s founders included social spaces. (Turner, 1982). Henri Lefebvre wrote extensively about social spaces. His work highlights certain characteristics that define social spaces: shared space, communal understanding of the role of the space, and access to the space (Lefebvre, 1974). The social space cannot exist without patrons, and the patrons determine the actual social nature of the space. In his estimation, space signifies usage, but usage is necessary to initiate social spaces. In the original museum, a large garden space had small seating groups. This popular space was often filled with visitors listening to birds chirp and hearing organ music (Turner, 1982). Along with social spaces, the original museum floor plan included seating for personal reflection within galleries, near the art. One hundred years later, most contemporary museums continue to foster a similar variety of spaces for learning and reflection (Winter, 2015; Dierking, 2015).  

Clevelanders also tapped into a long history of creative learning. At its onset, the CMA galleries were filled with children, drawing. Its education department, founded in 1915, was one of the first in the nation to encourage learning from objects through drawing (Turner, 1982). One hundred years later, most major art museums offer drawing classes, underscoring the efficacy of creativity-based experiences. Drawing classes position patrons within the continuum of art-making (Friel, 2011); drawing allows visitors to make meaning in an interactive, non-textual manner (Silverman, 2005); and, when framed broadly, drawing blends leisure and learning in a pleasurable manner (Jensen, 1994).

With the institution’s inherent commitment to social creativity, Clevelanders sought to initiate a similar social space within the digital sphere. The digital sphere offered the Clevelanders’ team the ability to connect to the broadest audience. The digital sphere is near omnipresent in the lives of individuals, with nearly 64% of American adults having the ability to check the Internet from their phones (Pew Research Group, 2015). In the last few years, social networking sites (SNS) have become an integral connectivity tool for the majority of Americans, with 78% of Americans having at least on social media profile as of 2016 (Statista, 2016). The social sphere can also be better understood using Lefebvre’s concept of social space; SNSs offer infrastructure and space but only become social spaces when populated by users. As with physical social spaces, the employment of spaces in a social manner is required to form the social space. The social media sphere, while intangible, mirrors many of the elements of social experiences in the museum. Users can access tools individually, on phones, but then opt into social experiences. One can lurk, examining a post, like a quiet visitor reflecting on a bench alone in a gallery; or, they can add a comment, like a visitor joining a discussion in a museum program.

While Instagram does not have the same diffusion as other textual-based SNSs, the team focused their efforts on Instagram and image-based social networking sites (ISNS), with their inherently creative, visual nature. Statistical analysis of Instagram users did offer the team some appealing elements. Instagram is used nearly equally by men and women, while museums generally skew more towards female visitors; Instagram users were on average younger than the average museum visitor; and finally, Instagram fostered creativity among users, sharing over 40 billion photos to date, with an average of 95 million photos and videos per day (Parker, 2016).

The implementation

Clevelanders was a project that allowed us to invite the Cleveland community to share in celebrating the museum’s centennial year; to connect with and be inspired by the CMA’s collection; and to foster their own creativity. This project also acted as a way for the museum to connect with the Cleveland community directly.

“Share portraits of 1,916 Clevelanders” was the prompt we developed to encourage the museum’s community at large to create portraits using a variety of media. The project was planned to have both physical and virtual elements, using the Instagram account “Portraits of Clevelanders” as an interstitial element between the two.  

Physical programming connections were thoughtfully implemented throughout the centennial year to facilitate in-person social experiences. Clevelanders was launched within months of another project that asked visitors to create portraits. Studio Go, a food-truck style mobile studio, was launched in 2016. It was aimed at reaching sites within one hour’s drive of the museum; ostensibly, the physical museum community. Studio Go’s curriculum included a variety of active creativity projects, many of which included portrait making.  Studio Go staff photographed patron projects to add to the virtual site and to publicize the virtual project to truck patrons. Portraiture also became an element of other existing public programs, including MIX, a monthly evening event at CMA aimed at young professionals, and Second Sundays, a monthly art-making program aimed at families. A considerable number of portraits currently added to the Instagram account originated with these staff-mediated physical programs.

The project was marketed through a variety of means. Clevelanders was promoted through social media platforms, newsletters, and on printed postcards distributed through another CMA centennial project, “Create It Kits.” “Create It Kits” were distributed throughout Cuyahoga County; each included a postcard encouraging portrait-making using the enclosed art materials, and instructions on posting to Instagram. “Create it Kits” reached every third grader in the museum’s home county, as well the nearly 4,000 patrons at Studio Go visits throughout the summer.

Lesson learned

Clevelanders was an element in a large centennial initiative. This constituent nature necessitated a great deal of collaborative planning. The education team worked closely with marketing in order to align in messaging, discuss best practices regarding the separate Instagram account, posting structure, and schedule, and to decide on the promotional push, which was needed in order to secure submissions.  

One of the largest participatory projects in CMA history, Clevelanders allows patrons to feel that they are direct contributors. As Filippini Fantoni, Jaebker, and Leason (2014) have written, eliciting patron participation transforms museum experience(s) from consumer relations to active contributor partnerships. While on-site CMA programs had some success with changing this paradigm, this project had the additional element of broadcasting and memorializing its impact. 

Rather than posting on the CMA’s main account, using a distinct Instagram account had its advantages. The account was able to post independent of the schedule of the museum’s main account. This allowed the team to easily live-post during special events. Additionally, the site was noticed (gauged by likes) by those interested in specific art-making processes rather than those focused on the CMA or its centennial. The virtual space, at its best, was a social space where CMA patrons and non-patrons could comment collectively on artworks, with the creative output being working as the social bridge.

The project was very labor intensive, requiring lots of work and care. Because this was a satellite site without a single dedicated administrator, the task was spread amongst many individuals. We created a unified posting structure that mimicked museum labels by including specific fields such as media; this ensured continuity, regardless of the individual posting.

The greatest challenge was maintaining momentum over the centennial year. While the virtual space has the possibility of being omnipresent, it is also easy to avoid, or even forget. In keeping with LeFebvre’s social space, the space alone cannot define the social experience (1974).  The experience only exists through the performative behavior of the constituents. In the case of Clevelanders, social connections occurred on a series of micro-experiences through individual posts, though the cumulative social sphere of Clevelanders did not totally materialize.

Next steps

At the end of the centennial year, the CMA gifted 14,000 “Create It Kits” to each of the third graders in the museum’s home county. Over the winter holidays, many patrons found the materials about Clevelanders in their children’s school bags. Renewed interest in the project began, and patrons began to share pictures on Facebook and Instagram.

The CMA education and marketing teams are currently exploring possible next steps for Clevelanders. The ease of use and the democratic nature of Instagram offered the team an ideal space for such a project. The prompt, with its inherent connections to the foundations of the museum, has a flexibility that can continue through the next one hundred years.  However, the patrons are the crux of making this type of project successful—turning it from an academic exercise to a social space fueled by creativity and the arts.



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Cite as:
Rao, Seema. "Interstitial spaces: social media as a tool for community engagement." MW17: MW 2017. Published January 31, 2017. Consulted .

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