#MuseumInstaSwap: Through a different lens

9 September 2015
 Composite image of Wellcome Collection taken by the London Transport Museum
Composite image of Wellcome Collection taken by the London Transport Museum

At the end of August we teamed up with nine other London museums to swap our collections and themes on Instagram for #MuseumInstaSwapRussell Dornan writes about the project’s inception, how it went and what it was like photographing one museum through the lens of another.

You can see all the photos posted by the ten museums here.

I had the idea for #MuseumInstaSwap after Londonist listed their ten best London museums on Instagram. Seeing museums with such a wide range of collections, subjects and sizes represented made me think we should try some kind of cultural exchange: an exciting way to collaborate and share our content in a new way, especially on a platform as dynamic and engaging as Instagram.

I suggested the idea of pairing up with each other and sharing each other’s content to the other nine museums on the list and everyone was up for it. We met and discussed the finer details of how it would work.

The idea of #MuseumInstaSwap was to show our audiences a different museum’s material and vice versa. It was a way for our combined audiences to discover new museums, or see their favourites through a different lens.

When you interrogate a museum object from a totally different angle or place it in a different context, it brings an exciting new perspective to it and makes you think about it in a fresh way.

For example, we looked at one of the London Transport Museum (LTM) maps of London and it reminded us of a brain: both in terms of the aesthetic (as in this graphic image) and the network of channels that allows a city/brain to function

When LTM looked at our Transparent Woman anatomical model, the London Underground was evoked: the hidden circulatory network of veins and arteries that lie just underneath the surface of our skin and the complex structure of tunnels concealed beneath the concrete of our city.

Visiting a museum that at first seems quite separate, but then finding fascinating links and dynamic or unexpected ways to explore common themes was amazing.

We saw the classic Underground roundel at the LTM made from lost property and it resonated with us; the meaning of objects is something we’ve explored a lot. We relished highlighting this vast shrine of mundane, everyday things that were made special by their constant proximity to their owners and then separated from them, perhaps forever.

#MuseumInstaSwap time! Here's the classic London underground roundel made of lost property, on display at @ltmuseum. This resonated with us because, throughout history, objects have been very special to us: things we’ve made or bought with a variety of intentions and meanings. When people in the past were sick or facing a crisis, they often went straight to their local sanctuary to make an offering to the deity. The worshipper gave them to the god as a plea for help. But they were also an extension of the people themselves, forming traces of the worshipper long after the person had left. But what of the millions of objects we don’t choose to give away: the ones we lose on London’s extensive transport network? 12,000 umbrellas, 27,000 phones and 11,000 keys, plus unusual objects like a marionette puppet and a relative's ashes! Forming a sort of museum of London’s transport users, this vast shrine of mundane, everyday things that were made special by their constant proximity to their owners, infused with identity and an extension of the self. Regardless of their economic value, they must have been very hard to lose. 10 London museums have paired up on @instagram this week to connect over stories and themes. Our partner is the great @ltmuseum. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some uncanny links between collections across the city. Click the link in our profile to find out more. #museum #InstaMuseum #art #objects #things #lost #property #lostproperty

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Similarly, the LTM was able to riff on the lost property angle using our historic prosthetic limb collection, objects that routinely get handed into their lost property office. A connection that not many people might make, but put staff from the LTM and Wellcome Collection together in a gallery and these sorts of links are pleasingly plentiful.

After five days of us having fun, we hoped the public (and other museums) would get involved themselves by using the hashtag on the Saturday and Sunday of that week. We urged other museums to pair up and swap their material, as well as asked the public to respond to the question “If you started a museum, which of our objects would take pride of place?”. This was done in conjunction with Culture Themes.

I’d love to see other museums try it out on the same scale, though. Munich museums have already planned their own, calling it #MunichInstaSwap. There may be more!

It’s important to show that museums are perhaps more involved with each other than some people think. We’re all looking to do the same thing: enlighten, entertain and engage people. This project also feeds into how the world communicates now, plus collaborating like we did for #MuseumInstaSwap meant the reach of our stories was amplified beyond the level any of us have as individual organisations.

I enjoyed seeing all the photos posted by the museums, but I’ve picked out a couple that resonated with Wellcome Collection.

The first is by the Natural History Museum, taken in in the V&A. It’s a great picture, but more than that it’s a brilliant way of linking one museum’s themes with another’s. The connection to both is clear and it feels like a tangible meeting point for two quite different museums. We have a lot of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs in our own collection too.

Next up is a photo by the Science Museum. This 3D-printed prosthetic limb from the Design Museum is a perfect example for #MuseumInstaSwap. Echoing both contemporary design/manufacturing techniques and historic prosthetic limbs, this image of science and design working together sums up these two museums. Again, we have our own extensive collection of prosthetic limbs and are interested in medical innovations.

This project was a fun way for us to explore and present each others subjects in a way the public could enjoy. We had a great time taking part and hope to see other museums doing the same.

You can see all the photos posted by the ten main museums here and follow the hashtag for the rest.

Russell is the Web Editor for Wellcome Collection.