Instagram Trends: Visual Narratives of Embodied Experiences at the Museum of Islamic Art

Maria Paula Arias, University of Manchester, UK


The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha, Qatar is a landmark building in the city and the country. Located on its own island, the museum seems to float in the Arabian Gulf nestled between 'old' and 'new' Doha. Designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, MIA is a popular destination for tourists and residents alike. With an Instagram following of more than 37 million users, the museum and its surrounding areas also prove to be a popular destination for photo opportunities. This paper presents the results of a 6-month study of more than 4,000 Instagram images, posted between November 2014 and November 2015, tagged to the Museum of Islamic Art's geolocation. Drawing on visual content analysis, the project reveals graphic trends in the visiting narrative, situating this experience not only within the museum's collection, but also within the social and cultural fabric of the country. The paper argues for a stronger emphasis to the role of visual media shared online, as a meaning-laden medium and embodied social practice that has the capacity to create preconceptions and expectations about museum visiting experiences. In addition, the potential of visual media is discussed as habitual products that fuel a virtuous circle of influence between individuals and communities through practices of collaboration and co-creation of information and narratives. Overall, the paper will offer an understanding of the potential of Instagram as a reflection of the cultural citizenship of the varied memory communities associated with the museum - online and offline.

Keywords: Social Media, Instagram, Visual Content Analysis

The Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Doha, Qatar is a landmark building in the city and the country. Located on its own island, the museum seems to float in the Arabian Gulf nestled between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Doha. Designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, MIA is a popular destination for tourists and residents alike. This paper presents the results of a 6-month study of more than 4,000 Instagram images, posted between November 2014 and November 2015, tagged to the Museum of Islamic Art’s geolocation. Drawing on visual content analysis, the project reveals graphic trends in the visiting narrative, situating this experience not only within the museum’s collection, but also within the social and cultural fabric of the country. Overall, the paper has two goals: from a practical perspective, it aims to move beyond studying Instagram as a marketing or digital communications tool. From a theoretical perspective, the paper aims to contribute to the growing work of investigating participatory and collaborative cultural and heritage meaning-making practices in audience engagement over social media

The visual trends observed are put into context as digital narratives that simultaneously reflect embodied and affective experiences, as well as existing social media behaviours. As such, the paper seeks to emphasize the role of visual media shared online as meaning-laden media and embodied social practices that have the capacity to create preconceptions and expectations about museum visiting experiences. In addition, these images shared online are discussed as means through which visitors entwine the museum within their personal narratives, as well as evidence of their participation in a collective experience creating cultural and heritage values.

Quotidian Behaviours

Networked forms of communication reflect social practices that already exist as part of people’s everyday lives and experiences. Social media are dialogic in nature and allow for meanings and experiences to be co-created and recreated within and through ongoing dialogues (Iversen and Smith, 2012, pp.128–129). In social media, meaning and value are ascribed and understood through a cultural framework and by individuals who ascribe to it.

Therese Tierney discusses how the same social cultural practices create and govern behaviour both in the online and physical worlds. She suggests that “online interaction not only records and reflects the actions of everyday life, but it also has a role in producing everyday life for a media enabled public” (2013, p.33) – thus influencing what is “real” in the everyday and consequently frames what is expected to be “real”. An example of this influence is provided by Bayans & Meyer, who highlight how a museum can “be more of its place, and not just a museum in its place” (2016, p.308) by openly offering a space for online and offline discussions of civic issues. In this instance, the museum effectively integrates into the rubric of the city and into the framework of the day-to-day lives of networked users.

As participatory social practices mirror visitors’ online and offline lives, it is important to be cognizant that people value and interpret their surroundings in different ways, which may conflict or outright contradict the original purpose of these surroundings (Arvanitis, 2010, p.172). Furthermore, these values and interpretations may or may not agree with the meanings other individuals would attribute to the same environment. In other words, through the everyday use of social media, visitors may challenge and give new meaning to the institutional narrative provided by museums. In this way, social media may have a dual role in the museum: one outward and the other inward. By offering spaces for ongoing interpretations of culture, heritage, or history (Iversen and Smith, 2012, p.126) social media can “extend museum content into the everyday environment” while simultaneously bringing “the voices of the everyday into the museum” (Arvanitis, 2010, p.172).

Co-creation of Narratives

Social media depends on the interaction and participation of people, or in other words it requires an active and engaged ‘participatory culture’. Giaccardi adapts Jenkins et al’s (2009, p.xiii) definition of ‘participatory culture’ to highlight a shift in focus “from individual expression to community involvement” (Giaccardi, 2012, p.3), meaning that the way in which we engage socially in creative activities changes how we think about others and ourselves.

Giaccardi adds that ‘participatory culture’ can be “manifested through diverse forms of affiliation, expression, collaboration, and distribution” (Giaccardi, 2012, p.3). These forms of action are essential to participating on social media as they create connections between individuals through spontaneous and planned interactions, as well as through the co-creation of information, which in turn feeds into the co-creation of community identities and narratives. Through the increased use of social media, Falk’s proposition “the museum is not an island onto itself, but a dynamic interaction between the public and society” (Falk, 2009, p.241), seems to become progressively relevant.

As the cultural sector changes the notion of participation to an increasing many-to-many communication style with a range of audiences (Russo et al., 2008, p.28), it can be suggested that the museum’s space and programming, as well as their representations, such as online photographs, can help create and mediate interaction and interpretation at a scale previously unattainable (Brunelli, 2016, p.455). This unprecedented access is also largely due to the newly allotted space online for more than one individual to create information about the same subject, or object.

The rise in collaborative meaning making and co-creation of narratives, leads to an increasing shared authority over information and knowledge, between the institution, its visitors, and audiences. Social media and mobile media, therefore shifts the focus to the institution’s community, rather than the institution alone, who with the changes in technology “have become empowered to contribute” and as such, “authorized both by and through engagement and access” (Decker, 2015, pp.9–10 original emphasis). It can be argued then, that the social and collective behaviours mediated by social media enable a cycle of production, consumption, reproduction, and co-creation (Bagnall, 2003; Dinhopl and Gretzel, 2016; Coyne, 2012; Van House, 2011) – engendering a ‘consocial experience’ as described by Kozinets et al (2017, p.9).

Personal Narratives

The rapid spread of social media offers individuals the space and opportunity to create new digital identities, or multiple identities, and gives museums the opportunity to “redefine relationships with their audiences and provide platforms for these interactions” (Kelly, 2013, p.54). As the use of social media increases within the culture and heritage sector, museums continue to provide individuals with an outlet where they can re-define their identities – as well as that of the museum. This may happen on-site during a visit, or after a visit through the re-interpretation of shared media resulting from the visit. These instances are possible by way of integrating social media with the institution, and therefore catering to people’s online and offline habits.

The concept of identity has been considered as a continuous process in the everyday activities each individual performs; as such, the formation of identity can be considered a “performative gesture” (Burness, 2016, p.97). The act of adopting, mimicking, or being influenced by one’s surroundings towards the formation of identity could be seen through the selection of symbols or representational images a person uses to embody his or her persona in an online space. In turn, the availability and agency of the varied online worlds can also affect the way a person chooses to be represented. In other words, identity can be thought of as being a performative gesture contingent of a place, and as a social role that can be selected from a range of available roles (Burness, 2016, p.99).

Embodied and Affective Experiences

In addition to the notion of performative identities, the idea of “performative memory” is particularly relevant in this context. The concept of ‘performative memory’ is derived from the notion that the meaning-making process of cultural and heritage values lies with the day-to-day interactions of and between individuals with their surroundings (Giaccardi 2012; Silberman & Purser 2012) and from the understanding that individuals may adopt a series of performative roles (Burness 2016; Warfield 2015) – such as through social media and photography.

As a performative process, socially networked photography is an inherently embodied experience. From carrying a camera, to aligning the composition and framing, this process intrinsically asks the body to be placed in different spaces and situations, mediating between public and private contexts, as well as between institutional and non-institutional environments. As such, it is proposed here that online photographs should be considered more than mere ‘certificates of presence’ (Barthes, 1993, p.87) – where visitors fix themselves spatially and temporally.

Socially networked photographs contribute to a cyclical process between individual experiences and co-created narratives (Russo, 2012, p. 152), where the cumulative narrative assembled from such images (and posts) circles back to inform and affect individual experiences. The fragments (individuals and their photographs) are then continuously reassembled “into a dynamic, reflective expression of contemporary identity” (Silberman and Purser, 2012, p. 16) and into memory communities that thrive on their collective narratives and shared experiences. In other words, socially networked photographs are actively created, inform, and are informed by, participatory communities that continuously reflect and sustain their individual and collective identities.

Online photographs, in this case Instagram posts, should be understood as “performative memories” – the result of everyday, embodied, and affective experiences that allows the visitor to simultaneously negotiate his or her personal identity, that of the institution, and of the memory communities to which they belong to. As “performative memories”, Instagram posts collected through hashtags and/or geolocation tags can be considered as visual narratives – examples of how quotidian behaviours shape museum visits, of democratized cultural spaces, and of personal (re)interpretations of museum collections; and it is a case study of such “performative memories” this paper will now turn to.

Interpreting Visual Media

Instagram’s extensive uses and applications are testament for its appeal and overall success for community formation and user engagement, as such it is not surprising that a growing body of research is emerging. In these recent works, Instagram is considered for studies of identity, self-representation, and community production in a number of other disciplinary fields, such as communications (Coombs, 2015) and marketing (Elliott, 2015), however not in museum or heritage studies. A few exceptions have emerged in the last years, namely Budge and Burness’ study (2017) of visitor engagement with objects through Instagram and two separate research studies of visitor engagement on Instagram as part of museum visiting experiences by Budge (2017) and Suess (2014). In line with these studies, it is argued that one way to address this gap is to approach the study of visual media and social media in museums through the adaptation of alternative methodologies such as visual content analysis.

Visual content analysis is a systematic and empirical method for the study of well-defined media content and how this media represents people, events, or situations (Bock et al., 2011, p.265; Bell, 2004, p.13). The aims of such research is to show trends in content through the quantification of sample units that are “classified into distinct categories” (Bell, 2004, p.14), rather than “to gain a profound understanding of a single [media]” (Bock et al., 2011, p.266) as in semiotics.

The case study was analysed using an adaptation of the phases outlined by Bock et al (2011, pp.266–272) and Bell (2004). First, the sample was defined as: single public images shared on Instagram, tagged to MIA’s location during a twelve-month period. This definition has four main aims that helped make the dataset more manageable:

  1. Images needed to be ‘singular’; collages or multiple images in a post were discarded
  2. Only images that were publicly available were considered
  3. The geotag location used was the same one used by the museum’s official Instagram account
  4. The time period (1 November 2014 and 30 November 2015) was sufficiently short to have a manageable dataset, yet still offered a variety of content – ranging from museum visits to special events, such as exhibition openings and outdoor festivals

Under these conditions, the dataset was narrowed down to 4299 images.

Next a coding framework was developed and divided into categories, sub-categories, and sub-subcategories. However, much like Leftwich found during her research (2016), it was necessary to have an overview of the images in order to create the category levels to classify the images with. The images were coded according to three main groups: Interior, Exterior, and Other. Each main category was further divided into sub-categories according to specific elements of the interior of the museum, the exterior of the museum and the park, as well as other sub-categories such as promotional graphics, special events, and landscape images of the city (see Table 1). Finally, for each image it was also noted whether or not it contained a person, either individually, partially (i.e. hands/feet only), or in groups.

Table 1. Main Categories with Sub-Categories

In addressing the associated, and unavoidable, issues of using visual and content analysis, it is also important and appropriate to be mindful of the ethical problems that such research could face. This is particularly prominent when using material and information found online. Bryman distinguishes four general ethical issues when conducting social research; these are: harm to participants, lack of informed consent, invasion of privacy, and deception (2012, p.135). However, there is another issue that could affect both the participant and the researcher alike: the question of anonymity.

In visual analysis anonymity can be difficult to protect when/if the project’s results are published. This can be especially harmful if the visual material was collected online without the acknowledgment of the image producer(s) (Banks, 2007, p.86). Alternatively, online environments are unique because they offer a space for individuals to create identities that can affect the understanding of the material – for it can be as mirrored or opposite to the producer’s true intentions. For the purpose of the present study it is acknowledged that the material and subsequent data used was located on the Internet and as such the producers, and subjects, of these materials are unaware of this study. The images used to illustrate this article, however, are presented and acknowledged with the explicit permission of their owners (Instagram usernames).

Observed Trends

On a macro scale, the resulting trends point to a preference to photograph and share more images from the museum’s interior (see Figure 1). An analysis of these main categories, however, show a few observable trends: a propensity towards detailed and aesthetic images that use the museum’s objects and architecture as the main features, and a tendency to connect the museum (either through image content or metadata) to the city and the country.

Figure 1. Overall Results (n.4299)

Attention to Details: Inside Exhibitions

The museum’s interior was designed with grandeur in mind (Jodidio and Lammerhuber, 2008, pp.56–60); the visitor’s attention is demanded by a multiplicity of architectural elements, from a 45 metre tall window to an alluring symmetrical ceiling. However, the majority of interior images feature the collection of the museum, including views of the permanent collection and from different temporary exhibitions hosted in the museum’s Special Exhibitions and Temporary Exhibitions galleries (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Interior Sub-categories (n.1885)

A closer look at these ‘Exhibition’ images revealed that the majority feature views or objects from the Permanent Collection, followed by two temporary exhibitions Marvellous Creatures and Qajar Women. This preference towards the Permanent Collection could be the result of museum policy, which allows no-flash photography inside the galleries (Museum of Islamic Art, n.d.). However, in most temporary exhibitions photography was not allowed, perhaps due to inter-museum loans. Two exceptions are Marvellous Creatures and Qajar Women, which encouraged visitors to share their photographs and experiences on social media under specific hashtags: #MC_fables (Museum of Islamic Art, n.d.) and #QajarWomen (Museum of Islamic Art, n.d.).

Within the ‘Exhibition’ images, further analysis was conducted to ascertain what each photograph focused on: from objects and interpretation materials, to branding and gallery overviews. This additional categorization revealed a few differences between the Permanent Collection and the temporary exhibitions (see Figure 3). For instance, the Permanent Collection and Qajar Women images largely focused on the objects on display, whereas visitors photographing Marvellous Creatures shared more images of the exhibition’s branding and decorative elements. Furthermore, Marvellous Creatures was the only category that had images of activities related to the exhibition, although this could be attributed to the fact that this particular exhibition had a specifically allocated space within the gallery for such activities.

Figure 3. Exhibition Details

This emphasis on objects could be the result of several factors, for example the layout and lighting of the Permanent Collection display cases favour close up engagement with objects, rather than overviews of the whole gallery. Alternatively, Marvellous Creatures used colourful illustrations to captivate the visitors as well as to embody the fables’ narratives.

Overall, there seems to be a trend in which images mostly focus on details, whether of objects or interpretative text, rather than overview shots of the galleries themselves. This preference, combined with a higher proportion of ‘Exhibition’ images overall, could be interpreted as a propensity from visitors to spend more time in the galleries of the museum rather than in other areas. It could also be said that this pattern of visitation is quite immersive, leading visitors to record and share details of their experience at the museum.

Attention to Aesthetics: Courtyard Frames

The museum has two inner courtyards, East and West, where visitors may enjoy their architectural elements as well as the views of the city and MIA park. As such, it is not surprising to find that a little over half of ‘Courtyard’ images contain views of West Bay whereas the rest focus on different architectural aspects of the courtyards’ space, as well as other views afforded from them, such as Old Doha.

Two interesting patterns of ‘Courtyard’ images that have outside views are that the visitors seem to instinctively use the architectural space as a built-in frame for their photographs, whilst care is also taken to include symmetrical aspects of the design (see Figure 4). These arrangements suggest that visitors sought to exploit the aesthetic appeal of their surroundings in order to create photographs that are also aesthetically pleasing. Furthermore, the images suggest that although visitors are not recording the minutiae of the architecture or elements of the space, they are engaged with specific aspects of their visit, as it was also previously noted with the ‘Exhibition’ photographs.

Figure 4. Courtyard Frames

Connecting with the Country — Offline

One in three images in the total sample features views of the museum’s building and of the surrounding park. Within this main category, the majority of the images showcase the museum’s exterior architecture (see Figure 5). It should be noted, however, that as this category accounts for images of the outside of the museum, it cannot be assumed that the visitors who shared these photographs online also entered the museum to engage with its interior spaces. Overall, images in this category seem to point to a variety of leisurely activities, such as sports or picnics, which are unrelated to the museum’s exhibitions or to its vision and mission that emphasize education (Museum of Islamic Art, n.d.). The museum could consider these types of activities as opportunities to either bring park visitors into the museum, for example by hosting leisure activities indoors during the summer months, or to bring the museum to park visitors, for example through pop-up outdoor exhibitions.

Figure 5. Exterior Sub-categories (n.1353)

The majority of ‘Exterior’ photographs emphasize the architecture of the building. Of these images, the majority of photographs are composed in a wide-angle manner in order to showcase a general view of the building. This composition style contrasts the ‘Interior’ images, where the emphasis was on specific aspects or detailed content/subject arrangements. An interesting pattern emerges within this sub-sample, where a quarter of the pictures show the museum along with other iconic elements of the country and the city, such as the dhows, the Corniche, or views of West Bay. This composition suggests that the photographer situates MIA in association with specific cultural and geographical contexts –almost as if the museum was another symbol of Qatar.

In some instances, the composition of the image was done in a way suggesting that the photographer was not within MIA grounds so as to accomplish such images. For example, Figure 6 shows different angles of the museum that would require the photographer to either float on the ocean or stand well outside MIA grounds. The overall preference of these building shots and composition styles suggest that the photographers are fulfilling the architect’s vision for the museum – to be an unobstructed landmark in the city (Jodidio and Lammerhuber, 2008).

Figure 6. MIA in the Distance

Connecting with the Country — Online

A quarter of the images of the total sample feature views and elements that do not directly represent the museum or park; the only reference to MIA is the location used to post the images online. However, there are a few instances where the pictures can accurately be categorized as belonging to this location. For example, the Qatar International Food Festival (QIFF) is an annual outdoor event, at the time hosted by an external organizer at MIA park, so it can be assumed that pictures taken of QIFF were taken inside MIA grounds. However, it cannot be assumed that QIFF visitors also entered the museum or ventured further through the park to reach Richard Serra’s sculpture Seven.

The majority of ‘Other’ images feature a view of the city, closely followed by photographs of events, and close up images of people. In this category, there are images that were visibly taken in another location, some that were too blurry or too detailed to categorize, and some that included unsolicited advertisements (“Spam”).

The images classified as ‘Other’ would suggest that when MIA is not pictured, its geo-location is associated with popular activities or other destinations of the city and the country. For example, users could be flaunting the modern landscape in which they live or have travelled to, or boast attending and being a part of glamorous international events. On the other hand, the geo-location is also used as an opportune way to capitalise on unsuspecting Instagram ‘scrollers’ – highlighting the use of this platform as a viable e-commerce channel.


This project aims to discuss two under-represented themes in museological literature related to audience studies: the importance of visual media shared on social networks and the use of alternative quantitative methods to study such media, like visual content analysis. As such, this project aims to lessen this gap through the use of a case study to illustrate how such methodologies can be applied practically. If one is to understand that images are conscious expressions of culture (Castells, 2010), then the resulting trends from MIA tentatively point to visual narratives representing MIA’s visiting experience as immersive and captivating. In these trends, visitors illustrate the various ways in which the museum can be understood: as a knowledge house of Islamic culture, as a place for leisurely activities, as a connector to the rest of the country, and as a standalone icon to showcase in one’s Instagram feed. Furthermore, the observed trends can be interpreted as a snapshot in a virtuous circle of influence between individuals and communities through practices of collaboration and co-creation, these shared visual narratives connected through metadata can be seen as the generation of information that can help shape expectations about the visiting experience, the perceived purpose of the museum, and perhaps even affect the museum’s policies.

The preference towards detailed photographs taken inside the galleries point to the fulfillment of the museum’s aims to share “masterpiece collections of Islamic art” and to be a lively and exciting space (Museum of Islamic Art, n.d.)  — creating a matched expectation and experience between the museum’s offer and the created public narrative. At the same time, it can be suggested that the museum helped shape or re-orient the visitors’ existing behaviours (or roles) towards certain experiences — for example, by designing gallery spaces with unobstructed views of the objects and by soliciting and encouraging images through event-specific hashtags.

Alternatively, when the images were not portraying objects, users were creating conscious connections between the museum and their surrounding social and cultural environments. Visitors’ embodied and aesthetic practices resulted in an active juxtaposition of the museum and a variety of other symbols (some of which could be considered ‘national symbols’) — such as dhows and surrounding landscapes. Importantly, however, is the role of networked public (non-visitors) in juxtaposing the museum with other tourist and leisure-related locations, as well as with certain economic practices such as selling goods on Instagram.

The resulting trends support the conceptualization of Instagram posts as “performative memories” due largely to the unmoderated collaborative narratives created by networked memory communities. From this perspective it is possible to assess how “performative memories” negotiate the identity and purpose of the museum. Unfortunately, however, by limiting the study to visual materials only, it is not possible to assess how these images reflect individual identities or the role of the museum in personal narratives. To address these limitations, it would be advisable that the methodology used here is used in conjunction with interviews or focus groups so that ambiguities of interpretation can be resolved. Two main threads of research are recommended: to further study this data set from different perspectives and to undergo parallel projects using complementary methodologies.

In the first instance a follow up study is recommended to yield complementary information; the study would aim to apply content analysis to the images’ associated text (comments, captions, and hashtags), as well as to use social media marketing principles to measure engagement rates of the images (number of likes and comments). This complementary information could be used in conjunction with the present to ascertain which image and text content resonate most with users.

The second research thread would involve a series of parallel projects involving different members of the museum’s community. Here, the aim would be to use qualitative methodologies to discuss image and text content with groups of people, for example interview MIA and Qatar Museums staff responsible for social media and content production to gain insights of their internal policies and aims. At the same time, interviews or focus groups could be implemented to understand visitors’ habitual social media behaviours as well as their perceptions of and experiences at the museum. These parallel projects, used in conjunction with the present study, would give the museum a clear insight of their networked visitors’ behaviours and expectations, which could in turn inform decisions in other departments such as programming or accessibility.

These results present visual narratives that showcase visitors’ perspectives of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar and provide evidence of immersive experiences and a high engagement with objects on display. The trends also highlight a careful consideration for compositional aesthetics, and a conscious assimilation of an Islamic art institution as a symbol of the country’s cultural landscape. This project firmly advocates for the study of Instagram posts not only as a way to engage and reach visitors and audiences, but as a way to understand and reflect on their motivations, experiences and expectations. In doing so, museum professionals can consider the role of the museum in their contemporary societies and how digitally mediated strategies and practices can affect the institution’s purposive and functional goals.



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I am grateful for Dr. Ingmar Weber from the Qatar Computing Research Institute for providing the raw data that made this research possible. I am also thankful for Dr. Kostas Arvanitis for his support and advice.

Cite as:
Arias, Maria Paula. "Instagram Trends: Visual Narratives of Embodied Experiences at the Museum of Islamic Art." MW18: MW 2018. Published January 14, 2018. Consulted .