Photo Genic: Engaging audiences using photography

Roei AMIT, RMN-GP, France


In Recent years the democratization of Smartphones and the vast use of their cameras (and the adjacent applications) have created a true change in the way we conceive and practice photography. These evolutions concern museums and art exhibitions as much as any other realm that engages with the public, and oblige these institutions to experiment new ways to engage with their audience.

Keywords: Applications, smartphone, photography, images, audience, on-line in-situ, user generated content, fine art exhibition, digital engagement


In recent years, the democratization of smartphones, the vast use of their cameras, and their ancillary applications have created and are still creating a true change in the way that we conceive and practice photography. This in turn produces changes in our relations with images and their places in everyday life.

These evolutions impact our daily image experience on a huge scale. In 2013 more then 16 billion photos were shared on Instagram, roughly 55 million a day, and this is only one of the on-line social networks. There is much more sharing of photos and a multiplication of their manipulation, e.g. Flicker, Picasa, Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook alone, there are over 1.2 Billion monthly users worldwide, of which 73.5% of them access the network via their smartphones.

These figures illustrate the massive evolution in the use of images that we would like to discuss in the context of museums and art exhibitions. These cultural venues, as much as any other activity that engages with the public, its habits and uses, are obliged to evolve with social practices.

Photogenic or, from its etymology, what is produced or caused by light, becomes digital, nomad, mobile, easy to use and to communicate. This article will discuss how the RMN-GP is exploring and evolving with the new use of images.


The RMN-GP is the Réunion des Musées Nationaux – Grand Palais. Located in Paris, it is a French public institution that reports to the minister of Culture and Communication. The RMN-GP has various missions and activities: produce art exhibitions, both in France – around 20 each year – and abroad. It organizes cultural events at the Grand Palais itself – 40 last year, welcomed more than 2.5 million visitors in 2013, and participates in the network of national museums. It has special programs for schools and educational sectors both in situ and on-line. The institution gathers around 100 cultural mediators giving art lectures and talks, and more than 40 museum shops selling art products and art books, of which it edits around 60 each year. The Photo Agency of the RMN-GP digitizes and monetizes one of the biggest art databases in the world, with more than 700,000 images. The multimedia department edits more than ten different web sites and has a fast growing catalogue of e-Publications and applications.

The issue of photographic practice by the public is interesting on a number of levels that coincide with the institution’s missions. An example is how the institution should evolve and improve visitor services and better guide of the public in a way that takes into account its developing habits and expectations. What is the institution’s added value as a cultural institute concerning these practices? How might we engage with our public in relevant ways and use these elements to invite and touch a new public (young people, for example). How will this affect our Photo Agency and its databases?

Up-dating our audience strategies and taking into account our real time experiences has become inevitable. So how could we engage with our audiences using photography?
First of all, the RMN-GP changed its visiting regulations: last year we allowed photography within our exhibition spaces by the public as a general rule (unless marked specifically otherwise), including in temporary exhibitions. We now include a request for photo authorization in our loan forms and we try to negotiate a high rate of lender authorizations for all of our exhibitions.

We have installed screens in our reception halls and created dedicated spaces on our web sites to make the photography policy clear and visible to all our visitors. Photographic creations are tagged on social networks; we aggregate them in real time, and greatly accelerated our interactions on the social networks using photography. We use photography to engage with our public in different activities, competitions and workshops, and have developed several Smartphone dedicated applications that interact with these practices – this is what we shall now discuss in some detail.

Dynamo – participative visit

A kaleidoscopic, photogenic engagement with the kinetic art of the 20th century,
Dynamo was a thematic show (Grand Palais, Paris, April 13rd-July 22nd 2013). It featured kinetic art with works by Alexander Calder, Victor Vasarely, Yakov Agam, Julio Le Parc, Anish Kapoor, Dan Flavin, Carlos Cruz-Diez, James Thurel, and Felicce Varini among many others. This huge exhibition (240 works of art in over 4000m2) was accompanied by an innovative smartphone App inviting the public to take pictures and comment (photos, sounds, text) on a selection of works, publishing them simultaneously on a vidiwall at the exhibition, on-line on the exhibition web site, and on various social networks – thus creating a participative kaleidoscopic view, a kind of a participative cinematic eCatalogue of the exhibition.

Developed in partnership with Orange, the App gave the public information about 35 significant works of art over the course of the exhibition. The visitor who approached one of the included works could identify her/his location either by entering a code (displayed on the work’s wall label and marked on the small explanatory map. If the phone was able, it was also possible to be located using a RFID tag. Once located near the work, the visitor could take a picture, write a comment or record sounds, and then publish them. Once outside the exhibition in front of the vidiwall, the visitor could locate him/herself (using a code or RFID) and see on the screens the pictures and comments that s/he had taken (headphones were also available to listen to the audio comments). Publicity before and around the exhibition, as well as on the way to its entrance made this offer clear and the access to free WiFi in the space accelerated its use.

The exhibition was visited by over 300,000 visitors and the application was downloaded 25,985 times by the end of the expo (it is still available on the Apps and Google stores). Over 21,225 officially tagged contributions were posted, 95% of which are images (we estimate the number of pictures taken freely and not tagged should be multiplied by 5). Beside these extremely good ratios of download and use, we’ve conducted several studies to get further feedback. More than 50% of users were happy, satisfied and understood the interest of using the application. Several users noted some ergonomic difficulties and connectivity problems, which impaired easy usage.

The main lessons that we derived from the experience were the real coherence of proposing photo-based engagement for this kind of exhibition. Making this offering clear and the on-site signage are very important in order to promote and enhance use. We’ve also learned that it’s sometimes better to focus on a restricting main functions rather then proposing more, something that can complicate development and message. Better interaction with other applications and users general photographic habits is needed, for example, Instagram. We have decided to continue our experiments and to implement certain of the lessons learned in our future seasons’ exhibitions.

Grand Atelier du midi – outdoor museum

In parallel with Dynamo, the RMN-GP also produced a double fine art exhibition, the “Grand Atelier de Midi” From Cezanne to Matisse (June 10th – October 15th 2013 Marseille & Aix en Provence). The exhibition was held in the south of France, where we tried yet another type of photogenic interaction; this time it was an outdoor experience of photographing the places and figures from the painter’s points of view – of those paintings included in the exhibition. Van Gogh, Bonnard, Picasso, and many others painted abundantly in this region of France renowned for the quality of its light.

In the application we choose 35 paintings and geo-located them on the regional map. The application offered the public ways to discover these paintings, their history and stories, and to interface with them either by map, by form or by colors, and to try to locate the point of view of the artist if they were in the geographic area. The creative proposition of the application was to take a photograph from the same perspective as the artist and to post it in a diptych with the original painting. More ergonomic than the Dynamo App, this application – also developed in partnership with Orange – had two clear functions: first to discover the work of art and its relation to the region and at the same time to interact with the work and the environment via the medium of photography.

The exhibition was visited by over 400,000 visitors and the App was downloaded 5,994 times during the exhibition, but continues to be downloaded at a rate of over 200 times a month ever since. A more modest ratio then Dynamo, this App’s results taught us that the invitation to play and interact outside a museum is less compelling to the exhibition visitor, and it causes difficulties in the explanation and promotion of the application on the ground. These difficulties resulted in a smaller number of downloads and publications (only 504 were officially tagged during this exhibition) even though the score is nonetheless respectable. The attraction of photography remains strong; the question is now how we can make it more coherent and then promote it to the visitor in the most direct way. Another main lesson from this experience was to try and develop a proposition that lasts, and that is pertinent once an exhibition has ended. To this end, the App should have an independent use as a catalogue enhancing user experience beyond the time and space of the temporary exhibition.

Braque – Cubist image factory

For the George Braque retrospective (Grand Palais, Paris, September 2013 – January 2014) we tried yet another way of creating photogenic interaction. The application, La fabrique cubiste, teaches cubism in an amusing and educational way, using cubist photo filters that can be applied to users’ photos. The application shows and explains the three main cubists styles developed by Braque using several of his paintings to illustrate them: geometric, analytical and synthetic cubism, giving examples and information for each. In parallel, and on the same screen, we tried ergonomic articulation. Discover / Fabricate, the App, permits experimentation with cubism immediately using the smartphone camera. The user may apply six geometric prisms or six synthetic filters in almost endless combinations on any picture taken on the spot or from the smartphone’s photos library. The App also permits the user to take four pictures from different angles to understand and experiment with transposing three dimensions onto a 2 dimensional surface. The application uses digital tools to create cubist photos.

This application was offered not just for individual visitors, but was also the main educational tool at our workshops with young audiences (on a weekly basis), to whom 20 preloaded tablets were distributed and interaction was guided by one of our mediators. Publishing and sharing functionalities were added to the application, and throughout the exhibition each week there was a contest with the specific #tag to crown the best cubist photo of the week, distributing rewards and promoting the photos and application on our website and the social networks.

Some of the main lessons that we had learned from Dynamo were applied here: the installation of real-time screens at our main entrance and exits halls in order to present to the visitor his/her production of photos and texts. This time around we did not use any special technology to connect the application and the screens, but used instead an on-line connected application to Instagram and Twitter. Our audiences’ creations #taged with the exhibition’s tag were presented directly on the screens so the comments and photos were shared not only on the web but also in situ. In this way the public “cubist photos” were presented alongside the Braque exhibition.

The exhibition was a box office success with more than 460,000 visitors over the three and a half months. In all, 19,478 people downloaded the app, and it continued to be downloaded after the show had ended. This time the App was conceived and positioned as a catalogue App, parallel to but distinct from the show. With the show and the application promoting each other, we applied another important lesson: that an application might have a separate life from the exhibition, but needs to have a promotional link from the exhibition site in order to improve its visibility.

User-generated content is second nature to our visitors nowadays, and we should interact with them where it occurs, mainly via the social networks. At the same time we should understand our added value as a cultural institution. The public is ready and willing to play using his/her smartphone and this is one of the new ways we can interact with them.


Using photography when visiting museums has quickly become a wide spread phenomenon. It is part of “what people do” with this new but at the same time very common and widespread personal device – the Smartphone. It seems natural that in the museum and exhibition context, which characteristically engages with the spectacular and visual sense, the audience will feel compelled to use their Smartphone’s camera applications.

Taking photos in a museum is part of a growing era of image fabrication, and in a more specific way, has different functions: photography in museums may, for instance, be used to collect memoirs, to save impressions, to remember better, but also to observe differently, noticing details, contemplating in an active way. It might also be used to communicate, after the event or simultaneously during the visit; it might be used to interact and to engage and sometimes to learn. These functions, personal and social, enhance and complete the ways in which an audience interacts with art.

The photographic functions of the Smartphone camera and the ways we use it in the museum are, in our opinion, durable and “here to stay”. As a cultural institution, our last three ‘connected photo experiences’ explore different ways in which we can re-invent our engagement with the public, proposing new kinds of experiences, and taking into account the evolution of daily practices. Next season we will continue this exploration by helping our audience to visit Ancient Rome, sending personalized e-cards from the application and taking selfies as the Emperor couple Augustus and Livia. We will continue to explore new ways to engage with our public in photogenic ways … to be followed.


1. Statistical figures taken from:


3. Orange is one of the world’s leading telecommunications operators; For many years, Orange has implemented projects that bring together culture and technological innovation. The Group, one of the major players in the “digi-cultural” sector, places the new technologies at the service of culture and promotes new uses thanks to sustainable partnerships established with the biggest cultural institutions. A new richer experience is offered to the visitors through the creation of websites, mobile apps or tablet-based guides allowing them to prepare their visit with practical information, to provide an overview of the works on display, to go at their own pace when they visit, to share their feelings with their friends and family during and after their visit or even to have a souvenir of their favorite pieces. This has been the case for the Dynamo app, the Jardins de Versailles app or for the different digital supports developed with the Museum Louvre-Lens. Since its opening on 4 December 2012, Orange provides the visitor’s guide which is, for the first time in a museum, based on a 3D view of the galleries. Besides, the teams from the Orange Labs and the Louvre-Lens have been working together in a group devoted to innovation. This work has already resulted in several projects as 3D movement gestures in the air or 3D tablet.

Mobile applications in this article

“Dynamo” mobile application
Publisher: Réunion des musées Nationaux-Grand-Palais, 2013
Application developed in partnership with Orange
Co-conception: Rmn-GP and Orange, contents: Rmn-GP, development: Orange

“Le Grand atelier du midi”
Publisher: Réunion des musées Nationaux-Grand-Palais
Application developed in partnership with Orange
Co- conception: Rmn-GP and Orange, contents: Rmn-GP, development: Orange

“La fabrique cubiste, avec Georges Braque” mobile application
Publisher: Réunion des musées Nationaux-Grand-Palais
Conception and contents : Rmn-GP. Design and development: Artefacto

Cite as:
. "Photo Genic: Engaging audiences using photography." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published February 1, 2014. Consulted .

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