Visitor Photography Research



An independent research project responding to debate in the media and the museum sector about the growth of museum visitor photography.

It culminated in a book chapter titled "New Ways of Looking: Self-representational social photography in museums."


  • Contextual observation
  • Data analysis
  • Context mapping
  • Academic writing

research question

Why do visitors to museums take photographs and share them on social media? How can museums engage visitors through these photographs and leverage them as a dataset to inform their own engagement strategies?



Self-representational social photography is a response to, and a form of self-expression inspired by, museum objects.

Examples from Instagram meetups at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, as well as qualitative data documented online, provide evidence that visitors express their sense of self by weaving museum objects into their identity and include these objects within their social community.  

I supported this evidence by connecting it with existing diary and interview studies about museum visitation and social media photography. I also conducted contextual observation in 205 cultural sites around the world. 

Selfies are a natural fit within the museum visitor experience. They represent a new way of looking, in which both the museum experience and these images are personal, embodied and felt practices. 

observation & data collection

I began researching the photography habits of museum visitors in 2013. I observed the behaviour of visitors who took selfies and photographs with museum objects while visiting over 200 museums within 12 months across 16 countries.

Online, I collected and curated these images and associated commentary. The online project gained more than 6,000 followers over 3 years.

research strategy

There is little existing literature on the topic of visitor photography. I researched topics that intersected it, including

  • history of photography
  • photography theory
  • history of portraiture
  • identity theory 
  • museum history
  • museum audience theory

This research included linking theory to diary and interview studies of users who visited museums or used social photography.

testing at national gallery of art

I tested the validity of my conclusions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. I organised Instameet events during which I

  • observed the behaviours of participants
  • listened to their conversation
  • discussed their photography experiences
  • viewed their digital images
  • analysed survey responses


I presented an early version of my research conclusions at the Museum Computer Network Conference in 2014. I wrote articles on the topic for the Wellcome Collection and The Getty.

Each article and presentation focussed on a particular angle of my research, allowing me to refine ideas, identify inconsistencies in my logic and monitor key audience response.

testimonials & mentions

"The book documents the efforts of researchers and museum professionals alike to unpack what is going on in visitors’ minds when they take photographs."  - Ed Rodley,  Peabody Essex Museum

"The book breathes respect for the museum visitor, and the richness of her/his experiences, skills and competences."  - Professor Nico Carpentier, Uppsala University

My work has also been cited in articles by Hyperallergic, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Times of India.

want to hear more?

I've been humbled by the enthusiastic response of the museum community to my research.

I'm now expanding this project to look at visitor photography on Instagram with research partner, Dr Kylie Budge, Research Manager at the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences. 

This work was presented at the Museum Computer Network conference in November 2016.