Faces before Facebook

Last month I saw a really interesting exhibition at the Oslo Museum. The exhibition ‘Faces before Facebook‘ placed the museums collection within a contemporary conversation, relating traditional portrait painting to its contemporary equivalent, Facebook ‘profile pictures’.

On the one hand this approach made the collection more appealing to younger audiences who could relate better to Facebook than the traditional historical narratives that are normally presented alongside portraits. And on the other hand the traditional nature of the paintings featured in the exhibition made the exhibition appeal to older audiences. By placing Facebook profile pictures within the context of changing fashions in portraiture throughout history the curator has cleverly demystified ‘Facebook’, and encourages audiences to recognise the influence of wider cultural practice on approaches to portraiture (from painting, to photography, to profile pictures).

Social media is often feared by those that don’t understand what it is all about, but by relating social media practices to non digital practices such as sharing family photo albums, or chatting to other mums at the school gates we can lay the foundation for greater digital literacy and cultural engagement. Museums are about education, and participation and a good exhibition should make us question what we see, and how we view the world. Faces before Facebook did not feature social media as an add on, or a bonus feature instead it used social media as a lens through which to examine a historical collection and contemporary cultural practice.

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