Gästinlägg av Russel Dornan, Wellcome Collection.


In 2014 Wellcome Collection in London put on a highly participative exhibition, An idiosyncratic A to Z of the Human Condition.

In it, the alphabet ran along both of the longest sides of the gallery, each letter opposite itself; every letter stood for a theme allowing our visitors to explore the human condition. On one side, we presented a selection of our large collection of historical objects from all over the world relating to each letter’s theme. For example, X was for “X-rated” and featured a variety of sex-related objects.

Sex fruit

X is for X-rated: porcelain fruit containing sex-related figures inside

On the opposite wall, the same themes were explored using participatory activities in the gallery so our visitors could engage with those themes directly, simultaneously contributing to the exhibition itself. For example, K (“Keeping up appearances”) asked people to draw a self-portrait. Activities included drawing, writing stories, taking fortune cookies, leaving voice recordings, marking your height on the wall, etc. The outputs of these were then left on display in the gallery for others to see.

Five of these activities were social media related and the focus of this blog post.

The idea

The curator, Danielle Olsen, approached me very early on about including social media elements in the exhibition and from the beginning I knew I wanted to use Instagram. It was great to be asked at the beginning of the process as it meant our ideas were able to grow and fit together. The exhibition came about because of our development project: our programme timings shifted slightly and left us with an exhibition-shaped hole to fill over the summer. We had about five weeks to come up with and execute the idea before opening to the public.

Danielle wanted to use parts of our collection to show the many ways our objects inform what makes us human and, as fellow experts on the human condition, she wanted our visitors to be able to contribute to that inquiry. Since the show had to be designed and installed very quickly, the fact that the participatory elements made up 50% of the exhibition allowed us to maximise on the limited time available.

Social Media themes

I looked through the 26 themes featured in the exhibition and identified those that I thought resonated most with our audience, as well as those that would lend themselves best to Instagram. We used social media for five themes in all.

We asked our audience to submit photographs via Instagram for each theme (by using the relevant hashtag). We then printed them out to look like Polaroid pictures and displayed them in the gallery. They were also available to view online (using Tumblr).


Screenshot of our Tumblr galleries showing the A to Z images

You can find out more about five of themes below. The fifth theme was for the letter I (“Individuality”); it didn’t have an online call to action although the images were displayed on Tumblr.

I is for Individuality pin board and mirror

I is for Individuality: the large pin board with visitors’ selfies next to the mirror they used

I also commissioned blog posts for each theme to explore them further and used the submitted photographs to illustrate the blogs. We used the visitors’ photos on Facebook and Twitter to publicise the exhibition and project too.

Growing Instagram

We had not been using Instagram long at Wellcome Collection before this exhibition was developed so this was the perfect opportunity to raise its profile and use it in an interesting way. We posted the “call to action” image on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to raise the profile of the campaign.

Call to action

The image we posted on Instagram and other social media channels to publicise the project

The process

I ran the social media elements of the A to Z exhibition myself with occasional assistance from our fantastic Visitor Experience (VE) team. I used IFTTT to automatically aggregate the photos onto Tumblr, incorporating any required hashtags. I did this every few days over the run of the exhibition.

When printing the images, I used Collecto to browse each hashtag; inserted them individually into a Photoshop “Polaroid” template and printed them out, four to a page. I wrote the Instagram handles on the photos and then the VE team cut them out and put them on display. This was done every week or two throughout the exhibition.


The Polaroid style photos on display next to the in-gallery call to action

This was the first time we used Instagram in this way so it was an experiment; we didn’t set any particular goals. It was a way for us to publicise our Instagram whilst trialing the platform for similar projects in the future. We were very happy with how it went: we received over 1,400 submissions across the five themes and some fantastic interactions across social media. People enjoyed seeing their images on display and some even came in and photographed their photographs!

Russell Dornan is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection, responsible for their website, social media and blog.