Not being photogenic in the age of Instagram: Natural History Museums

July 19, 2018 - All

Natural history museums are some of the most easily accessible museums to people of all walks of life and of all ages. How many of us went to a natural history museum in 2nd grade as a field trip? It’s easy to see how these natural history museums relate to so many of the lessons we learn about in grade school. But the natural history museums aren’t as popular as their art and design counterparts, at least not as popular to follow on Instagram.

It makes sense, art and design museums can have very different art, exhibitions, and installations from one another, while natural history museums have similar kinds of collections. Art and design museums can also have different, new exhibits every so often, and natural history museums have dioramas that are almost 100 years old. In art and design museums, there can be pictures and posts on Instagram that catch a person’s eye, that can entice people to visit so that they can take the same picture for their own followers. Natural history museums just aren’t seen as photogenic as art and design museums.

Even so, the number of followers and likes that natural history museums receive on Instagram are not small numbers. So, let’s look into what is successful for 5 popular natural history museums and see if there is anything similar among what are the most popular posts for natural history museums and answer whether or not followers of natural history museums are engaging less than they have in the past.

The Museums

The 5 museums that were analyzed were all natural history museums that are located in major English speaking cities. English speaking cities were chosen so that there could conceivably be an overlap in audiences. The cities chosen were New York City, London, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Los Angeles. The museums were, respectively, the American Museum of Natural History; the Natural History Museum, London; the National Museum of Natural History; The Field Museum of Natural History; and the Natural History Museum of LA.

The Numbers

*numbers as of November 8th, 2017


For all the museums chosen, the Instagram data was collected using Supermetrics. The specific data that was collected was the posts, number of posts, the number of likes, and number of comments. The number of followers was collected manually.

The time frame for the data varies from museum to museum. The oldest first post across the museum accounts was from 2011 and the newest first post was from 2014; the end date for the data collection is the same across all the museums, early November 2017. All the data was entered into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet after being collected through Supermetrics.


To visualize the data, the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet was input into Tableau and then Pikochart to further make the data easy to follow and summarize a few of the main findings from the data.

The Data

American Museum of Natural History

Total number of posts: 1,559.

Number of followers: 215k.

The oldest Instagram account and the most popular Instagram account in terms of followers was the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

It appears as though the average number of comments on posts are decreasing, which might show a decrease in engagement with the followers of the museums’s Instagram, but the disparity in numbers is just to do with the museum’s most popular post, which was posted on September 27th, 2015, which is an outlier in the normal number of likes and comments most of the posts on the American Museum of Natural History’s Instagram receive on average.

When looking at the most popular post of 2017, it becomes much more comparable to the most popular posts of other natural history museums and is more reflective of the activity on the museum’s Instagram.

It also goes along with a trend that will become apparent later, that people on Instagram like seeing behind-the-scenes posts that they wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else.

Natural History Museum, London

Total number of posts: 1,237.

Total number of followers: 157k.

Despite the fact that the Natural History Museum, London is the most recent to start posting to Instagram, they were quick to post and have the second most number of posts, which is probably one of the many reasons why they also have the second most number of followers.

In terms of what kinds of Instagram posts they have, they like posting more videos than the other natural history museums, which works out well for them because their videos do well and their most liked post is a video.

The Natural History Museum’s second most popular post is the same video posted in 2017 which is promoting the same event, which seems to be popular every year. Unlike the American Museum of Natural History’s most popular post, because this post did not go viral, this post is comparable to other posts that the museum has posted and are numbers that can be replicated. It is also comparable to the other natural history museum’s most popular posts.

National Museum of Natural History

Total number of posts: 823.

Total number of followers: 53.1k.

The National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. is third on the list of museums in terms of number of followers. However, in the moment of time that the data was analyzed, they had the same number of posts as The Field Museum.

The number of likes that the National Museum of Natural History is getting over the years is clearly increasing, and seems to be increasing at a rapid pace. The number of comments, on the other hand, seems to be going down every year since 2015, which might show that people are not engaging through comments as they once did. However, when we observe the number of posts that the museum has posted since 2015, we can see that the number of posts have dramatically gone down as well, which makes the number of comments seem impressive, and show that people are not engaging through comments less. It also makes the fact that the number of likes have increased so dramatically even more noteworthy in the face of the number of posts having decreased over the years.

Similar to the American Museum of Natural History’s most popular post from the last year, the National Museum of Natural History’s most popular post is a behind-the-scenes post that shows people what they wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. It also updates people on something that is currently happening at the museum and is from 2017.

The Field Museum of Natural History

Total number of posts: 823.

Total number of followers: 45.6k.

The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is the 4th museum on the list in number of followers. As previously mentioned, the number of posts is the same as the National Museum of Natural History.

For The Field Museum 2016 took a dip in number of comments that their posts got. However, in 2017, they were able to increase their number of comments along with their number of likes. The data from The Field Museum shows that the trend isn’t always increasing, there are reasons for why some posts get more comments or likes than others.

Once more, a behind-the-scenes post is the most popular post for The Field Museum, along with it being from 2017. Interestingly, despite The Field Museum having less followers than the National Museum of Natural History, this post has more likes than the most popular post from the National Museum of Natural History.

The Natural History Museum of LA

Total number of posts: 749.

Total number of followers: 32k.

The Natural History Museum of LA has the least number of posts and the least number of followers, making it last on the list of all the museums that were analyzed.

Like the other museums, the number of likes and comments are increasing for the Natural History Museum of LA.

Similar to the American Museum of Natural History’s most popular post, the Natural History Museum of LA’s most popular post is about the solar eclipse. It seems as though posts about space are the most universally liked. Like two other of the museums’ most popular posts, this post is also from 2017.

So what does it mean for natural history museums?

The key findings from looking at the Instagram posts from natural history museums do show us a few things that would be good for the museums to keep in mind, at least if the natural history museums want more engagement from their followers or just people on Instagram in general.

2 out of 5 of the most popular posts showed the behind-the-scenes of the museums, letting people on Instagram witness something that they wouldn’t even be able to see if they visited the museum. People enjoy seeing things that are interesting, and the collection of things that the museums don’t have on view or the research that the museums are doing are endlessly fascinating to people on social media. The American Museum of Natural History’s most popular post from 2017 is also a behind-the-scenes post, which further highlights the popularity of this kind of post.

3 out of 5 of the most popular posts from the natural history museums are from 2017, which seems to indicate that the popularity of Instagram is on the rise. The social media site should not be ignored by museums of any kind, and natural history museums are not ignoring the popularity of Instagram. Every year the number of likes and comments across all the natural history museums’ posts are increasing, and it seems as though the museums can do no wrong, their engagement will just keep on increasing.

Natural history museums still get very impressive numbers in terms of likes and comments. It’s especially impressive considering the fact that they can’t just photograph one of Carl Akeley’s dioramas and get a staggering number of likes and comments in the same way an art museum can with a piece by Pablo Picasso or Claude Monet. Unfortunately, as much as I’d like Carl Akeley to be in popular culture like Picasso or Monet are, the truth is that his work is not as widely known as other artists or painters are. The collections in natural history museums as a whole are just not seen as photogenic in the same way.

The truth is that they can be, perhaps the chances they get are much smaller and further in between, but they make the most of the chances they get and the numbers back that up. Follower numbers are not indicative of the number of likes or comments a post from a museum gets. Engagement of any social media platform can vary and does not always turn into more visitors or even more members to the museums. However, it is still a way to reach a wider group of people all across the world that was not available 30 years ago. It is a way to reach people on the platforms where they spend a great deal of their time on, and it is beneficial for natural history museums to take advantage of Instagram and its popularity.


Not being photogenic in the age of Instagram: Natural History Museums was originally published in Museums and Digital Culture – Pratt Institute on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

› tags: digital culture / museums /