#MuseumOlympics Torch on Fire: A Story of Collaboration and Social Innovation

For the past two weeks, the world watched athletes from the world over compete and triumph in the 2012 Olympic Games. Meanwhile, museums the world over competed on Twitter in the tongue-in cheek competition #MuseumOlympics, which originated right here in San Francisco. Willa Köerner, digital engagement associate at SFMOMA and today's g uest blogger, takes us behind the scenes of #MuseumOlympics and reveals the origins of what will surely become a new quadrennial tradition.

Taber Olympics

Isaiah West Taber (American, 1830–1912). Olympic Club Day, 1894. Gelatin silver print. California Midwinter International Exposition, through M.H. deYoung. 2502

As the world’s best athletes prepared their minds and bodies to compete for gold in London two weeks ago, a group of Bay Area museum staffers were preparing for a different kind of challenge: how to leverage the Olympic torch’s fiery brightness to shine a little light on art and culture. Thus began the story of the #MuseumOlympics: a collaborative, experimental, and hilarious showdown between cultural institutions on Twitter.

As with so many novel schemes, this story got its start at a whiskey bar in San Francisco. About a week before the Olympics began, I met up with colleagues from various San Francisco museums to talk social media shop, as we do on a semi-regular basis. In the past, we’ve worked on collaborative social media projects using the #museumlove and #museumcrush tags. Essentially, we try to put the “social” back in “social media” by meeting up in real life to grab a drink and put our heads together. Instead of seeing each other as competition, we help each other out. We “share” ideas and “like” each other in real life with one common objective: to make cool, creative things happen online that might help more people engage with art and culture. This collaborative approach might not seem incredibly novel, but it’s definitely not something that you see happening all the time in the art world.


The tweet that started it all: @SFMOMA kicked off the #MuseumOlympics on the night of London’s opening ceremony

The idea for the #MuseumOlympics came from a desire to harness the huge momentum of the Olympic Games on social media in order to make art relevant to this shared cultural experience. Based on the successes of similar social media tags we’d led before, I had an excited feeling that once we Bay Area institutions set the groundwork in place, other institutions would pick up on the opportunity and get involved. We quietly launched the project on Friday, July 27—the day of the London Olympic’s much-anticipated opening ceremonies. By Monday, the tag’s popularity was already spreading like wildfire. As the torch was passed from institution to institution, fueled by enthusiastic participants and entertained onlookers alike, it wasn’t long before the #MuseumOlympics tag was officially trending on Twitter.

Tyler Green Tweet

Tyler Green’s tweet about the #MuseumOlympics

During the two week run of the Olympics, approximately 300 cultural institutions and other “competitors” participated in the Twitter #MuseumOlympic games, and somewhere around 900 artworks were shared. Even the press caught onto this fresh, inventive spin on the games. “Can you win an Olympic medal for brushstroke?” asked Kelly Crow of The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy . On Artinfo’s blog, Shane Ferro wrote, “Just because you’re not a sports person doesn’t mean you can’t get into the Olympic spirit!” And on NBC Southern California’s blog, Alysia Gray Painter pointed out that “Institutions in California and spots further on have been posting sports-themed works from their collection. It’s fun and it is cheeky and it is full of the same sort of showmanship and camaraderie that the best of the Olympics Games offers.”

On Twitter, the importance of “camaraderie” cannot be overstated. Social media presents the incredible opportunity for institutions to “talk” (*aka* make art banter) with each other and with the public in real time—an opportunity that has never truly been possible in the past. With the #MuseumOlympics, we were able to put works from our too-often-segregated collections into a collective dialogue with each other. In the non-digital world, only a handful of works from a museum’s permanent collection will be on view, and the rest will be penned up in storage crates. And, even when specific artworks are on view, the context of viewing and understanding the work is often pre-supposed by the context of its exhibition. This is not to belittle the important role of museum curators—rather, it’s to suggest that the Internet has given rise to a new collective desire to draw our own individualized connections, and engage in participatory explorations of how art can be interpreted. With collective experiences such as the #MuseumOlympics, we’re now able to see museums’ collections interacting in more fluid, networked, and participatory ways. As user-friendly digital spaces become a priority for many institutions, it’s exciting to think about the possibilities for creating networks of artworks that could extend beyond the doors of the museum. #MuseumOlympics reached millions, and signals a willingness of museums and art-enthusiasts to think outside the box, or in this case outside of the white cube.

#MuseumOlympics Closing Ceremonies

As with all good things, the #MuseumOlympics must come to an end. Since most trending tags on Twitter tend to slowly run out of steam before eventually dying off, we wanted to memorialize this with the digital equivalent of a medal ceremony. So, to celebrate the success of TEAM ART (i.e. everyone who went for gold in the #MuseumOlympics), and in response to Artinfo’s quite apt remark, ”While we love the cultural exchange global sporting events promote, at the end of the day, it’s a competition and someone needs to win,” we bring you the Museum Olympics Standings and Results page, put together by the talented and ever-charming man behind Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Twitter account, James Im.

Andy Warhol Jogging

Silver-winning tweet from @willak: My personal favorite for #MuseumOlympics: super stunner Andy Warhol jogging in jeans = #winning in style. http://sfmoma.me/rchouE


Judges’ Scoring: Individual Artwork with Most Retweets

GOLD: The Royal Ontario Museum‘s T-Rex wanted to compete in archery, but his arms were too short. In art, this kind of handicap is gold medal-worthy, as @ROMToronto’s tweet achieved 33 re-tweets, a stunning success story.

SILVER: Yours truly tweeted about Andy Warhol jogging in shorts, an artfully stylish sight that helped garner 15 re-tweets for team @SFMOMA.

BRONZE: Orson Welles doesn’t want China to win more Olympic medals than the USA, and the expression on his face helped the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to win 14 re-tweets.

Matthew Barney

Original tweet from @YBCA: .@okayokay Matthew Barney for the #MuseumOlympics Greco-Roman wrestling team @SFMOMA

In other news, @SFMOMA took gold in “Matthew Barney Sports: Total Vaseline Smeared + RTs,” while @YBCA was honored with the “Top Teammate” award, even though their nutrition levels were low due to eating too much cardboard and smoking too many joints (a habit heavily influenced by their current David Shrigley exhibition). @SFMOMA, @AsianArtMuseum, and @deYoungMuseum all did well in the “Most Nudity Exposed” category, noting that despite that the fact that Olympic athletes used to compete in their birthday suits, the nude is now nowhere near as popular in sports as it is in art.

Although the Olympic Games have concluded, there is still much art inspired by sport and competition to be enjoyed, including Gifts From the Gods: Art and the Olympic Ideal, on view at the Legion of Honor through January, 2013.