Social Media and Museum Brands as Networks: An Actor-Network Theory Study of the Manchester Art Gallery

  • Maria Paula Arias

Student thesis: Phd


Branding has ontological roots in commercial disciplines and is heavily tied to marketing to differentiate one organisation from another in the mind of the consumer. Museums, as (for the most part) non-commercial organisations, have adapted this concept to consider the role of visitors and other stakeholders in creating brand value through their shared experiences within these institutions. In this sense, museum brands are thought to be created in the mediated relationships between particular sets of individuals and the physical aspects of these institutions (such as the architecture and the collection). However, when social media technologies were introduced in museums, they effectively helped them transcend their physical spaces to engage with online communities and to communicate their brands digitally. Due to their technological and participatory nature, social media challenged the ‘passive’ role of online audiences and highlighted their capacity to create and share their own cultural narratives. Still, social media tend to be considered largely as broadcasting communication tools that help museums communicate to their audiences, rather than engage with them. This thesis questions this passive and limited perspective of social media (technologies and audiences) in relation to museum brands. Accordingly, the thesis is driven by two main aims: to critically discuss a reconceptualisation of museum brands as actor-networks that result from the mediated and performative relationships between heterogeneous actors (including human and non-human, as well as digital and physical actors); and to explore the potential role of social media (including technologies and users) within these networks. This investigation is developed around a single case study, the Manchester Art Gallery, as it was embroiled in a mediatised debacle about its institutional purpose following an artist takeover event in 2018 — where Twitter users drove the online conversation that would later be informally dubbed ‘Nymphgate’. Using a longitudinal approach to its methodological framework of Actor-Network Theory (ANT), and drawing on a critical analysis of secondary literature, Twitter data and interviews with Gallery staff, the thesis examines the events that led up to the takeover event, and the impact that the event, its subsequent online conversation, and its legacy had to the Gallery brand network. The examination provides evidence of a mode of ordering that prioritises decision-making human actors and physical non-human actors as they mediate the Gallery brand in their relationships. Despite social media not being considered as an actor in the Gallery brand network, the Nymphgate Twitter event demonstrated that online audiences used the technological affordances of the platform to challenge the symbolic value of the Gallery brand. The impact of social media to the Gallery brand is thus the result of various relationships between human and non-human actors over time, as well as the perceptions of these continuous performances. In this sense, these perceptions and renegotiations simultaneously co-produce as well as limit the impact of social media to the Gallery by continuously delineating the brand network. The thesis goes on to argue that museum brand networks are organised in the contextually dependent and performative relations between specific actors and, therefore, social media have a limited potential to decentralise and destabilise the structure of these networks. In this sense, the brand network is a medium in and of itself and, therefore, that museums and museum brands can only be ‘recoded’ (or reshaped and redistributed) inasmuch as digital technologies, particularly social media, are perceived to be mediative.
Date of Award31 Dec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAnita Greenhill (Supervisor) & Kostas Arvanitis (Supervisor)


  • Manchester Art Gallery
  • actor-network theory
  • social media
  • twitter
  • galleries
  • museums
  • branding

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