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How selfies are changing the way we interact with art

It’s hard to ignore the number of people who take selfies in museums. But should we see this fad as a new way of appreciating masterpieces or as nothing more than an exercise in self indulgence?

Selfies are an inescapable part of 21st century life. Even for those who prefer not to indulge in photographic self portraits, we’ve all seen hundreds if not thousands of instances of this form of expression on social media – and witnessed them being taken in shops, pubs, restaurants, and, of course, in museums across the globe.

Museum Selfie

Illustration: Edith Kurosaka

Whether you like it or not, selfies are as much a part of the modern museum experience as echoing footsteps and a trip to the gift shop. To some, it’s a fun and harmless way to engage with the exhibits; to others it represents a lack of appreciation, ignorance or even a touch of narcissism. Some museums feel so strongly about this practice that they have even banned selfies altogether. Most famously, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has taken the decision to ban selfie sticks from entering the premises.

But why do selfies at museums evoke such strong feelings? And what should we make of the arguments for and against?

How have selfies changed the museum experience?

Selfies are a cultural phenomenon. Twenty years ago, very few museum visitors would think to take a photo of themselves in front of the Mona Lisa with a digital camera. Now, to even see the Mona Lisa you have to gaze over a sea of phone screens and smiling faces. But is this really that big a change?

Vast crowds and photographs at popular exhibits are nothing new, after all. What selfies have changed, however, is the way people view the experience of visiting a museum. No longer is it a place to go to look at art or exhibits, but rather a place to document experiences and share those adventures with others – those we might term “followers”.

The question is whether this is a good or bad cultural change.

Are selfies selfish?

The first and perhaps most common charge levelled at selfie-takers is that it is an exercise in self promotion. People who take them at museums are seen as being more interested in looking at themselves than at the beautiful artwork or ancient sculpture before them.

This is a difficult accusation for the pro-selfie camp to refute. After all, taking a photo of yourself in front of a painting implies that viewing and considering the painting isn’t sufficient, and that it is only by photographing yourself with the artwork that visiting the museum becomes a valuable experience. Shouldn’t seeing a Van Gogh painting or a unique fossil be rewarding enough? Does it need to feature the photographer and find a home on social media to be of value?

But it is not just your own experience that museum selfies are said to undermine. Many people feel that being surrounded by selfie takers as consumed by their own appearance as the exhibits ruins the museum’s atmosphere. How can a person who has waited their whole life to see The Starry Night enjoy it in quiet contemplation while a flock of people are around them, jostling for the best angle, lighting and position for their selfie?

They take their picture, examine it, then disappear on to the next backdrop: not exactly the best company when you’re trying to appreciate the complex skill, deep meaning or rich history of an exhibit or collection.

What’s more, selfies increase the likelihood of damage being done to the exhibits. When people are preoccupied with taking the best picture, rather than with the artwork next to them, accidents are bound to happen. Take the infamous 14th Factory incident, in which a girl crouching next to an exhibit in Los Angeles accidentally knocked a pedestal over, causing an estimated $200,000 worth of damage. Such a disaster would never have happened if the girl had not been using the exhibit as a backdrop for a selfie. This is why some museums choose to allocate specific “photo points”, or else ban photography altogether.

Is there a good side to selfies?

The museum selfie is not without its supporters, however. To some it is a way to enrich the entire museum experience.

If selfies are indeed a cultural phenomenon, isn’t it a museum’s duty to engage with them in the same way they engage with other aspects of culture? It is inevitable that people will engage with art and history on a personal level. For some, this is simply a matter of gazing at and thinking about a work, but for others taking a selfie is a way to integrate an otherwise obscure exhibit into their daily life.

Some may call it vain, but selfie-takers are hardly the first people to be interested in how art applies to them. Many of the great Florentine paintings of the Renaissance feature members of the ruling Medici family as characters from ancient mythology, or even the Bible, which is perhaps not unlike the Kardashians commissioning a painting of themselves as the holy family. Compared to that, selfies don’t seem so vain.

Given that we all interact with the world around us differently, does anyone truly have the right to tell us how we should act or capture a scene?

Allowing selfies is also healthy for business. For many, the lure of a good selfie backdrop is what gets them over the museum’s threshold. This increases donations to the museum, allowing a venue to showcase more exhibits and better preserve the exhibits already in their possession.

It is also worth bearing in mind that, in a world now dominated by the cult of the influencer, having the endorsement or influential selfie-takers can often drive footfall more effectively than a costly PR campaign. Museums might want people to come in and view their artifacts, but if people use technology to experience collections in a more interactive way, what’s the harm?

What does this mean for museums?

Whatever your thoughts on social media and the popularity of selfie taking, it is unlikely that this trend is going to disappear in the near future. And so, perhaps the question should be how we can ensure that all are free to enjoy their favourite exhibits in a way that does not compromise the experiences of others.

Whether a particular museum decides to allow or forbid selfies will inevitably be tied to what they believe their institution’s role is: to preserve the treasures of the past, reflect the values of the present, or seek to blend the two.

Interested in joining us to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing museums over the coming years? Explore our events calendar here for all our latest conferences.

About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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