It’s difficult to overlook the number of selfie-takers at museums. However, should we view this phenomenon as a new method of appreciating masterpieces or as a form of self-indulgence?
Selfies have become an inextricable element of life in the twenty-first century. Even if you’re not a fan of photographic self-portraits, we’ve all seen hundreds, if not thousands, of them on social media – and seen them shot in stores, bars, restaurants, and, of course, museums throughout the world.
Selfies, whether we like them or not, are as much a part of the modern museum experience as echoing footfall and a visit to the gift shop. To some, this is a harmless and enjoyable way to interact with the exhibits; to others, it demonstrates a lack of respect, ignorance, or even a hint of narcissism. Certain museums are so opposed to the practice that they have outright prohibited it. Most notably, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has banned selfie sticks from its grounds.
However, why do photos at museums elicit such intense emotions? And what should we make of the arguments for and against?
How Has The Museum Experience Been Changed By Selfies?
Selfies have evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Twenty years ago, very few museum visitors would have considered using a digital camera to photograph themselves in front of the Mona Lisa. To view the Mona Lisa all these days, one must peer across a sea of phone displays and happy faces. However, is this truly a significant change?
After all, large crowds and pictures at famous shows are nothing new. What selfies have altered, though, is how consumers perceive the museum experience. It is no longer a place to view art or exhibitions, but rather a platform to capture travels and share them with others — individuals we may refer to as “followers.”
The issue is whether this is a positive or negative cultural shift.
Are Selfies Self-indulgent?
The first and arguably most frequently leveled criticism against selfie-takers is that they are engaging in self-promotion. Individuals who bring them to museums are viewed as being more concerned with themselves than with the exquisite artwork or antique sculpture before them.
This is a difficult charge to counter for the pro-selfie party. After all, shooting oneself in front of a painting indicates that simply viewing and contemplating the artwork is insufficient and that it is only via photographing oneself with the artwork that visiting the museum becomes worthwhile. Shouldn’t witnessing a Van Gogh artwork or a one-of-a-kind fossil be a sufficient reward? Is it necessary for it to include the photographer and find a home on social media in order to be valuable?
However, museum photos are considered to damage more than just your individual experience. Many visitors believe that being surrounded by selfie-takers who are as captivated with their personal beauty as they are by the exhibits degrades the museum’s ambiance. How is it possible for someone who has waited their entire lives to view The Starry Night to appreciate it in peaceful contemplation while surrounded by a flock of people clamoring for the greatest perspective, lighting, and position for their selfie to do so?
They snap their photograph, study it, and then go on to the next backdrop: hardly the ideal company while attempting to appreciate an exhibit’s or collection’s nuanced talent, profound significance, or long history.
Additionally, selfies increase the probability of exhibiting harm. When individuals are more concerned with capturing the perfect photograph than with the artwork in front of them, accidents are almost inevitable. Consider the notorious 14th Factory incident in Los Angeles, in which a girl kneeling close to an exhibit accidentally knocked down a pedestal, incurring an estimated $200,000 in damage. Such an accident would not have occurred had the girl not been utilizing the exhibit as a backdrop for a selfie. This is why some museums designate designated “photo locations” or outright prohibit photography.
Is There A Positive Aspect To Selfies?
However, the museum selfie does have its adherents. To some, it’s a means of enhancing the whole museum experience.
If selfies are cultural phenomena, isn’t it the responsibility of museums to deal with them in the same way they engage with other facets of culture? Individuals will inevitably connect with art and history on a personal level. For some, taking a selfie is merely a means to gaze at and reflect on a piece, while for others, taking a photo is a method to incorporate an otherwise inconspicuous show into their daily lives.
While some may dismiss it as vanity, selfie-takers are far from the first to be interested in how art relates to them. Numerous renaissance artworks depict members of the reigning Medici family as characters from ancient mythology or even the Bible, which is maybe comparable to the Kardashians commissioning a portrait of themselves as the holy family. In comparison, selfies do not appear to be as vain.
Given how each of us interacts with the environment in unique ways, does anybody have the authority to instruct us how to act or record a scene?
Permitting selfies is also beneficial for business. For many, the allure of a decent selfie backdrop is enough to get them into the museum. This raises donations to the museum, allowing the venue to present additional exhibits and better conserve existing exhibits.
Additionally, in an age driven by the cult of the influencer, having the support or influence of popular selfie-takers may frequently drive footfall more efficiently than a pricey public relations effort. Museums may want visitors to come in and examine their items, but what’s the harm in allowing visitors to engage with collections through technology?
What Does This Mean For Museums?
Whatever your feelings about social media and the prevalence of selfies, it seems doubtful that this trend will fade away anytime soon. Thus, maybe the more pertinent question is how we can ensure that everyone is allowed to enjoy their favorite exhibitions without jeopardizing the experiences of others.
Whether a museum decides to allow or prohibit selfies is inextricably linked to their perception of their institution’s mission: to conserve the riches of the past, to represent contemporary ideals, or to combine the two.
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