The second annual #MuseumSelfie day took place around the world last Wednesday, 21 January. The day was started by Mar Dixon via the Culture Themes website which is also behind days like #AskACurator. Further information can be found here. At Mar’s insistence on the Culture Themes site, I have left my thoughts on #MuseumSelfie Day until after the fact, and also because I didn’t get around to it on the day.
As is so often the case with anything related to technology, social media or change the day, is polarising. See here and here, for example. Personally, I fall in the camp of #MuseumSelfie day supporters. My initial reaction to last year’s inaugural day was ‘shouldn’t that be everyday? This year’s headline from CNN “Selfies turn museums into playgrounds for a day” also had me scratching my head and frowning. I thought museums were making progress in moving away from their boring and unapproachable image, obviously not.
Fortunately, many museums are bold supporters of the day. The selfie that seemed to make the most waves, this year, came from the director of Museum of Fine Arts in my new home town of Boston. Mars Dixon, on her website, admitted this even exceeded her expectations for the day.
A search of the hashtag #MuseumSelfie on Twitter provided me with a convincing snapshot of the success and diversity of the day, a view shared by fellow museum worker, Emily Oswald. The Twitter feed includes selfies from both museum visitors and staff, intertwined with newspaper articles and bloggers’ commentaries. It also spans a number of days as the #MuseumSelfie traverses the globe in multiple languages. The hashtag also extends to other social media platforms such as flickr, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
A Google search of the term yields almost three million web results. Articles on Google extend far beyond a collection of ‘best of’ images. For example, they debate the use of social media and technology in museums, review people’s behaviour or like Boston.com, The Guardian and NY Mag, they provide instructional and categorical information on the types of selfies people can take.
A museum event so broadly spanning time, place and demographic, surely can not be viewed negatively. Rather it should be praised for increasing museum awareness and being accessible to the underrepresented museum audience.
Whilst increased access is a positive, I do also believe in quality, meaningful visitor experiences. My favourite #MuseumSelfie this year came from the Ashmolean Museum and shows a young Felicity copying the expression from a William Blake work. It shows fun, worthwhile engagement, the kind that we encourage in student and family programming. This #MuseumSelfie reflects an understanding of the work as it could only be achieved by first studying the art. It also provides an opportunity for discussion and reflection. Why did you choose this image for your selfie? What emotion do you need to show to copy this painting? Does the painting actually make you feel like this? How?
Emily Oswald also noticed the high level of engagement and understanding evident in some #MuseumSelfies claiming that this “kind of looking is at the heart of visual thinking strategies”. With so many art galleries aspiring to VTS programming techniques, how can #MuseumSelfie Day be a complete waste? Whilst the day does provide some capacity for high end experiences, as with any initiative it requires a degree of investment and commitment. It could be compared to youth specific night events where some museums excel at selecting pub topic themes and objects for display and discussion whilst others simply turn their function area into a night club where visitors don’t actually engage with any exhibits at all.
Museum youth nights happen after hours so as to not disturb day time visitors with loud music or deter family visitors with the prevalence of alcohol. Expansion of museum programs should be just that; a growth, not a substitution. #MuseumSelfie day should not be different. And in my experience it is not. Contrary to some complaints, I have never had a museum experience negatively impacted by another visitor’s selfie. I have, however, been hit by a visitor stepping back to capture everyone in a group shot and I have been walked into by someone listening to audio tour. I’m not saying I want to ban these things, I am saying that selfies are really not offensive. Certainly, as demonstrated on social media, they do increase around late January, so if you don’t like them, don’t visit. The same way people who don’t like families or children don’t visit in the holidays. If by chance you do encounter a self centred selfie taker, than alert security, if they don’t get there first. Alternatively, a little ‘excuse me’ will work wonders and more than likely receive an apology.
Whilst selfies may seem like a 21st century phenomenon, (The Oxford Dictionary proclaimed selfie word of the year in 2013) they are not a 21st century invention. For example, Buzz Aldrin took a selfie on the moon almost fifty years ago. If we broaden the term to encompass painted or drawn self portraits from eras before the camera, selfies have been around for hundred of years. In fact, many of these selfies are held in conservative and traditional areas of the museums in question. For those who suggest selfies are a sign of our increasingly self indulgent society, I ask, how is an oversized self portrait painting hung in your sitting room or a museum any different to posting a selfie on social media? Undisputedly the selfie in the 21st century is far more widespread than it was even twenty years ago but is that a result of increased arrogance or technological advances? I remember that in the 80s and 90s taking photos was a carefully considered activity, limited by the amount of shots on the film and the high costs of processing. Unlike years past, people now carry a camera in their mobile phone with the capacity to take thousands of photos. The reality is technology, selfies and social media are not going to disappear nor are they something the younger generations will grow out of as they age, rather, the average age of Facebook users is steadily increasing.
So, much like the Friday night DJs at the gallery, or the pop up bar at the history museum, if you want to join in with #MuseumSelfie day next year, or #AskACurator jump on board. If not, embrace diversity and inclusivity. Museums offer a wide range of experiences, find one that you’ll enjoy and go for it, but let others enjoy the museum their way. All forms of art whether it be museums, fine arts, music, theatre, film or television are ultimately a subjective industry. After all, your preferred museum experience might be the exception one day and you don’t want others pushing you out of the museum, do you?