Museum selfies: Participatory genius or sign of our self-centered times?
19 March 2014 – Emily Oswald
I learned about Museum Selfie Day on Facebook just a couple of days before the event. I made a mental note and visited the Harvard Museum of Natural History on January 22. The results were silly and less skillful than I’d anticipated. Good selfies take practice, it turns out. But the twenty minutes I spent with the orangutans and hummingbirds and whale skeletons got me thinking about why museum selfies are so fun and what museums could do to make better use of them.
By way of background, Museum Selfie Day is the work of Mar Dixon and her CultureThemes collaborators. The group picks and publicizes a Twitter hashtag each month and encourages museum professionals and aficionados from around the world to contribute. Past projects have included AskACurator, #WhyILoveMuseums, and, my personal favorite, the playful #MusMovember.
#MuseumSelfie was the theme for January 2014. On Wednesday, January 22, more than 10,000 people participated on Twitter. The British press got in on the fun with photo galleries in the Guardian, the Telegraph, and the BBC websites. Conversations about museum photo policies and museum selfie protests erupted. Jay-Z got involved. It was huge, and the folks at CultureThemes have every intention of hosting a MuseumSelfie Day each January.
Now, reader, I can sense your skepticism. Can (social) media buzz really translate into meaningful visitor engagement? Can selfies be a useful participatory strategy and not just a sign of our (literally) self-centered times? My own participation in Museum Selfie Day has convinced me that selfies in museums merit our consideration for at least three reasons.
First, museum selfies are as much about action as they are about artifacts. By asking museum visitors to take a selfie, we invite them to interact with collections in unusual ways. My favorite selfie from my visit to Harvard’s Natural History Museum was the one above, where a pair of antlers emerges from my own head.
To get this shot, I had to position myself with my back to the exhibit case. My view of the gallery and the natural history artifacts on display shifted. I’ll admit: the pedagogical impact wasn’t profound, and I certainly can’t tell you to whom these antlers once belonged. But taking this picture prompted me to be in my body in a museum gallery in a way I’m often not. Being in and learning with our bodies isn’t something we invite museum audiences to do very often, especially in history museums that often lend themselves to standing and reading a text panel, standing and looking at an object in a case, or standing and listening to a first-person interpreter. Selfies are an opportunity to shift our physical behavior in a museum gallery.
Second, taking a good selfie requires that both the creator/subject and the viewer look carefully at the artwork or artifact. The most delightful and engaging selfies I found were ones that called my attention to some aspect of the object I hadn’t noticed. This photo, for example, from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, first made me laugh because it’s clever and then made me look twice at the posture and dress of the woman in the painting.
To find just the right parallel between her own body and the pose of the young woman in the painting, this selfie’s subject and the photographer who took her picture also had to look and think carefully. This kind of looking is at the heart of visual thinking strategies, a teaching method at the center of many K–12 programs in museums. And because in this instance, the “selfie” is really a photograph taken by another person, the photo op turned a painting into a social object, something, in Nina Simon’s words, that “allow[s] people to focus their attention on a third thing rather than on each other, making interpersonal engagement more comfortable.”
Third, there’s the simple fact that selfies record people in museums and may invite participation from under-represented (at least in museum contexts) constituencies. I was struck by the people who didn’t look like me and who participated in Museum Selfie Day. Sure, there were lots of professional white women in their early thirties who took and shared selfies. But the range of people who posted their museum selfies was also more diverse than what some of us think is the stereotypical museum audience, reminding us that lots of people visit and feel at home in museums.
Not everyone was convinced that #MuseumSelfie and social media in general are useful platforms for genuinely engaging public history and museum audiences. Chloe Schama lamented in a piece for The New Republic that “going to a museum in the era of #MuseumSelfie is less about what you see and how it makes you feel than what you get to check off your bucket list.”
But I would argue that museum selfies aren’t, or at least aren’t only, about bucket list experiences (though if museums were on more bucket lists, I certainly wouldn’t complain). They’re about representation, interacting with objects, and looking carefully at the collections that make museums numinous, immersive, soulful places.
Museum selfies may also be an opportunity to invite audiences to engage in reflection about media, participation, and curatorial authority. Setting up contrasting spaces or experiences for visitors, such as a “Take Your Selfie Here!” sign or a “This gallery is a selfie-free zone,” could prompt visitors to think about “what they see and how it makes them feel” and why they might or might not take a picture of themselves in a museum. This approach acknowledges that we do live in the era of #MuseumSelfie while offering visitors a refuge from social media if they seek one and challenging them to think more deeply about how they’re interacting with both museum objects and digital technologies.
So mark your calendars for January 22, 2015, call in your public programs and education teams, and take a couple of selfies for good measure. Antlers have never presented such an opportunity for participation.
~ Emily Oswald is the Digital Archives Assistant for the Trustees of Reservations and a recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Public History Program. Send her your awesome museum selfies to [email protected]
A small gallery of additional museum selfies from Emily Oswald’s day at the natural history museum follows.