In case you missed it, January 21 was Museum Selfie Day, a selfie being a photo a person takes of him or her self. The development of the cell phone camera that can take photos both forward and backward has made taking one’s own photo very easy. Instagram and twitter have given the selfie an audience.
Quite a bit has been written about the practice of selfies in museums. As you probably would expect, writers are divided in their opinions on the practice.
Those who oppose the practice say that selfies are akin to notches on a gun. In a culture where many seem to think that if you don’t have a photograph of yourself doing something, then it really didn’t happen. Each selfie is a notch on the gun of life, proof that one has actually seen a landmark or a work of art. In addition, selfies are distracting to other museum-goers. It’s hard to seriously contemplate Rembrandt when people and their cellphones keep getting between you and the art.
But what really seems to bug some critics is that museums are supposed to be “serious” places of learning. The constant snapping of photos is replacing the proper examination of art.
On the other hand, supporters of museum selfies argue that the practice is a good way to get people to actively engage with art. Taking a good selfie requires that the photographer study the work of art carefully. And allowing selfies might encourage participation by reluctant museum visitors (teenagers) who might otherwise be focused on texting friends or playing the latest online game while the family tours the museum.
If my twitter feed is any indication, many museums have embraced the day. Institutions large and small tweeted their support of #MuseumSelfieDay. I’m sure that some of them have decided that “If you can’t beat them, then join them.” Camera phones are not going to go away and people are going to use them. More and more museums have taken down the no photos signs, partly because it’s just too difficult to police camera usage.
But other museums seem to be genuinely delighted that they have their own social media day. They have people on their staffs who see social media for what it is, a part of people’s lives that is here to stay. They already have accounts on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, and so are reaching a lot of people that way. Having an event like #MuseumSelfieDay allows a museum to use those accounts to encourage visitors to come in and participate.
This is only the second year of #MuseumSelfieDay, so I suppose it is a bit early to see if the promotion is having any effect on attendance on that day. But there seemed to be good participation, so if you are serious about your museum visits, I suggest you not plan one for selfie day next year.
In looking for a photo for this post I realized that while I don’t have a museum selfie of myself, I do have lots of photographs from museum visits. Ever since the camera became available to travelers, it has been used to document their journeys. In looking back at a lifetime of travel photos I find that the most interesting ones are the ones that contain images of my family and friends, and to be honest, me. And in collecting vintage photos, it is the people in each that makes it interesting.
Consider the photo of my husband that I used to illustrate. Would the photo of the sculpture be as meaningful to me if he were not sitting there? I doubt that without his presence that I’ve even remember where the photo was taken, but with him sitting there the events of an entire day come flooding back into conscious memory. We had spent the day in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and had finished up by spending the last hours of the afternoon touring the museum there. The bears provided a welcome resting spot and a good photo opportunity.
I really don’t see the selfie as a new phenomenon, but rather as a new version of an old one. While I don’t feel the need to photograph myself at every place I go, I can’t help but look at photos taken decades ago and get pleasure from seeing my face on the road, having fun.