When I read Philip Kennicott’s recent piece in The Washington Post, I immediately thought of Stephen E. Weil’s seminal museum article: ‘From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum.’ Here, Weil (1999) articulated the shifting focus of museums away from collections and towards public service.
Kennicott, in his article, ‘At museums, selfie sticks poke holes in the idea of anything goes,’ suggests that museums have become hyper-democratized and overly sensitive to social whim—that the museum selfie and selfie stick threaten to divert attention away from museum objects and towards the selfie-taker, making the museum all about the self. He laments the ‘self-destructive’ nature of the modern museum ideal, a space ‘seamlessly connected to the ordinary world,’ ‘transparent,’ and ‘easily penetrated’ by fashion and popular culture (Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post).
In response to Kennicott’s concerns, I want to question whether a focus on the self really negates the specialness of the museum. Perhaps it actually makes the museum more relevant, accessible, and inclusive, contributing to its extraordinary value.
While I admire Kennicott’s principled advocacy and appreciate his deep reverence for the inherent value and authentic power of museum collections, I feel compelled to defend the museum selfie and to advocate for the importance and relevance of the ‘individual’ in the interpretation of the museum. I hope to address, and maybe allay, some of Kennicott’s concerns about the museum selfie.
Kennicott worries that selfie taking is distracting to both the selfie taker and the other visitors. However, in my experience, a museum selfie requires a conscious committment to engage with the displays. It requires significant focus, and genuine interest.
A museum selfie by definition captures and celebrates some aspect of a collection, display, work, or architectural feature. It represents a sincere (and often painstaking) attempt to participate in the aesthetic of the museum.
Kennicott also contends that the selfie ‘extends the cult of celebrity into the museum’ (Philip Kennicott, The Washington Post). I wonder—by displaying something in a museum, haven’t we already given it celebrity status? Moreover, the ‘celebrity’ of museum objects is an inherent part of their power to amaze, inspire, and move their viewers.
I certainly agree with Kennicott’s assertion that photos of artworks can never rival the real thing. However, I don’t feel that these photographs do anything dishonest or harmful by existing. They don’t expect or aspire to convey the power or authenticity of the real item. They are merely a person’s attempt to relate, to connect to something beautiful and bigger. If anything, they contribute to (rather than detract from) the biography or career of an object or work.
Is image-making a substitute for genuine experience as Kennicott implies? Certainly it’s a substitute for other possible experiences (or rather a choice of one’s preferred experience at that given moment), but it’s also an inherently valid experience on its own—an active, creative, relational experience.
Kennicott acknowledges that outlawing photography is alienating for young visitors. I think he means teenagers here, yet I think this sense of alienation can apply to visitors of all ages. Recently, I visited Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude at Folger Shakespeare Library. Central to my experience of this exhibit was a pervasive impression of incredible beauty. I desperately wanted to take some photos, but I knew photography was not permitted and I respectfully complied despite my knowledge that it could bring me significantly closer to the objects.
‘Museum leaders are now hypersensitive to any accusation of resisting change or alienating visitors who want cultural institutions to keep pace with the evolution of technology and cultural habits,’ Kennicott argues.
I considered this assertion and recalled a recent New York Times article, ‘The Power of Starting With “Yes”’ written by Tony Schwartz and recently shared by Dana Mitroff Silvers. The article reminded me that saying ‘yes, and’ is an important way of listening and collaborating. Maybe we should listen to what the museum selfie trend is telling us and try to ‘build’ rather than detract.
Kennicott, are you sure everyone would be happier if all museums outlawed cellphones and cameras? How would we share and experience museums from afar or across vast distances through social media?
Museums will always be peacefully contemplative, intellectually rich, gloriously beautiful places of magic and awe. In fact, the museum has always been about its viewers. The proliferation of the museum selfie is just a modern manifestation of this. David Carr (2001) argued that museums are inherently open works until users complete them and author them; so the museum experience is unfinished and adrift without the ‘personal.’
Embracing the ‘personal’ in the museum experience is only possible with genuine attention, connection, and reverence for the museum. So making the museum about you is not missing the point; it’s more like writing your own ending to a compelling and intriguing story—taking something that is already rendered for you and making it as valuable as it can be.
Carr, D. (2001). A museum is an open work. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 7(2), 173-183. doi: 10.1080/13527250117281
Kennicott, P. (2015, April 29). ‘At museums, selfie sticks poke holes in the idea of anything goes.’ The Washington Post.
Weil, S. E. (1999). From being about something to being for somebody: The ongoing transformation of the American museum. Daedalus, 128(3), 229-258. Retrieved from www.jstor.org