The Value of Museum Selfies

I thought the culture wars were over. Didn’t you? A relic of the past when we believed that Art belonged in a temple where the elite could have “transformative” moments while quietly and waspishly contemplating great works by European Master Painters. Did we not fight to convert museums to being a place for the public that pays for them? To be a reflection of the society that they exist in? It seems that the war has not yet been won and a few more battles must be fought.

A review of the Portland Art Museum’s (PAM) #CaptureParklandia campaign is the reason I’m talking about culture wars and elitism. To be fair as Mike Murawski (Director of Education & Public Programs) responded to the review, it is helpful to have open dialogue. Mike was very right – this debate has caused me to ask myself a lot of questions that are really helpful to think about.


Ok so first some background. The Portland Art Museum’s digital campaign for their temporary exhibition Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden asks visitors to take pictures of their local parks and tag them with #CaptureParklandia. The goal is to get participants to link the Tuileries Garden to their own local parks. To take the Museum outside its own walls and into the community. To encourage the art making activity known as photography.

The review

Parklandia: Stretching, Striving To What End? By Judith Dobrynzki on her blog Real Clear Arts (in Arts Journal). Judith argues that in trying to be ‘relevant’ PAM has lost its focus on art and encouraged an activity that has nothing to do with appreciating the beautiful works of art on display in the exhibition. She argues that the participants are merely taking selfies and that it has nothing to do with art or the Museum.

She asks “why are museums doing things like this, and why do they think they would get people interested in art?”

A great question.

Battles Won

To me it feels like what we are actually talking about is a shift in museums since the 1980s,

“…a reorientation of the museum’s mission from objects to audiences.” (Willumson, From Periphery to Center, The Emerging Role of the Educator in the Art Museum 2007).

And what #CapturePortlandia is about is that audience – the community the museum is situated in:

“Museums deserve the support of the community when they truly serve the community. It is not enough to say that they serve art; it is not enough to say that they collect and preserve objects…They matter if they consult not only the museums but the masses; if they see themselves as democratic institutions; if they stress not their authority but their social value.” (Marc Pachter, Foreward to Stephen E. Weil’s Making Museums Matter, xii).

The real argument seems to be about the mission of a museum. Is the purpose of the Museum to:

1)      Be all about the object – measuring success based on how well visitors appreciate the object.


2)      Be all about the audience – measuring success based on how well the museum serves the public.

Are Selfies Engagement? 

Another issue that seems to be coming up and fueling what I consider yet another outbreak of Culture Wars (conservative vs. liberal values) is photography and selfies specifically.

Here are a few amusing and interesting articles about selfies in museums: Museum Selfies Tumblr, The 19 Types of Selfies at MuseumsStop Taking Selfies in front of works of art and Selfie Scaremongering.

I actually think selfies are pretty awesome and am a big fan of #museumselfies. Selfies are a reflection of our culture. Museums are a place where we document our culture. Therefore selfies belong in museums. #boom #knowledge.

But seriously, museums need to use many different tools to make our objects/stories interesting, engaging and easily understood by our audiences. Many different tools. Can I say that enough? Social media and photography is just one layer of engagement and it doesn’t mean that others aren’t being utilized. This is not an all or nothing game.

Nina Simon, of Museum 2.0, as usual has written a thoughtful piece on cameras and museums inspired by the recent opening up of the National Gallery in London to photography. Nina talks about how it is not the act of taking pictures in the gallery that is an issue but the sheer number of people doing it and if we could manage the crowds around our most popular pieces better it wouldn’t be an issue.

But I digress.

No really, what do selfies have to do with the museum?

In the case of #CaptureParklandia participants have been taking pictures of themselves out in parks which, Judy argues, has nothing to do with the art on display in PAM. Does this mean it is an unsuccessful campaign? No. Here’s why:

1) people visited the exhibition (physically or virtually) and

2) paid attention to what was there (to know about the campaign) and

3) took the time to participate in a way that was meaningful to them.

So maybe the selfie in a park itself is not a deep interaction with the art but it is a deep interaction with the Museum. And perhaps these selfies give participants a personal experience that will help facilitate a connection with, and understanding of the art they see in the exhibition.

And what if they never take the time to actually have a deeper interaction with the art? That’s ok. We are here for them to use us as they please. We do not exist to make sure everyone has a transformative moment with art, spends hours admiring brush strokes, composition and light. We are here for our public to facilitate a meaningful interaction with art/history/science for themselves. Not what we deem meaningful.


I’ll end this post with a quote to reflect on

Martha Woodmansee in 1993 when “works of art were…valued not for what they looked like but for the things that they were able to do – inspire, instruct, incite, inform, and more”

Our objects inspire selfies. We have succeeded in being relevant which yes is important. We serve the public and the public likes to take selfies. I still don’t see what’s so wrong with that.


Me taking a museum selfie at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum with the Blue Whale skeleton wearing the "I Tweet Museums" pin.

Me taking a museum selfie at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum (where I work) with the iconic blue whale skeleton wearing the “I Tweet Museums” pin.


6 thoughts on “The Value of Museum Selfies

  1. Stephanie Cain says:

    I love this article! I recently started asking our visitors to take selfies here. So far I’ve just got a couple of posters up and put something in our newsletter, but I always mention it to our visitors. I went back and forth on whether to use the #museumselfies hashtag and ended up using #WallaceStudySelfie so it’s specifically pictures of our museum that show up on our Tagboard. We’re a small museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of Civil War General Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur, and I didn’t want our visitors to get lost in a crowd. 🙂


  2. Beth says:

    “We are here for our public to facilitate a meaningful interaction with art/history/science for themselves. Not what we deem meaningful.”

    A very important – but difficult – point to remember! Thanks for a clear and well-reasoned post.


  3. Pingback: Misc. | Musings

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