When I was a Graduate Intern at the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA Amber Wells was the resident ancient historian and Gallery Educator. I learned a lot from her about museum education. Amber now works at Art Muse Los Angeles, an organization that offers inspirational art tours of museums in LA, where she is the Social Media Manager.
Amber recently tweeted some comments about museum selfies which led me to ask her to share her thought provoking perspective on the selfies in museum spaces. Enjoy!
Not long after reading Mairin’s thoughtful, well-argued post on the value of museum selfies I came across this article in The Telegraph in which an arts council chairman suggests a (limited, one-hour a day) ban on museum selfies. The article struck home with me, not only because I had just read about the value the museum selfie medium has for museum audiences, but because of who was “suggesting” a ban on museum selfies. The idea was proposed by a member of what one might term the elite art culture–an arts council chairman (who bore the title “Sir” no less!).
Perhaps the very idea of this suggestion of a museum selfie ban bothers me so much because I see it as yet another manifestation of a dichotomy I have become all too familiar with over the past decade as I worked in various capacities within museums and art museum culture. On the one side stand the elite, with their desire to keep museums as they think they should be, and on the other stands the idea that museums are educational institutions that should serve the general public, provide every opportunity for the public to interact with and find meaning in art, and allow open access to art and information. I find that members of elite art museum culture often pay lip service to this last ideal, yet their actions frequently contradict such a goal. For instance, in the article I mentioned above, the arts council chairman says he is “On the whole…in favour of sharing it [the art] as widely as possible,” even while pushing the idea of banning museum selfies.
There are plenty of other art world elites who support the idea that museum selfies should not be encouraged. Earlier this year Rupert Christiansen wrote in favor of a ban, not just on selfies but on all photography in museums: “The one-click-and-move-on-to-the-next-icon attitude is not something any museum or gallery should actively foster or facilitate…The atmosphere which they should encourage is one in which we are made free and welcome to linger and meditate.”
We could just hashtag that article #getoffmylawn and dismiss the curmudgeonly kind of attitudes that prompt such proposals to ban museum selfies, but let’s not underestimate those who feel they have a genuine complaint against visitors taking selfies with art in museums. Those who object to it say visitors taking selfies with art negatively effects their museum experience. To some, it signifies irreverence toward the art, or an inability to interact with art except through the camera of a smart phone, or at best plain silliness in what they think should be a quiet, meditative, and dignified setting. (Side note: The idea of #statueselfies must really get on their nerves!)
Let’s acknowledge that these are valid complaints. There are people who feel other visitors taking selfies has a negative impact on their museum experience and the atmosphere of the galleries. But the larger question is this: Just because some visitors feel they have the authority to define the “right” way to view art and don’t like how I choose to respond or interact with art in a museum, does that give them the right to ban it? I am not overly fond of noisy school groups in museum galleries. Can we ban them? While we are at it, how about banning children in museums altogether? Believe it or not, it has been discussed. As one who has snapped the occasional museum selfie and a mother of two young museum lovers, I find both ideas patently ridiculous. However, we cannot dismiss the proponents of such ideas, because many of those in favor of them have the money, power, and influence within the art museum world to turn their “suggestions” into reality.
Now, before I really get carried away and launch into the chorus of Les Miserables’ “Do You Hear the People Sing,” let’s take a step back: All things considered, what is the harm in the idea of a limited, one hour a day ban on museum selfies? Leaving aside the farcical logistics such as the security guard who has to enforce the policy and explain to visitors that taking a selfie is banned at 2:58 p.m. but it is perfectly okay to take it at 3:01 p.m., this proposal speaks to more than just banning a particular type of photography in museum galleries. It is nothing less than an issue of artistic freedom and class being played out within the museum space. The idea that museum selfies should be banned is a case of the art world elite passing judgment on a behavior exhibited by museum visitors and deeming it something that does not have a place in museums–as if the museum environment and experience is solely theirs to construct, police, and sanitize as they want. As Mairin argued, “Selfies are a reflection of our culture. Museums are a place where we document our culture. Therefore selfies belong in museums. #boom #knowledge.”
Museum selfies are a legitimate way to interact with and respond to art. To ban museum selfies even in a limited way is a hypocritical gesture. The position of those in the art museum world who say they favor visitors freely experiencing and interacting with art in museums–but only in ways of which they approve–is counter to the very freedom and diversity of artistic expression museums are meant to value, preserve, and protect.
About the author: Amber is the Social Media Manager and a Lecturer of Ancient Mediterranean Art for Art Muse Los Angeles. She has worked at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Amber holds an M.A. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of California, Los Angeles. A lover of history, Amber has found museums to be dynamic, interactive places where she can share her passion for art and archaeology with others. Her Twitter handle is @amyerswells.