Why are Museums Freaking Out about Selfie Sticks?

I’ve watched as museum after museum has banned selfie sticks in growing confusion. I just don’t understand what we’re all worried about. I’m taking the opposite stance at my museum and am providing selfie sticks to visitors while encouraging them to use these tools in our exhibitions. My colleague Michelle Taylor is doing something similar at her museum – providing facilitated use of selfie sticks at their events. She and I recently got together to try to figure out why other museums are so afraid of these devices. This is what we came up with.

First of all what are selfie sticks?

If you are unfamiliar with selfie sticks they are known as wands of narcissus – they let you extend your phone and take a selfie from further away to include more people or things without having to ask someone else to take the photo. Nobody is happier about this than T-rex. 

“An accident waiting to happen”

Many museums have banned selfie sticks as a preemptive measure to protect their collections and visitors from distracted people wielding these long metal rods. Some sports arenas and amusement parks have banned the sticks for the same reason but there have been no recorded incidents. We really should be banning people from museums to protect our objects because unlike selfie sticks there have actually been recorded incidents where people have put objects in jeopardy – the most recent one was a couple weeks ago:

If you haven’t seen When you work at a museum’s 18 thoughts I had while watching that poor kid in Taiwan trip & fall into a painting then do yourself a favour and check it out.

Same as Tripods?

Selfie sticks have been categorized as monopods and lumped in with tripods which are already banned at many museums. We ban tripods because we don’t want visitors to take commercial photographs due to issues of intellectual property. A photograph for personal purposes is fine but not to sell. They are also banned because they take up space potentially clogging the flow of visitors walking around the exhibitions.

No tripods by Flickr user Toby Oxborrow.

Selfie sticks do not take commercial grade photographs. They also do not take up space for a prolonged period of time – you take it out for a photo op then they fit nicely back into your bag.

Banned Selfie Sticks but Not Selfies

Selfies are not being banned at the same museums that are banning the sticks. More and more we are, smartly, taking advantage of selfie ops knowing that this is what many visitors are looking for. Ultimately we want to get bodies in front of our objects and museum selfies do just that. Selfies drive younger visitors to come to museums and even if museums don’t allow selfies in front of their actual art they are still coming up with ways to facilitate selfies because they are in demand. Plus as the Van Gogh Museum points out, lots of the things we hang on our walls and exhibit as art are actually selfies (can I just say I LOVE this tweet!).

How are they useful?

As I said at the beginning of this post we decided at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum to offer selfie sticks to visitors to borrow. We just put a “selfie spot” into the museum and are asking our visitors to take #whalfies (selfie + our blue whale = whalfie) with the aid of a selfie stick if they want. I’ll be doing some research on who is using the selfie stick, who isn’t, and how it does or does not change their museum experience. Stay tuned!

We also have a selfie stick down in our feature exhibition space. The museum has an area where visitors can dress up in the theme of the feature exhibition. This past exhibition was about insect photography and visitors could dress up as ladybirds, dragonflies, and moths. Here are a few of the fantastic #beatybug photos on instagram.


Selfie sticks can also be used at events like the New Westminster Museum and Archives does. They have volunteers facilitating selfie stick usage at a photo op location in the museum during public programs. Michelle and I will also be evaluating this to see if it has a positive impact on visitors experience at museum events and if it changes how they see the museum for better or worse.

The benefit of selfies is also the word of mouth advertising that they result in. Friends with #FOMO or fear of missing out, will want to come to the museum to experience similar things to brag about to their networks.

Selfies and selfie sticks help to democratize the museum. Banning them tells visitors that we know better than them about how they should use the museum space rather than giving them the opportunity to experience the museum as they wish. Encouraging them does the opposite – it breaks down the intimidating factor of museums and makes them welcoming spaces.

Australian Art Gallery Bans Selfie Sticks| This drawing is from Stick News on The Daily English Show. Show 1402 www.thedailyenglishshow.com/show/1402-how-to-reply-to-tha...

Australian Art Gallery Bans Selfie Sticks | From Stick News on The Daily English Show. Show 1402 

Pressured by Press & Other Museums

So why are museums freaking out about selfie sticks? They aren’t. I asked a group of social media managers from around the world why their museum has or hasn’t banned selfies sticks. Some said that their museums kept being asked by media outlets what their stance on selfie sticks were so they finally forced to create a policy on them when they probably didn’t need to.

Another reason is a few big museums banned them with a domino effect resulting. The Smithsonian was one of them. It seems many museums banned the sticks first and will ask questions later.

So lets ask those questions and revise our policies.


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