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.



Museum Website Fails

“Tell me what this website is about?” That’s what the Museums & the Web crit team asked members of the public about the museum websites they were critiquing. The answer? “Um a B&B maybe?” “A restaurant?”…. It took these users far too long to figure out what the websites were about.

By Flickr user Nima Badiey.

By Flickr user Nima Badiey.

Many museum websites fail this very basic test. We’ve overlooked the primary purpose of a website – to tell the world who you are. We know what we’re about and our dedicated members and volunteers do too which is probably why we forgot to make it clear on the first place people come to find out about us – our websites.

We need to show our visitors who we are as soon as they click onto our website. It’s likely they won’t just stumble upon it cold but if they do they should be able to tell what we are about. This is especially important for museums with names that don’t describe who we are.

We have beautiful websites with large high quality images dominating them. Absolutely gorgeous. But absolutely useless if online visitors can’t find the information that they are looking for. We don’t want to make our users feel dumb and frustrated because they can’t figure out what is happening at the museum today because it’s buried under “public programs” – a term that doesn’t mean anything to them.

Photo by Flickr user Sybren Stüvel.

Photo by Flickr user Sybren Stüvel.

We talk about being more user focused but this quick and dirty test of the usability of our sites tells us we aren’t applying it to our websites. What categories do our online visitors understand and look for? What terms do they use to describe permanent vs. temporary exhibitions? Where do they naturally expect to find information about our open hours?

This is all about the structure and not about the content. Normally I’m an advocate for content first but in this case the structure really does matter. Set up an easily navigable website with what basic information visitors need to find up front and then worry about giving them behind the scenes glimpses into the collection and innovative digital experiences. So what do we need the structure to do? Back in 2013 John Stack of the Tate wrote a great blog post where he asked a few people to weigh in on what a good museum website looks like. The quote from a web designer is exactly what I’m talking about:

I would expect an excellent museum website to pass certain tests:

1. Is there an immediately obvious route to finding the museum’s location, opening hours and admission times?

2. Can I access clear, comprehensive information about the exhibitions and events at the museum without getting tangled in navigational knots – and book online if I choose to?

3. Is the museum’s collection accessible and well presented online, with searching and browsing tools that are simple to use and good quality colour photography of individual objects?

4. Can I find my way around 1, 2 and 3 with only a sketchy knowledge of the website’s language?

Alex Pilcher, Web Designer

Want to see an example of a museum website that does this? Look no farther than the Rjiksmuseum. You have three choices when you arrive on the homepage: Plan your visit, Collection, and About the museum. Each category expands further to give information to the online visitor in a simple way. It was designed and launched by Fabrique back in 2012. Why haven’t more of us followed this example?

Photo by Flickr user Eric Parker.

Photo by Flickr user Eric Parker.

My website is guilty of all the transgressions I’ve been talking about. So you know what I’ll be doing? Grabbing my laptop and hitting a coffee shop. Join me to see if random members of the public know what your website is about and how to find information they are looking for.

Go ahead. I dare you.

MW 2015 Recap – Strategy

Intense, inspirational and exhausting – that is how I’ve been describing Museums and the Web 2015 in Chicago to my colleagues. So exhausting that it has taken me this long to finally write down some of the themes I picked up on from the workshops and sessions I attended! Plus there were a lot of themes – so many that I’ve broken them into three posts. This one is about strategy and the big picture.

Challenges of deploying beacons in museums

Drowning in M&Ms by Flickr User Vern Hart.

Measure Less, Question More

The last MW was all about the need to measure and we took it to heart. We’ve now learned that if you measure too much you will drown in data. So the process has been refined: first decide what question you want to ask, then how you will answer, and how that answer will impact your work – only measure things that you can take some sort of action on.

Seb Chan’s recipe: “I want to know [metric] so that I can [action] by doing [method]” You need actions tied to your measurements otherwise it’s a waste of time.

Take data with a grain of salt – understand its limitations.

Use benchmarks to understand what normal is. There are industry specific ones that can help you measure like with like – Google Analytics has a benchmark tool with a “Museums and Library” category.

You need at least 6 months of data to make any conclusions.

Quantity metrics on social are things like retweets, favourites, comments, shares, post clicks, and website visits referred by social. These quantity metrics are more meaningful than number of followers and number of likes because they tell you more about engagement with your content. Same goes for web metrics – visit frequency, recency, depth and new vs. returning user tells you more than visits, visitors and page-views.

Tell a story with the data when reporting and use multiple methods – ex quotes, word clouds, pretty graphs, etc.

Recommended measuring tools:

Challenges of deploying beacons in museums

Deploying digital throughout the museum

Mandy Kritzeck of the Corning Museum of Glass spoke about how she has trained people across departments on how to make their own updates in the backend of the website and upload their own content. Alyssa McLeod from the ROM explained how to incorporate digital in the very beginning of projects, rather than adding it in at the end as an afterthought. The trend seems to be museum digital departments unclenching our grasp around digital and sharing it. With training this becomes something many people are capable of contributing to and also is a central part of all museum work including project management.

Looking beyond the Museum Field

The Chicago Symphony presented on ways they encourage repeat visitors. Disney’s magic bracelet was brought up in the privacy session as an example of how people are willing to trade their privacy if they get a benefit from it. The video crit itself may not have looked externally but the conversation around it on twitter did talking about YouTube stars and the style of video that they create. More museums should look to successful channels outside the museum world and try to emulate what they do well.

What is the purpose of museums today?

When I heard this brilliance from Peter Samis I wanted to take it one step farther – that museums are not necessarily primarily a space for learning but a space for visitors to express their creativity and be inspired. This is probably a whole other post about the purpose of museums in today’s society. But it is something that I’ve been turning in the back of my mind and these comments helped me express where I see the future of museums.

What are museums for? It’s not to bore the socks off our patrons with bland facts that we want them to remember to feel like they learned and that we have accomplished something. It’s also not to condescendingly expect them to not need any information at all to make an interpretation of an object. It’s about inspiring creativity and allowing them to use our space and collection to express themselves. Do you agree? Or not?

Stay tuned for two more posts on the following topics from MW: museum website crit, what teachers want from museum websites, museum video crits, how museums are using instagram, audio guides, and BYOD.

Challenges of deploying beacons in museums

This post is written by Ravi Pratap who is the CTO of MobStac – a company that sells beacon enabled apps. As such there is an element of a sales pitch to this article; however, there is a lot of great information and advice about beacons which is why we have published it here on edgital. Enjoy! 

Challenges of deploying beacons in museums

iBeacon has been one of the most discussed and widely scrutinized technologies in recent times. With many industry verticals, from retail to events, hotels and malls to stadiums etc., having already made beacons an integral part of their customer engagement strategy, museums too are now beginning to adopt this new technology in significant ways. Some well-known museums already using beacons on their premises include Rubens Art Museum in Antwerp, Philips Museum in Eindhoven, and Groninger Museum in Groningen. As visitors are already accustomed to using interactive tools like audio headsets and brochures during their museum tours, beacons enable these tools to be replaced by their own smartphones, allowing for a much richer experience.

One of the most significant benefits of using beacons in a museum is to enhance interactivity. Beacons allow you to pinpoint a visitor’s proximity to the exhibit he/she is viewing and then send contextual information about that piece of art. Besides this, you can also increase interactivity by organizing games and scavenger hunts, or letting your visitors interact with museum experts/curators in real-time. The opportunities are endless.

That being said, getting beacons deployed in your museum comes with its own set of challenges. This is because iBeacon, like any other new technology has its own set of limitations and drawbacks and you will need to work your way around them (we’re conducting a webinar that takes a look at addressing them). Here are a few of the challenges you will run into as you start planning your strategy:

  • Installing beacons: For museums, maintaining a sense of aesthetic is of supreme importance, which will influence how you purchase and install beacons:
  • Beacon color and design: Ensure that the color and design of beacons go with the interiors, wall colors, and architecture of each section. It’s best to choose a beacon vendor who has a variety of color options, and a design that suits the aesthetics of your museum. Once purchased, you will need to install the beacons. This requires ‘identifying’ each beacon using their major number and minor number. The major number will tell you which section a particular beacon is in, and the minor number will tell you where it is in that particular section. While installing beacons, keep a map of every beacon installed, and its major/minor numbers so you can track these beacons later.
  • Beacon placement within the museum: Another important thing to consider is, where exactly do you place the beacons? Make sure that beacons are placed such that they are not distracting. Considering a museum can have a variety of wall surfaces, make sure the beacons you choose stick well to the walls. If you decide to use USB-enabled beacons you will never need to worry about replacing batteries from time to time.
Image Source: Brooklyn Museum.

Image Source: Brooklyn Museum.

2) Accurate Positioning of visitors: A common issue museums face while deploying beacons is that since beacons transmit radio signals in the commonly used 2.4GHz band, the signal strength received from a beacon varies widely because of interference. Beacon signals are actually radio waves, and can be absorbed by metals, walls, water etc. Place beacons such that the signals are not obstructed by a wall/metal surface.

In an ideal scenario, you would want your visitors to receive a specific notification based on their exact position inside the gallery, down to the exact exhibit they’re standing in front of. While running a pilot with a large museum in New York, we realized that getting this micro-level of accuracy was difficult and error-prone. Close proximity of the exhibits in a museum means that it may not be always possible to detect which exhibit a visitor is looking at. To address this dilemma, a visitor can be sent a list of all the “close by” exhibits. The visitor can then choose the exhibit they want more information on. This approximate positioning works really well and provides for a smooth user experience.

3) Monitoring and managing beacons: A common maintenance task required of beacons is figuring out when a beacon’s battery has stopped working and needs to be replaced.

Since most beacons have no network connection themselves, it’s not possible to monitor beacons through a centralized system. You can either keep track of beacon signals using a scanner to see when a beacon has disappeared, or physically investigate using an app that is meant to gather this kind of data.

However, with a large number of beacons spread across the museum, the task of beacon monitoring is best left to a beacon management platform. A well designed beacon management platform will continuously track data coming from multiple beacons in the field, provide monitoring features such as battery left, last ping time etc., and generate alerts to aid with beacon operations in the field. This saves you from the hassle of scanning for beacons to ensure that they are working as intended.

4) Securing your beacons: One of the misconceptions around beacons is that they can be easily ‘hacked’. You can keep your beacons secure by following a few simple tips:

  • Have a unique password for each beacon; don’t use the default password provided by the vendor
  • Change major/minor numbers frequently and encrypt them
  • Detect unauthorized authentication attempts
  • Set up a mechanism that sends timely firmware updates and security notifications


The best way to start with beacon deployment is to run a small pilot. Running a pilot project will help you understand the issues that come up during implementation of your beacon strategy.  A good practice is to start with a limited set of beacons and a few sections within the museum. Test how your app works and how it interacts with these beacons. Having a ‘closed’ and ‘limited’ project will help you manage it better. Also try varying the ‘messaging intervals’, test different kinds of rich media (audio/video) etc., to see what works best for you.

The most important aspect of running a pilot is to learn from real-world data and the feedback you get from your visitors. Following the steps listed in this post will help you create a successful beacon strategy for your museum. Have you already tried deploying beacons in your museum? Let me know in the comments below.


Author Bio:

Ravi Pratap is the CTO of MobStac and is responsible for all technology strategy, product innovation, and engineering execution. MobStac is a mobile platform company enabling location-aware apps for content and commerce. The Beaconstac suite from MobStac enables businesses to deliver superior customer experiences through the use of iBeacons for engagement, messaging, and analytics.

Look Back & Move Forward

At the end of one year looking ahead at a fresh new one I have found myself reflecting on the trends in the museum world from 2014 that will influence 2015. Here are a few. Feel free to add yours in the comments.


Less is more by Flickr user Floriana (http://tinyurl.com/lvsheov).

By Flickr user Floriana (http://tinyurl.com/lvsheov).

  1. Less is more

The Brooklyn Museum is probably the best known example of this. They strategically scaled back and refocused their social media efforts based on what was doing well and what wasn’t. Shelley Bernstein explains it well.


By Flickr user Hey Paul Studios (http://tinyurl.com/njjsx94).

By Flickr user Hey Paul Studios (http://tinyurl.com/njjsx94).

  1. Simpler is Better

The museum rockstar (as he was described to me by fellow museum professionals at my first Museums and the Web conference) Seb Chan hit the nail on the head with his most recent blog post about what he and Aaron Cope did right this past year at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Two things stood out to me – 1) take the smallest dumbest thing and work from there, don’t overdesign and 2) downgrade the website from Drupal to WordPress to make it more user friendly. The basic principle is KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid.


By Flickr user AshtonPal (http://tinyurl.com/pkcmjv5).

By Flickr user AshtonPal (http://tinyurl.com/pkcmjv5).

  1. Photography

There’s been a lot of talk of selfies and their place in museums. That is only part of the change – the bigger picture (pun intended) is that more photography is being allowed in museums. We’re giving up control and it’s a great thing. Ed Rodley has a great discussion of photography on his blog.


By Flickr user BKBROWN (http://tinyurl.com/new745h).

By Flickr user BKBROWN (http://tinyurl.com/new745h).

  1. Instagramming the museum

The Met worked with Instagram pro Dave Krugman (@dave.krugman)  who got a bunch of Instagram influencers together to photograph the museum after hours using #emptymet which has become a fantastic bit of PR and has grown the museum’s followers on this immensely popular social network. This has started a trend with more institutions joining or planning to join with their own version of the hashtag.


By Flickr User Howard Lake (http://tinyurl.com/njgdv3t).

By Flickr User Howard Lake (http://tinyurl.com/njgdv3t).

  1. Social Good

It may be naive of me to think this but it seems like there are big changes happening in society. In the USA it’s Ferguson, here in Canada it is #AmINext, other countries are going through similar things. What is the museum’s role in mediating these societal and cultural issues? Some museum bloggers got together to talk about this recently. Something for us all to explore further this year.


By Flickr user scott_hampson (http://tinyurl.com/ofbbeed).

By Flickr user scott_hampson (http://tinyurl.com/ofbbeed).

  1. Museums are cool

I know we all joke about hipsters (my favourite – why did the hipster burn his mouth on coffee? Because he drank it before it was cool) but I have to hope that this trend continues because it has made geek chic and museums are part of that. Hipsters love us and have made us relevant. And let’s be honest, a lot of us probably are inadvertent hipsters.So let’s play to this audience (and in my next trend you’ll see that we are starting).


By Flickr user Brittni Gee Photography (http://tinyurl.com/pq7qous).

By Flickr user Brittni Gee Photography (http://tinyurl.com/pq7qous).

  1. Taking ourselves less seriously

The Met’s response to Kim Kardashian’s “Break the Internet” is a perfect example. I love this! We’re moving away from dry stuffy journals to buzzfeed articles and taking part in popular culture.

Also the super awesome Museum Hack people have made museum tours where they aren’t afraid to be a bit scandalous and have fun in the museum. Check out Nina Simon’s interview with Museum Hack’s Dinosaur of Dinosaur Studies Dustin Growick. They have a newsletter for museum professionals which has some great resources like How to Get Easy Local Press for your Museum – scroll down their website and it will give you an option to sign up.


Happy New Year from me to you! All the best in 2015!

Happy New Year from me to you! All the best in 2015!

2015 is our year people. Let’s keep making museums more awesome.

Third Space – another empty buzzword?

I attended the British Columbia Museums Association (BCMA) Conference in Penticton a few weeks ago. The theme of the conference was “Third Space.” I have to admit that I got swept up in this buzzword and left the conference thinking a certain way. I have been turning this concept over in my mind since and found certain things weren’t quite sitting right. Let me explain…

Penticton, the location of the conference, has art and wine - a good combination.

Penticton, the location of the conference, has art and wine – a good combination.

First a definition

A quick and dirty definition of third space: a first space is home, second is work, and third is a community space.

The idea came from Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place in the early 90s, where he argues that a third space (aka third place) is an anchor of the community life that facilitates broader more creative interaction. Third spaces must be free or inexpensive, food & drink are ideal (though not necessary), accessible (i.e. easy to get to), involve regulars, be welcoming, and allow for old and new friends to be found and made.

Robert Putnam talks about the decline in these spaces in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.

According to the BCMA conference museums can provide these third spaces and fill this hole in our community thus making ourselves relevant.

Next a well presented example

How do we do this? By sharing authority. Jack Lohman, CEO of the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM), said it well “we need to stop doing things for people and start doing them with them.”

Totem pole in the RBCM. Photo by Flickr user Jerry Bowley. The RBCM has 14,000 objects in this collection.

Totem pole in the RBCM. Photo by Flickr user Jerry Bowley. The RBCM has 14,000 objects in this collection.

Jack used the example of the recently opened Our Living Languages: First Peoples’ Voices in BC exhibition at the RBCM. This exhibition was created with the First Peoples’ Cultural Council. The RBCM didn’t give the Council a room and say do what you want with it. They also didn’t ask for input from an advisory committee and then implement it themselves. Instead they worked hand in hand with the source communities throughout the entire process.

When I heard this example I thought yes! This is a third space! But the more I thought about it I realized that this is very resource heavy and it means focusing on one community, usually an ethnic or cultural group.

By trying to be inclusive we are being exclusive.

I also wondered how does this make the museum into a third space? Are the communities that helped create the exhibition spending time in it? Are they meeting with other people they may not be exposed to otherwise? Or is this collaboration over as soon as the exhibition opening party is done? I don’t know the answers.

I should be clear though that I still think this is an excellent example of working with source communities, it just might not be an example of a third space.

And now a different understanding

So if third space isn’t co-curation with communities then what is it? It’s a coffee shop, a hockey game, a maritime kitchen party (impromptu music jamming session). It is about inclusion, not exclusion; about shared interests and openness, individuality – not about one ethnicity. Third space, in its true sense, is about sharing authority, sharing our space but also being a gathering place for people with shared interests no matter what their background. It’s bringing people together who may not normally come together.

But how do we do it?

A selection of Beaty Biodiversity Museum instagram images.

A selection of Beaty Biodiversity Museum instagram images.

Digitally we do it already to a certain extent. I run the Beaty Biodiversity Museum’s instagram account and I have all sorts of people who follow me – from American entomological curators to Russian designers, to local Vancouver mommy bloggers. The one thing they have in common is that they have a love and/or interest in natural history. We’ve created an online community, a third space. Although to be a true third space I need to figure out a way to encourage my followers to interact with each other not just with me.

It’s about more than two way communication. We need all-ways communication. We used to broadcast information one way – from the museum to the public. Then with Museum 2.0 thanks to technology the public can respond to the information we send out allowing for conversations to occur. The next step is Museum 3.0, where the public can talk to us and to each other. We need to facilitate conversations between our community members. That is third space.

We also do it onsite in the museum with informal programs. These programs use interests that unite people from different walks of life. A good example is the Prince George TwoRivers Gallery makerlab where people interested in experimenting with technology can come. You don’t need to be an expert – it is open to everyone and it is informal. The community teaches each other and works together. The museum provides the space for this to happen.

Do you know a museum that you would consider a third space? Or if not an entire museum, a particular program/activity/online space that accomplishes this?

The danger of mission drift

At the conference I heard some questions about mission drift. If museums are focusing on accommodating the public are we losing sight of our mission? I wanted to say “uh please this old question again?” Why does it have to be either we are visitor centered or we accomplish our mission? We can do both. I have proof.

The V&A Museum does a Games Jam where they invite game designers (experts and novices) to come into the museum for two intense days to develop a game prototype. Participants are sent a package of object images and information before the jam and must incorporate some of these objects into their game world. So the game designers learn about and are inspired by the art and their games teach others about it.

In conclusion

So yes, I’ll be looking into implementing and enhancing some ideas of third space into the museum I work at. Will you?


Ban Museum Selfies?

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.


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.

Women and Digital Storytelling

About a week ago I went on my friend Alissa McArthur’s radio program The Storytelling Show on Co-op Radio 100.5FM based out of East Vancouver. Alissa’s show is about women and storytelling in its many different forms. The episode focused on museums and galleries. Alissa spoke to Zoya Mirzaghitova Gallery and Program Assistant at Satellite Gallery about storytelling in galleries and myself about digital storytelling in museums (starting at 12:30min mark).



Download audio file

Has Social Media Killed the Newsletter?

Bear with me as I travel back to 2008/9 and debate Newsletters vs. Social Media. I’m in a new role where I am in charge of both of these offerings and, like many of you, have limited time and resources so it’s been on my mind.

Successful newsletters provide something of value. For museums that is things like a behind the scenes look at the work going on in the museum, heads up about upcoming news and events, and information about the collection direct from experts. But this is no longer exclusive to the newsletter. All of this content also gets shared on social media platforms. Perhaps with a different tone or emphasis but still the same content. Plus social media allows more opportunities for learning and engagement because you can actually interact with your audience. So what’s the point of having a newsletter?

Image by Flickr user Christopher Penn.

Image by Flickr user Christopher Penn.

With a lot of museums these days moving towards doing less better (for example the Brooklyn Museum cutting back on social media), I got to thinking – why have both social media and a newsletter? Why expend resources on something that does the same thing, and you could argue, does it worse. But does it?


Social Media Newsletter
Opt in Opt in
Two-way communication One-way communication

  • Behind the scenes
  • News & Events
  • Collection highlights  

  • Behind the scenes
  • News & Events
  • Collection highlights
Function is to connect with the visitor Function is to connect with the visitor
Tone is personal and conversational Tone is personal and conversational
Meant for anyone, including those who have visited the museum, will visit or will only ever visit online

  • Most are peripherally interested
  • Some “super fans” who regularly interact and advocate for the museum
  • Has the potential to reach out and get new people interested in the museum
Meant for members, as a membership perk, exclusive

  • These are people who are interested and invested in the museum
  • Always to the same already converted group, expansion based on membership levels and subscribers
Huge reach Smaller reach
Used to build brand Used to keep loyal customers happy
Frequency is daily Frequency is monthly or quarterly


Use newsletters for selling and social media for learning

While reviewing articles claiming social media had not in fact killed the newsletter I discovered the difference between the two. Email communications, such as newsletters,  are still more effective at attracting customers to your website and are better at conversion – getting people to spend money. So we might not want to scrap newsletters altogether.

Social media, as I mentioned above, is stronger at developing engagement and learning.

Solution = Repurposing Content?

Save time and energy by repurposing content. I’ve seen some newsletters that are simply images with a couple sentences that link back to content on blogs or other areas of an organization’s website. This could increase traffic to your website and decrease time needed to write a newsletter. On the other hand some followers might wonder why you are sending them a newsletter at all if it doesn’t have orginal content. But it could be seen as curated content from your website and blog – just the most popular and relevant. As you can see I’m undecided on this one.

What do you think? What have your experiences been either writing newsletters or receiving them?