Art selfie

We’ve got 99 problems but the museum selfie ain’t one

In 2015 the museum selfie was taken hostage and used as a cultural lightning rod. What is proper museum behaviour? The discussion is almost comically separated from reality but its very intensity makes one thing clear: Something fundamental is at stake.

Follow Danish public debate on museums? One permanent fixture of the past year was the museum selfie controversy. Mirroring an international debate, Danish news media displayed quite a bit of concern over the behaviour of museum guests and the priorities of museums as regards “user involvement”. A few examples:

Later followed by:

Having museum practice debated in national media is a fine thing indeed. But there’s something strange here as well. Excepting the personally normative criticisms of current practice in Kristeligt Dagblad (which are fully legitimate even if I heartedly disagree) the selfie “problem” is a victimless one.

None of these articles point to concrete problems nor showcase one single guest (apart from art critics) interested in voicing their discomfort.

This rhymes well with the volume of complaints that we have received at the SMK. Now, there may be letters I haven’t seen and comments at the ticket counter that I haven’t heard (and I’m not saying the sentiment cannot possibly exist), but I have a pretty decent idea of all feedback from digital channels and adding everything together across all these platforms gives a huge big… zero. Also known as “nothing”.

The SMK has received some media flak for our “selfie room” constructed as part of our Eckersberg exhibition. The room in question is a small one in which the guest may climb a small staircase to make the perspective fall into place and thus place herself “inside an Eckersberg painting”. Opposite the staircase is a mirror to observe the effect. Number of hashtags, camera pictograms and use of the words “selfie”, “photo”, and “Instagram” on the walls in total: None.

Equally interesting is the number of guests who actually do post selfies from this room. Doing my best to monitor social traffic related to the museum I have probably seen around 10 selfies from this room and certainly no more than 15 (my guess would be that the actual total posted online is far below 100). If nothing describes the room as a selfie room and almost no guests use it as a selfie room, is there then actually a selfie room? It’s not that we’re super holy and cannot see why the thing has selfie connotations, but the answer to this philosophical conundrum is surely not a given.

The perspective room
Yours truly taking a picture into a mirror. Okay, okay, it’s a selfie.

And yes, you’re right. The whole thing is a smoke-screen. Journalists (apart from, I suspect, sometimes simply finding the combination of lofty “museum” and profane “selfie stick” fascinating) are picking up on the larger debate. Or, in the case of newspaper art critics, they are simply addressing larger issues through the selfie example.

We are talking here about The Proper Way to Enjoy Art. No, that’s not actually precise. We are talking about the proper way for others to enjoy art. With the possible exception of Louisiana’s wildly successful (and visually stunning) Kusama exhibition no-one visiting SMK, the National Museum or indeed any other Danish museum can possibly have their museum experience negatively affected by other people’s mobile phones.

You may wish that these other people would approach the art without further mediation but as I often tell my daughter when she makes unreasonable demands: “Yes, and I would like a sports car delivered to my door”. Now, I’m sure that is a very annoying comment but there are many things we cannot – and have no business trying to – control.

So, let’s by all means keep the discussions going, but here’s to worrying mainly about, oh you know, real things in 2016.

See also:

One thought on “We’ve got 99 problems but the museum selfie ain’t one”

  1. Love your cartoon here.
    Control…museums want it and yes even visitors want to control each other’s behavior. Having done visitor research for over 30 years this is one aspect that continues to bubble up. Come to think of it, this would be a cool exhibit theme for a museum to explore with visitors. Do you know of any museum that has done that?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *