Three Reflections on #museumselfie Day

What is your "self's" relationship with the art museum? I've really given this a lot of thought as we celebrate #museumselfie day. But I need to lay out three things that have stopped me in my tracks and made me rethink how people experience their "selves" within a museum. Chiefly, I'm concerned that many people leave feeling "museumed" but they don't usually leave feeling engaged. Taking a selfie can somehow change the experience into a two way engagement by making memories to anchor the experience. Of course, peppered into the post will be a recent #selfie or two!

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Olafur Eliason purposefully puts selfie moments into his works.
Hall Art Foundation, Reading VT


1) I WANT TO REMEMBER MYSELF AT A MUSEUM, NOT JUST THE ART

A lot of art museums don't let you photograph yourself within their walls, hoping that you have a good enough memory of being there, yet no document of your presence except the ticket stub and something from the gift shop. How then to make that memory last? How then to share the experience with others, to describe it? The irony here is that art museums mostly appeal to visual people but then deny them the visual method of capturing their memories. The #museumselfie is a great way to allow the experience of being in a museum to become a lasting, referenced memory of being there in that moment. And also a way to share your experience / memory with others (hint: get them to buy a ticket).

You're probably saying, "But Lucas, you can't photograph everything at a museum", and I understand that there are concerns about intellectual property, the financial consequences of sharing visuals that are supposed to be ticketed only experiences, "please buy the catalog", etc. Okay, okay, there's a rationale to "no photos" at certain ticketed experiences, but I think many museums are shooting themselves in the foot when they ban this crucial memory retaining activity. Let me be absolutely crystal clear that countless times as a gallery owner and museum consultant I've had to imagine many circumstances where photography would be an issue; but to this day, I've still never encountered a single exhibit that shouldn't have been photographed by the public. Museums are visual places that pride themselves on sharing their collections and we live in a hyper visual age of camera phones and sharing apps. A museum's relevance depends on visitors developing and sharing their memories. Hence the #museumselfie is successful.

Liz and I spent our time encouraging photos at 17 Cox... and in return our exhibits are remembered!

 Work by Floor van de Velde (left) and Amy Archambault (right)


2) I WANT TO TALK ABOUT WHAT I'M SEEING, OUT LOUD AND RIGHT NOW

The #museumselfie is a visual thing, but your "self" within a museum is also about what your thoughts are at that moment, how you record them and how you can share them. You need to record your feelings and bounce your thoughts in order to form a memory, and pictures aren't always enough.

Imagine if you could yell out down across the museum foyer, "Hey Jessica you gotta see this! Come up to the 5th floor! The harmony, the lighting, the wall text, it's amazing!" #saidnooneever #rightbeforetheykickedmeout #museumyelling

The "no photo" rule is usually coupled with an implicit "don't talk too loud" rule. I know, I know, it would be awful if people were yakking on their phone or yelling at each other from across the museum right? Or would it? Would it really be worse than that deathly silence that we experience at most museums? How can I engage if I can't speak in my normal volume? My ordinary excitement is instantly flattened by these extraordinary rules. Let me paraphrase a quote from Jerry Beck, the founder of the Revolving Museum.

"I never saw anyone laugh or cry while I was a guard at the (Boston) MFA. And that, to me, means we're missing something." Read more here.

What Jerry means (and I've talked with him about this) is that this lack of emotional engagement at museums is profoundly ironic - profoundly counterproductive - because most museums' missions are to engage the public and build their relationship to the art. The reality is that a very limited amount of people can connect and engage without talking out loud, without debating furiously, without laughing out loud or even weeping out loud. Show me an exhibit where people feel free to weep and laugh out loud and I'll show you an exhibit that will be remembered, an exhibit where I can remember my "self" and other's "selves" being there.

 
 

When I see this picture, I remember who I was with, 
what we talked about, why this artifact matters.
Aztec Calendar Stone, National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City


3) I MIGHT NEED TO TOUCH THINGS TO UNDERSTAND THEM

Walking around an art museum I feel a skeptical eye on me at all times. Of course the guards are enforcing the "no touching rule" for almost everything in a museum. Heaven forbid that my "self" comes in contact with what I'm trying to understand. Some of us are visual learners, some of us are verbal learners and some of us need to lay our hands upon the damn thing to understand it. That physical touch is a physiological equivalent of having a picture of ourselves with the visible art. Many art museums are now having a "process" gallery to show how things are made, or even better a workshop to let visitors try to make something for themselves. The hands on experience is an important form of the #museumselfie - it's another form of capturing a moment within the "self". Just like a photo, I can take the experience home, revisit it again, share it with others and convince them to go the museum as well.
 

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The sheer sizes at MassMoCA's are ideal for photos

Marko Remec and Sol Lewitt, MassMoCA

No selfies from DIA Beacon where photos are not allowed... boo


Post Script:

From my time as an art history minor, I had to do research at the museum. Usually (but not always) you're allowed to take notes at the museum on pencil and paper but taking notes on your phone is frowned upon or banned. For me snapping a pic of the wall text was really helpful but usually not allowed. If the museum isn't going to have copies of the wall text like tear off coupons at a supermarket, then just let me take a picture and bring it home with me!