Selfie Culture in Museums

Selfie-Obsessed: Rise of the Instagram Museum For years, museums have had a spotlight on the visitor. Cafes and shops can now be found scattered throughout institutions large and small, most often conveniently located directly outside of an exhibition with appropriately themed items. The shift in focus from the collections to the visitor has resulted in a more participatory museum culture. Visitors are now documenting their museum experiences and sharing them within their social media networks. Many museums have been recognizing this new behaviour and tailoring their facilities and exhibitions to bring in audiences that desire to engage with the collections via social media. Nearly every current museum exhibition now has an associated hashtag and eagerly encourages online commenting and discussion. Some American museums like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have gone so far as to change the design and architecture of their buildings to better fit the needs of millennial visitors by changing the placement of mirrors and adding special selfie-taking balconies.

It is clear that the museum visit has evolved to be a social experience for many. Sharing experiences now extends beyond the physical to the social. Social media has pervaded museum culture and has served to influence the creation of the ‘alternative museum’. This term has been adopted to describe the rise of new immersive experience-based spaces that have been said to fall under the ‘museum umbrella’ but without educational content don’t seem to quite fit the term. Institutions like Instagram’s darling, Museum of Ice Cream has locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. MOIC focuses on providing a fun and diverting atmosphere for visitors, rather than to offer a more concrete educational objective. Many are skeptical of this selfie mecca, questioning whether or not it should be classified as a museum. Clarification on their museum status is one of the top queries that they receive with an entire section of their FAQ page dedicated to answering that very question.

Having opened in August of 2017, Color Factory in San Francisco is another alternative museum that promotes fun and a dynamic social experience. Like the Museum of Ice Cream, this site draws in avid social media users who welcome the opportunity to generate content for their accounts in a fun and colorful setting. Describing itself as a ‘Pop-Up Experience’, This two-story interactive exhibition celebrates color and material, featuring work by some of our favorite artists and collaborators...’ Other alternative museums of note include: The Museum of Pizza (New York), Museum of Candy (New York), The Cado (San Diego), The Egg House (New York), The Pizza Experience (Chicago & Los Angeles) and Sweet Tooth Hotel (Dallas).

All of these alternative museums welcome and encourage photography. Their contents are billed as an immersive experience and their marketing promises an imagination fueled visit. Because photography is an essential aspect of the visit, these museums have also garnered a lot of attention on social media translating to internet and media popularity. With #museumselfie generating approximately 45,676 posts on Instagram and an entire @MuseumSelfieDay account on both Twitter and Instagram, the act of taking selfies in museums appears to be a behaviour that is here to stay.

While I acknowledge all of the reasons for the rise of the alternative museum, I don’t believe that it’s a trend that will ultimately benefit the museum field. As an avid social media user as well as museum visitor, I do find myself documenting my trips to museums and galleries through social media. However, I don’t solely visit exhibitions for the purpose of getting the perfect ‘grammable’ shot. There are many that believe that getting people into the museum for ANY reason is a success, but I firmly believe that an educational underpinning is required for an organisation or immersive experience to be dubbed a museum. The rise of these immersive experiences that have no educational component will cause the term ‘museum’ to become muddied. I fear that if this trend continues, visitors will become more and more content with being entertained rather than educated.

Devon Turner