Selfies popular in museums, but some see them as trouble

The popularity of people sharing selfie photos of themselves in front of famous pieces of art is booming. Many museums welcome the trend as a way to attract younger viewers, but some critics fear the habit is taking away from the visitors' focus on the art.

Twitter's Museum Week generates thousands of photos of people posing in front of famous art works

Debate over museum selfies

8 years ago
Duration 2:44
Some museums are encouraging visitors to take selfies, but others say it takes away from the experience of engaging with art

Visitors to the Royal Ontario Museum during the first Museum Week organized by Twitter are there not just to see, but to be seen – in the selfie photos they snap in front of their favourite pieces of art or archeological artifacts. 

Pop stars Beyoncé and Jay Z pose in front of the Mona Lisa in a selfie-style photo taken by an assistant at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The Greek and Roman busts seem particularly popular – unwitting props of the social media generation that seems to believe "if you didn't photograph and tweet it, it didn't happen." The staff at the ROM now not only condone, but encourage it.

"It's been huge for us," said Ryan Dodge, the ROM's social media co-ordinator, in an interview with CBC News, adding that the museum started permitting photography six years ago. 

Dodge and his colleagues personally take visitors to the best spots to snap photos of themselves.

"For us, it shows that you can have fun in the museum, that the museum is fun," he said.

The ROM is in good company as many other major arts institutions have accepted, even celebrated, the "selfie" as a way to maintain their relevance, especially with those elusive younger visitors.

Selfie sticks

What few museums share is the ROM's permissive attitude towards selfie sticks. The levers that allow your smartphone to take a better photo without awkwardly extending your arm are seen as a danger to artifacts, causing museums like The Smithsonian in Washington to ban them.

Some critics believe the real problem lies not with the selfie sticks, but with selfies themselves.

British arts blogger Michael Savage has been a vocal opponent of the selfie in museums.

"It distracts from an engagement with art," said Savage in an interview with CBC News in London. "Instead of being about works of art, the greatest achievements of human civilization, it becomes about the individual, it becomes about putting yourself into the picture."

Complaints from visitors

Savage's feelings are echoed by officials at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum, which reinstituted its ban on selfies and other photography a year ago.

Tourists use a selfie stick outside the Louvre. The device is popular among museumgoers, but many institutions have banned it, saying it could damage art works. (Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)
In an email to CBC News, museum press officer Maartje Kevenaar said it was out of respect for the wishes of visitors who wanted to view the art in peace.

"During research we did about visitors' feelings about taking pictures in the museum in 2013, we received a lot of complaints about taking pictures by visitors."

But even the Van Gogh Museum had to make a move to accommodate those who want to take selfies.

Its staff has put up enlarged replicas of the most popular paintings in a special room in the gallery where the selfie-takers can snap away to their heart's content.

That kind of compromise may well be the future for arts institutions torn between the desire to preserve the traditionally reverential attitude towards art while still offering younger visitors the engaging environment they want.


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