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Kate Durbin, Hello Selfie (performance), 2015
From Kate Durbin’s “Hello Selfie (performance)”, 2015Photography Rollin Leonard

Should we ban taking photos and selfies in museums and galleries?

As the debate reignites, one writer asks: are we performing the experience of enjoying art or do we actually enjoy art?

Seeing art splashed across our social media feeds is part of most of our everyday experiences. Whether that’s someone taking a selfie with a Picasso, zooming in on Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” for an Instagram story, or photographing their reflection in a Yayoi Kusama “Infinity Room”, our personal experiences of visiting exhibitions and enjoying art extend far outside of the gallery walls. Yet some critics have questioned if seeing a painting through the phone screen has made us indifferent to the works themselves. Are we celebrating and enjoying art, or are we performing the experience of enjoying art, displaying our social and cultural prestige in the pursuit of digital validation? Although the debate around cameras in museums has existed for as long as we’ve been able to take pictures on our phones, the divisiveness of the issue was indicated this week after Guardian writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett tweeted (but has since deleted it) about a mass of cameras at the Van Gogh and Britain exhibition at Tate Britain, asking her followers whether they thought photography in gallery spaces should be banned for good.

In 2016, the Museum of Amsterdam announced it would ban photography, reasoning in a statement that “in today’s world of mobile phones and media, a visit to a museum is often a passive and superficial experience”. The decision was a departure from that of many major museums and galleries, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in London, who both lifted camera bans in 2014. The Museum of Amsterdam’s decision reflects a wider concern that art and exhibitions have become commodified, privileged for their cultural capital rather than the historic and social significance of the works themselves. A study published in the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts in 2017 found that museum visitors look at works of art for an average of just over 27 seconds, despite one art fan suggesting at least 20 minutes with one work to really see it. With our ability to produce immediate copies of what we see on our phones, it could be argued that museums and galleries have fallen victim to the smartphone’s contribution to a societal inability to focus and a tendency to become easily distracted.

“Are we celebrating and enjoying art, or are we performing the experience of enjoying art, displaying our social and cultural prestige in the pursuit of digital validation?”

That said, many museums and galleries are adapting to, and even capitalising on, the experience of the exhibition through our phones. More so we are seeing installation-based exhibitions open at major galleries. Take “20:50” (1987) by Richard Wilson, which was displayed at the Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters exhibition last year, where visitors could take photos in a gallery filled with engine oil, creating a mirrored illusion of an infinite environment. In 2017, yellow pumpkin selfies flooded social media as Yayoi Kusama’s mirror room “All The Eternal Love I Have for Pumpkins” (2016) went on display at the Victoria Miro Gallery (following on from the exhibitions’ success, her most recent exhibition at the gallery last year quickly sold out). That same year, The Broad in Los Angeles announced a 30-second ‘selfie rule’ in an attempt to curb waiting times. London’s must-see blockbuster exhibition of 2019 is undoubtedly Olafur Eliasson’s In Real Life at Tate Modern, offering visitors the chance to engage with altered perceptions of reality through installations incorporating reflective surfaces, fog, and multicoloured lights. A glance at the artist’s hashtag on Instagram brings up an array of art-goers engaging with the works, capturing their shadows and selves in the mirrors. 

The popularity of exhibitions such as these for their upgraded selfie potential has even inspired copycat versions, such as a tourist attraction in Indonesia that was accused of ripping off Kusama’s work to create photo opportunities for visitors. The rise of ‘selfie tourism’ reached its peak last year when the Museum of Selfies opened in Hollywood, offering immersive installations purely designed to be photographed. In the same way that a house of mirrors functions in an amusement park, photo-opportunity exhibitions offer us immediate thrills – but is there much more to it?

With the discourse around the appropriateness of pulling out a camera in an exhibition comes a sense of faux intellectual concern and allegations of elitist gatekeeping. Could the debate be perceived as merely an extension of the conversation around the shallowness of selfie millennial culture, and the need for validation, when we are constantly glued to our phones? As we increasingly become more comfortable with sharing our lives online and curating our own experiences, we should perhaps accept that the ways in which we experience culture will inevitably change with the times. With the ease that smartphones afford us, we are able to document almost every moment, creating and storing our memories. Photographing a work of art we feel particularly drawn to becomes part of the experience, a way in which to store cultural memory, to share amongst friends or simply to revisit it later and not always just for the sake of it.

“With the discourse around the appropriateness of pulling out a camera in an exhibition comes a sense of faux intellectual concern and allegations of elitist gatekeeping”

It’s also important to remember that although museums and galleries are public institutions, they are not necessarily always accessible to all. Rising ticket prices for blockbuster exhibitions, distance from the world’s major cities, as well as other barriers such as disabilities or time constraints all contribute to disillusion and disconnection with the arts. Through sharing images and experiences online, we might see users as engaging in a wider conversation and helping to change museums and galleries’ long-held reputation of being stuffy and the preserve of highbrow culture. To say to museum-goers that by engaging their phones in their experience they are not viewing the works properly risks alienating and patronising these audiences – as well as those they are sharing their images with. At a time when our institutions face critical underfunding, it has never been more important to introduce new audiences to the benefits of visiting museums, so embracing this new way of seeing and engaging, as well as the benefits of sharing online, is crucial.

The debate continues – as it might always – as to whether photography should be allowed in museums and galleries, but perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. With the existence of smartphones and the ability to photograph our surroundings immediately, the way we consume, receive, and share culture has changed irreversibly. As the authors of the research paper Museum Selfies as Identity Work point out, “museums are not simply places for learning about and enjoying art, they have always been contested spaces where we are goaded to realise something about ourselves”. The popularity of the museum selfie reflects this, inserting ourselves into the cultural conversation and creating digital memories that outlast our visits to museums and allow for others to come along for the ride. So instead of time spent worrying about how other people are consuming the art around them, we should stay mindful of our own experiences in museums and galleries, and how we encounter them ourselves.

The cover image of this article originally appeared in a feature on Kate Durbin’s performance piece, “Hello Selfie” (2015) at Miami’s Art Basel. Click here to read it