From Stuffy to Selfie: Social Media Reframes the Museum Experience

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One of the most recently-invented holidays (but arguably, one of the better ones compared to Squirrel Appreciation and Kazoo Day), Museum Selfie Day, exemplifies museums’ attempts to keep themselves relevant by sharing and encouraging selfies within their establishments. Selfies have reached the norm when institutions as typically traditional and esteemed as museums condone them. Countering the perception of selfies as vapid narcissism, this invented holiday validates selfies, and museums — the places we commonly think of as too snooty for pop culture — endorse selfies too.

The tradition only began last year as a social media campaign to encourage people to visit museums, but it has certainly caught on. January 18 produced thousands of images tagged #museumselfieday. Most visitors’ selfies include a work of art, either mimicking it or reacting to it or engaging with it in some way. The hashtag brings together a funny collection of irreverent pictures of people posing with beloved works of art, from the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; some people imitated a sculpture’s weird facial expression or pose, faceswapped with a Neo-Classical portrait, or just shared the artwork or gallery that they feel attached to. A lot of the pictures are silly and maybe depict a superficial interest in art, but it’s also a nice reminder that museums still matter to people.

Museums compete with so many other attractions and activities that vie for our attention, and that struggle is made even harder with the advent of at-home entertainment like Netflix and smartphones. But by letting people display their affection on social media, this made-up holiday has brought a sense of community to the museum-going experience, normally a somewhat solitary one. Beyond the usual selfie to show off your makeup or new Js, the museum selfie features a person actually looking at art and enjoying it or interacting with it in some way and, in effect, makes a work of art in of itself. Their self-portraits are a composition of something that struck them as cool or weird or ugly or beautiful, and then given to the world to see. It’s a beautiful snapshot of what people think about when they go to a museum (and it’s beautiful that they went in the first place).

Museums have been reluctant to join the digital age, but are now realizing its inevitability and have been trying to get social media on their side. Museums participated last Wednesday by posting “selfies” of a sort — the comical trend of photoshopping smartphones into pieces of art to make it appear that Mona Lisa or Van Gogh or Girl with a Pearl Earring is taking a selfie. Museums that use humor for paintings normally perceived as dry and historical heightens, or perhaps lowers, them to meme status, inspiring more sharing.

Notably, LACMA’s Snapchat game is dominating the art meme niche; their Snapchat stories have featured a lyric video to “Bohemian Rhapsody” illustrated by artworks in the museum and popular memes and “Mean Girls” quotes applied to art. They’ve obviously got some millennials on their team telling them our internet jokes, and it’s working; LACMA’s Snapchat won a Culture and Lifestyle Webby Award in 2016.

By now, nearly every museum has a social media handle on at least one platform, if not a staff person devoted to social media. They are embracing it as not only a necessity of surviving the digital age, but also one of the most effective marketing strategies. An institution’s Instagram and Twitter accounts may not gain a lot of followers, but museum visitors who share photos online can do a lot for their publicity. It’s free advertising, even if us digital natives don’t think of it like that.

While some museums don’t allow photos of the art, usually for copyright reasons (or because the security guards will look at you disdainfully), downtown LA’s newest museum, the Broad, fully supports your photography and social media presence. They received 820,000 visitors in their first year of being open. That’s pretty incredible, considering our country’s leading museums, also in LA, are the Getty (with two million visitors per year) and LACMA (with 1.4 million). The Broad is doing something right allowing people Instagram the daylights out of it.

The Broad’s collection of modern and contemporary art makes for particularly great photos, with a lot of bright colors, edgy ideas, riffs on popular icons and weird shapes. Modern art museums or even museums that have star architects design their buildings (like Frank Lloyd Wright’s very recognizable design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York) can more easily market themselves as attractions because their “aesthetics” begs to be Instagrammed, compared to museums with older collections and less beautiful architecture.

What does that say about us social media users who are drawn to modern art and all its streamlined, color-laden, multimedia glory?

On one hand, it can be explained by the affinity for the kind of minimalist aesthetic that has become popular through the hipster-chic-Urban Outfitters lifestyle. But on another hand, it shows the appeal of less traditional forms of art; the kinds that are controversial and usually politically-charged, as opposed to fancy portraits and historical scenes. While doing it for the ‘gram is a little cringeworthy, social media is increasingly becoming a way of communicating ideas — as well as giving our stamps of approval and unintentionally free marketing — and museums are certainly coming to terms with that.

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