Selfies in the Museum
By Cadence Seeger
In the same breath, scholars and intellectuals will praise an art institution’s efforts for accessibility and mock them for catering to social media. As an Art History major, I love art and have a deep respect for museums and art institutions. Yet, with a world of museums and exhibitions ever at my fingertips, the places I seek out are those from where my friends are posting beautiful pictures on Instagram and Facebook. These are the exhibitions that I see over and over on my social media feeds, each one as beautiful as the last, and I think: “Damn! I want a pretty picture in front of this beautiful statue too!” Those are the shows that I actively seek out, and once I’m there, I can learn all about the point of the show and the message that the curators are trying to convey. I can put on my Art History glasses and study the colors and compositions of the artworks. But what’s really going to get me in the door are those social media posts. Though people love to hate on technology and social media, that is the age we live in. To condemn museums for their use of social media - essentially free advertising to a younger generation - is to play into the same elitism that has plagued the art world for centuries.
The tradition of the museum began with eccentric, wealthy people with too much time and money on their hands deciding to amass collections of things they liked. Some collected art, some biological or historical artifacts, technology, or a variety. These were private collections meant for the collector and their close friends; curtains would often hide the more scandalous pieces, meant only for the most intimate viewings. Art collecting was a pastime that suggested wealth and taste, and was a means to show off to their contemporaries. Over time, these private curio cabinets slowly became more public, though there was still an intrinsic elitism to the museums. The collections were intended for other wealthy, high-bred members of society to rub elbows while admiring the ornate art amassed by their friends and colleagues. Commoners, and the dreaded “public,” were still not welcome to such events. Even as museums slowly and begrudgingly became open to the “public,” art museums were still marketed as places of taste and sophistication, and with those adjectives came an inbred elitism that limited who was eligible to engage in the enjoyment and consumption of art. If one was not refined or tasteful enough to “get it,” then they were made out to be the uneducated commoner who was not a part of this high-class art society.
For the first time in history, museums are actively starting to take an interest in this long-overlooked layman. Education programs aim to bring in those who have been historically forgotten by museums, like youths or those with physical or mental disabilities. Accessibility programs are trying more than ever to bring art to people who would otherwise be unable to enjoy or access it.
For years, only the wealthy could commission artworks. Only the wealthy could own art and only the wealthy were afforded the pleasure of seeing the art. This is no longer the case. Money is no longer the only factor that determines whether people can interact with works of art. Visitors do not need an expensive education to enjoy wandering into an art museum. People of all backgrounds can now go and interact with art on their own terms. The family from a small US town, who has been saving up for years for a family vacation to Paris, can now go into the Louvre and take a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa which they can take with them and show to their friends. They too are now immortalized with the most famous painting in the world. This photograph is, in itself, a new creation that shows how far we as a society have come in making art accessible.
So, go! Take that selfie in front of that painting you love. Take pictures to bring home with you to remember your travels and remember all the things that you saw that made you pause, or think, or smile. Enjoy life and let people enjoy art on their own terms, because we are all equals in the art museum. We all deserve to be there, and the collection of art is here for all of us. We are the close friends allowed this intimate look; the curtains are all drawn aside and everything is on view. The person who intimately studies the brushwork of the Mona Lisa is no better or more involved than those who crowd together to photograph it.
We all have the right to enjoy and interact with the art however we see fit.