William Grimes’s front-page piece in Sunday’s New York Times pinpoints one of the great tragedies of our times.
Museum Rules: Talk Softly, and Carry No Selfie Stick
In a famous lab trial, a chimp named Sultan put two interlocking sticks together and pulled down an elusive prize, a bunch of bananas hanging just out of arm’s reach.
Nearly a century later, eager tourists have conducted their own version of the experiment. Equipped with the camera extender known as a selfie stick, occasionally referred to as “the wand of narcissism,” they can now reach for flattering CinemaScope selfies wherever they go.
Art museums have watched this development nervously, fearing damage to their collections or to visitors, as users swing their sticks with abandon. Now they are taking action. One by one, museums across the United States have been imposing bans on using selfie sticks for photographs inside galleries (adding them to existing rules on umbrellas, backpacks, tripods and monopods), yet another example of how controlling overcrowding has become part of the museum mission.
Really, (young) people: Is it such a hardship to just look at the artwork?
The hardflinching staff has noted this trend on several occasions. Now museums nationwide are belatedly taking action: “The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington prohibited the sticks this month, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston plans to impose a ban. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has been studying the matter for some time, has just decided that it, too, will forbid selfie sticks. (New signs will be posted soon.)”
But we don’t give a damn about the selfieniks, despite what the concern expressed in the Times piece.
Last but not least is the threat to the camera operator, intent on capturing the perfect shot and oblivious to the surroundings. “If people are not paying attention in the Temple of Dendur, they can end up in the water with the crocodile sculpture,” [Met chief digital officer Sree] Sreenivasan said. “We have so many balconies you could fall from, and stairs you can trip on.”
Unfortunately, other museums are more selfie-centered.
Generally, the taking of selfies is not merely tolerated, it is encouraged. Art museums long ago concluded that selfies help visitors bond to art and create free advertising for the museum. When Katy Perry dropped by the Art Institute of Chicago’s Magritte exhibition last summer and detoured to take a selfie in front of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” the museum reaped a publicity windfall after the image was posted on Pinterest.
The Whitney Museum of American Art, at its Jeff Koons retrospective last year, passed out cards proclaiming, in capital letters, “Koons Is Great for Selfies!“ and urged visitors to post their work on Instagram.
Granted, Koons Is Great for Selfies! is great for an epitaph. But not so much for museums.