On selfie museums and empty calories

A few words on the emerging phenomenon of so-called experience museums and the their implications for the work we do. November 12, 2018

mliu92, Sprinkles at the Museum of Ice Cream, Color and cropping by Koven J. Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m today thinking back to an interesting conversation a few of us had at the Western Museums Association conference a few weeks ago that was ostensibly, about “selfies in museums,” but which quickly turned to a discussion of so-called “pop-up experiences”—the Museum of Ice Cream, the Color Factory, and the like—that traffic primarily in experiences that seem designed to produce awesome photos for your Instagram feed more than enlightenment. They vaguely resemble museums to varying degrees (and in some cases explicitly call themselves that), and it’s for this reason that I’m interested in them. They raise a lot of questions for us as museum professionals, in no small part because they often seem to act like controls on the museum experiment.

By that I mean that we often seem to be responding to these spaces in a primarily definitional way. That is to say that at least on Twitter (granted, never the most representative sample set), we mostly evaluate these spaces from a perspective of “museum or not?” Which is an interesting question, but not one that leads to a satisfying answer for me.

If you haven’t yet, I strongly recommend that you read Amanda Hess’ recent piece for the NYT about the pop-up “experience” phenomenon (“The Existential Void of the Pop-Up ‘Experience’ ). It paints a rather harrowing (if mostly lighthearted) picture of these places. The kind of spiritual exhaustion Hess describes almost reads like a work of stunt journalism :

What began as a kicky story idea became a masochistic march through voids of meaning. I found myself sleepwalking through them, fantasizing about going to a real museum. Or watching television.

In the article, Hess further postulates that the real goal (or at least, the tangible end-result) of these pop-up museums is not actually the experience itself, but rather awesome-looking photo-documentation of that experience. They’re expressly designed to appear “fun” in your Instagram feed, whether or not they’re actually “fun” in the actual experiencing of them.

This got me thinking about an fantastic Ignite MCN presentation by Tim Svenonious from 2013. In that presentation, Tim digs into the reasons so many museum visitors barely slow down to look or think, and yet still take tons of photos. His theory is that this behavior is essentially a modern manifestation of the hunter/gatherer instinct. This way of thinking about picture-taking generally (and selfies specifically) in museums can actually tell us a lot about the Museum of Pizza. Because what are these museums if not just the ultimate expression of our need to capture, to document, and to share?

Museums have only accidentally and occasionally been ideal places for this behavior to take place, though. But with these new pop-up “experiences,” we now have ersatz versions of museums that are expressly designed to manifest this behavior. And while there’s something about that that feels sort of wrong to us as museum professionals, I’m unconvinced that this intent makes them not museums. It just makes them the museum equivalent of fast-food, or a candy bar: something you don’t mind having every once in a while, but that would make you sick if you had it all the time. They’re designed to play into your taste receptors, and make you want more of them, even if you kind of know that that wanting is probably wrong.

I wonder if there isn’t something here to consider for those of us working in, um, “regular” museums. A recent episode of Slate’s excellent “Secret History of the Future ” podcast dealt with selfies and how they have evolved over time (beginning with the invention of the camera). The thrust of the episode is that as we’ve assimilated cameras into more of our daily lives, we’ve begun to take fewer and fewer idiosyncratic and personal images, and more and more images that embody certain characteristic “ideals”—this is what a vacation image is supposed to look like, this is what a concert image is supposed to look like, and so on. What interests me about this is that, maybe outside of the Kusama infinity rooms, I’m not sure that a characteristic “ideal” image of museums has yet emerged.

Perhaps this is just the nature of regular museums; they’re idiosyncratic, they’re sometimes off-putting, they’re sometimes unforgettable, but they don’t necessarily photograph all that well. The Color Factory’s main purpose is to look great in photographs. If it is successful in other ways, then that’s mostly a happy accident. I do wonder, though, if it’s only a matter of time before the ideal museum Instagram image does start to take shape. When that happens, and everyone figures out what an ideal museum image is supposed to look like, the images posted from our institutions will all start looking similar to one another.

I think we have an opportunity here in the museum community to approach this inevitable moment deliberately, and help shape this sense of capture, before our institutions start to be indistinguishable from the Color Factory in Instagram feeds. I don’t know what that looks like. Maybe this is a silly thing to even consider. But, if the idealized museum image emerges anyway, how long will it be before we start to lean into that, and start to reject exhibitions that don’t look good on Instagram and embrace those that do?