The first selfie-curated museum in the world
By: Alexandra van Ditmars, Melanie Zierse, Fabian de Bont
Making pictures of yourself in front of artworks is more popular than ever. These socalled museum selfies are to be found all over social media nowadays. On January 20th 2016, the third annual Museum Selfie Day will be held worldwide. How would a museum solely based on selfies look like? Quite shiny, data shows. By scraping several Instagram posts using #museumselfie, we are now able to present: the first selfie-curated museum.
The blond haired girl walks towards the painting. It’s the only piece of art that doesn’t show weird triangles, shapes or lines - it depicts a beautiful dark haired girl who lived once in sixteenth century Italy. She smiles. The blond counterpart comes closer. Suddenly, she turns 180 degrees, places her Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses on her head, points the camera of her iPhone 6 towards her face - the painting on the background - and makes a duck face.
Shared with the world.
The blond girl puts the iPhone back in her handbag and walks further through the hallway. The museum she is in, is located in New York. The building she is in, looks exactly like the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. She stares at the walls - paintings from all over the world: the black and white stripes by Sol Lewitt, Frida Kahlo’s surrealistic portraits and the classical work of Leonardo da Vinci. Behind glass, Arabic jewelry. Outside, in front of the museum, the big Tulips by Jeff Koons.
As she walks further, she sees big mirrors right next to some artworks. The bright light dims. A sepia filtered light covers the paintings. The blond haired girl reaches to her handbag. Perfect for another picture of herself with an artwork. Time for another selfie.
This museum isn’t real. It doesn’t exist. It’s what a museum would look like, if it would be based entirely on selfies made in museums and posted on Instagram. Everything is not based on expert judgement, but on popularity according to amount of selfies taken with the artworks.
On January 20th 2016, the third annual Museum Selfie Day will be held worldwide. Its an initiative from the American culture watcher Mar Dixon to engage museum visitors with art in a fun way. He hopes that people make selfies and use the hashtag #museumselfie, and therewith ‘make museums both less haughty and more physical’. At the same time, the question rises if curators should use social media posts to optimize their collection and exhibitions to make their art more accessible for a bigger audience.
To take a step forward in time, we will present you the perfect museum as if it’s curated solely by selfies. 12.327 posts with the hashtag #museumselfie are scraped from Instagram and analyzed. These are all the existing Instagram posts using this hashtag. The city, the building, the artworks - all of that will become clear from the data. The first selfie curated museum in the world.
The data extraction and analysis was done during the Digital Methods Winterschool 2016. For a week we submerged ourselves in the world of datamethods, Instagram and selfies. Two masterstudents from the MA New Media did most of the data extraction and visualization. Three soon to be journalists from the MA Journalism and Media helped with the analyses and reporting.
First of all, let’s take a closer look at the city. 4812 of the 12.327 scraped post contained a socalled geolocation. Although forty percent of the total amount of posts may sound marginal, it’s quite an impressive number. Not many people manually tag their location on Instagram. From this data we’ve made a visual heatmap. As you can see, the big red dot is located in New York. This means most selfies with the hashtag #museumselfie were made in New York. Paris also has a red dot, but that’s only because of the Louvre. Since New York has several museums where visitors relatively often use the hashtag museumselfie, it is the best location for our imaginable museum.
In data methods language: we searched for the most popular museums co-hashtagged with #museumselfie. This means that we identified hashtags of museums most frequently associated with the hashtag #museumselfie in the same Instagram post. For instance: #museumselfie #moma #museumofmodernart. The idea was to make a top ten, but a top nine was more relevant. The data from the tenth museum was not significant enough to make any conclusions. From the top nine museums, we manually searched for the most selfie-attracting artwork. Those artworks will be presented in our selfie-curated museum.
Before analyzing the top nine artworks, let’s take a look at the results from one specific museum: the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. Interesting is that most people took a selfie in front of the building. Not inside. The museum itself encouraged people to take a selfie ‘with a view of our amazing building’ using the hashtags #museumselfie and #miaqatar. This promotion explains why this not so worldknown museum ended up on the fourth place.
The architecture of the building is quite remarkable. The visitors of the museums or welcomed by massive geometrical blocks in unique forms. The architecture is not decorated, but the little windows provide an Islamic touch. The hodgepodge of artworks we’ve curated would fit perfectly in this unusual building.
By manually checking all the creative – and not so creative – Instagram posts taken in our top nine museums, we found our top nine artworks: from each museum the most popular piece to take a selfie with. The list gives us some interesting insights.
Slideshow with the top artworks at the top 9 museums:
Overall, modern art seem to be way more suitable for a selfie than classical artwork. Only the well-known Mona Lisa is an exception. If you are in the Louvre, you almost have to take a snapshot with the beautiful smiling lady. Preferably mimicking her. The famous painting of Da Vinci was actually the most ‘instagrammed’ artwork in our list. This showpiece defnitely needs a prominent spot in our selfie curated museum.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art also used social media to promote the #museumselfie. They posted a picture on their Instagram account of one of their new staff members. She was standing in front of the Wall Drawing #370 by Sol Lewitt. The spot was not chosen randomly. In the post, the museum described it as ‘the perfect #museumselfie spot’.
The artwork of Sol Lewitt consists of ten different blocks of black and white stripes forming geometrical forms like triangles, crosses and squares, and covers an entire wall. Most people pose in front of one of the blocks, therewith cropping the artwork. The artwork gives an artistic feeling to the selfie, which is probably the reason why people - mainly hipsters - like it that much. As a background.
Four out of nine artworks in our museum have a reflective quality in them. Is there something better than a selfie with an artwork? Apparently so, namely seeing yourself reflected in an artwork. The collection of Jeff Koons is the ultimate favourite. It doesn’t matter which shapes or sizes his artworks have. The tulips or faceless animals are all fine. What seems to be attracting people is that they see a reflection of themselves in the big, colourful creations.
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) en Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) found another way to attract selfies. Both made a mirror part of their collection. The look-a-like framed mirror next to the portrait Fulang-Chang and I is a real crowd pleaser. Just as the mirror installation in the center of the room in LACMA.
However, the chance that a curator would set up such a shiny, self-centered experience is exceedingly small. Curators are the most trusted art experts. Their art knowledge is comprehensive. Their thinking is critical. Their observations are aesthetic. Do museum visitors by snapping some selfies live up to those criteria? No, not quite so. A curator therefor shouldn’t let this online engagement inspire her/him when composing an exhibition. At least, that’s what some experts claim.
“While scholars and museum visitors contribute to the enrichment of curatorial practice through a social media dialogue, I do not share the view that using social media makes everyone a curator”, states Neal Stimler, a specialist at the Digital Media Department of the Metropolitan’s Museum of Art. He made this comment in a research paper by Nancy Proctor on the digital engagement in museums. Encouraging people to engage with art in modern ways is a fine idea, Stimler explains. But let’s keep in mind that being a curator is an actual job wherefore one must study quite some years.
Not everyone shares Stimler’s view that selfies should only be seen as an enrichment. Museum blogger Alli Burness wrote a master’s thesis about selfies in museums. Her conclusion? Museum selfies are serious art business. They are not just about showing your friends how intellectually active you are. Or how pretty you look when you are all surrounded by sepia filtered modern art. Museum selfies are a kind of art performance themselves.
Burness writes: “We use these pictures as a means to create our identity. A museum is a kind of theatre. When we view an exhibit in a museum we assume a role, which we also do when we pose to have our picture taken.” Whether you agree with this or not, fact is that museums can’t permit to ignore the selfies taken in their museums.
The last twenty years, audiences for museum, galleries and art performances have decreased in both Europe and America. Besides, the remaining audiences remain older and whiter than the overall population. Cultural institutions therefore must ask themselves how they can reconnect with the public and demonstrate their value and relevance in contemporary life.
“I believe they can do this by inviting people to actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers”, writes Nina Simon (director of the Santa Cruz Museum) in her book The Participatory Museum. “As more people enjoy and become accustomed to participatory learning and entertainment experiences, they want to do more than just ‘attend’ cultural events and institutions.” Even in the most locked-down spaces, people will take pictures, she claims. So why not support it in an open way that’s constructive and embraces the public?
This constructive embracing is exactly what the museum selfie day does. By promoting this campaign, museums like the Museum of Islamic Art definitely succeed in expanding their scope, and therewith probably their popularity.
Also the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam takes visitor’s social media seriously. The museum for instance shared an Instagram post on their official Facebook page. “An art lover’s #instameet at the Stedelijk. Great idea!”, it says. On the picture three hipster girls line up between artistic looking pillars. To create the squared looked Instagram photo, they had to either crop the artwork or their shoes. They chose the artwork.
Who made this artwork remains unknown. The Stedelijk doesn’t seem to mind. They apparently don’t feel the urge to add the name of the artwork, artist or exhibition themselves. Instead, they thank i_stolethemoon for sharing this with them on Instagram.
It is a fact that museums need to rethink their point of view with regards to visitor’s engagement. If they don’t, they simply won’t survive in our contemporary world. In today’s world, museum visits don’t seem to have any priority. However, it is questionable if the museum selfie helps to restore the old Bildungsideal: instead of focusing on self-development, users of the hashtag seems to primarily focus on the self.
Back in our fake, imaginary selfie-curated museum, the blond haired girl walks towards the exit. Her iPhone’s battery is low - her Instagram timeline full of selfies with artworks. When she heads to the wardrobe, two museum employees walk by. One of them pushes a trolley in front of him. They head towards an empty, dark room behind the blond girl.
The dark room is deserted - no people, no selfies. The employees scan the room. On the walls, masterpieces: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Jeroen Bosch. Even a small painting of Rembrandt hangs in there. One of the employees walks towards the little painting. He nozzles his lips and blows. Dust appears. The man lifts the painting, and puts it in the trolley.
On the trolley, five words are written with black marker.
‘Back to the museum depot’