What’s In-Store, Glasgow?

Kelvin Hall - image © Page\Park Architects

Kelvin Hall – image © Page\Park Architects

While the atmosphere in museum circles prior to George Osborne’s budget last week was tinged with a distinct air of impending doom, one which is unlikely to have alleviated in smaller regional museums, there was at least some good news. The decision to retain free entry to national museums undoubtedly was the most important, however the most intriguing was a further commitment to public access to some of the UK’s finest collections. In his statement, Osborne pledged £150 million to allow for the construction of a new state-of-the-art storage facility to rehome the hidden collections of the British Museum, Science Museum and V&A. This will not only improve conditions for the objects, but for people too, providing the public with access to their national treasures without having to wait patiently for an exhibition to reveal them.

 

In Scotland we are ahead of this game already. The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC) has been operating for several years now, allowing the public to make appointments at their leisure to view its collections, and the National Museum of Scotland opened a similar site in Edinburgh this year. There are some who argue that accessible storage is not the answer however, and that national museums should improve the visibility of stored treasures by loaning them to smaller museums in need of fresh attractions. Steven Parissien for example, director of Warwickshire’s Compton Verney gallery this week accused London’s national museums of “cultural colonialism” in their hoarding of stored masterpieces.

Visitors at GMRC - image © Glasgow Life

Visitors at GMRC – image © Glasgow Life

There are few who would refute the argument that a loaning of these objects to smaller institutions would be desirable but the reality is that this is not always possible. Some museum objects are stored rather than publicly displayed because they have stringent conservational requirements, while some others are set aside as research material. In some cases objects can be caught up in red tape making them ineligible for display. Glasgow’s Burrell Collection for example was famously trapped in storage purgatory for 39 years due to William Burrell’s problematic bequest that his treasures be given to the people of the city, but couldn’t be displayed within it.

 

The chief reason larger museum services have so much in storage however is that the collections are simply that vast. Glasgow’s flagship museum Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, even with its cavernous interiors and “salon-hangs,” can only host 8,000 of the 1 million objects in the city’s public collections. Even with a further eight museums across the city exhibiting from the same resource pool, less than 1% of this collection is on display outside of the GMRC. Glasgow Museums could fill all the smaller museums in its vicinity and its need for storage would remain unchanged.

 

This is why the Kelvin Hall Project is so exciting. Set to open in the summer next year, “Phase 1” of the initiative will see the historic venue re-open as a “centre for cultural excellence,” housing publicly accessible collections for The Hunterian, Glasgow Museums (from remaining non-GMRC stores) and The National Library of Scotland, alongside extensive teaching facilities. Additionally, the site will feature areas for objects to be conserved in public view, beginning with the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed suite from Mrs Cranton’s Ingram Street Tearooms.

 

Belgium’s Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp is one institution that has mastered the idea of accessible storage. Opened to the public in 2011, the galleries and storerooms are housed in the same building, with visitors free to transition between both at their leisure. The storerooms function in essence like an extension of the museum, with everything made visible, merely without the flair or interpretation of that which is officially exhibited. This gives visitors a unique opportunity to really engage with the artworks or themes that inspire them by allowing them to immediately discover similar or related objects. In addition to this, the storeroom also seeks to educate visitors about conservation and its other primary functions.

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom - image © Filip Dujardin

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom – image © Filip Dujardin

Kelvin Hall will share many of Museum aan de Stroom’s attributes. Its public conservations and easy-to-access objects being key, but it is its location that is most desirable. While the GMRC is a little out of the way, Kelvin Hall is directly across the street from Kelvingrove, and following the completion of “Phase 2” of the project, will also house the exhibited collection of The Hunterian (currently displayed across Glasgow University). Following this, The Hunterian would have the ability to emulate Museum aan de Stroom entirely, with only one set of traffic lights preventing Kelvingrove from doing likewise.

 

It is in this period between Phase 1 and 2 of the Kelvin Hall Project that I often worry about public perception of what it actually is. Making the collections accessible is one thing, getting the public to understand the endeavour is another. While an incredible resource in its own right, prior to the completion of Phase 2, Kelvin Hall will function best as an incredible supplement to Kelvingrove Museum, and I hope the public appreciate this; my message to them when it opens next year is simply, use it. Few museums in the world can offer so much of their collections in one place like that; I very much doubt Osborne’s new storage centre in London will be particularly close to its national museums (which are already half an hour from each other). Those stores will make hidden treasures visible if you make time to seek them out, Kelvin Hall meanwhile, will have brought them to you.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 01.12.2015

A Sinking Feeling

Klimt - Judith II (Salome) 1909. Photo © Alamy

Klimt – Judith II (Salome) 1909. Photo © Alamy

As a city and a museum issue close to my heart, it came as disturbing news last week to discover that Luigi Brugnaro, the Mayor of Venice plans to sell off several masterpieces from the city’s public collection in order to help pay off some of its debt. The works considered for sale, which include pieces from Marc Chagall and Gustav Klimt are estimated to sell on the market for somewhere in the region of £300 million. Although Venice’s debt is becoming an increasing burden, the deaccession of public collections to raise funds for alternative municipal initiatives is not, and should not ever be considered the solution to these problems. Brugnaro’s announcement last week is a worrying development.

Deaccession is a dangerous game, as was proven by the scandalous behaviour of Northampton Borough Council last year when then leader David Mackintosh attempted to fund his vanity project, a new wing for the town’s flagship museum, by selling the ancient Egyptian Statue Sekhemka. Despite protestations from the museum itself and various pressure groups, the council forged ahead with the sale of the object which raised just under £16 million at Christie’s in August last year.

The result of this was that, not without warning, the council’s entire museum service (Northampton Museums) lost its Arts Council England accreditation, rendering it ineligible to receive support from various heritage funding bodies and arts grants. It has also been banned from membership of the Museums Association for five years, and seen the winding up of the Friends of Northampton Museum group after 55 years of practical and financial support. It is estimated that the cost of these losses will far exceed the money raised by the sale, leaving Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and now its sister institution, Abingdon Park Museum, worse off than they were before.

The heavy sanctions handed down to Northampton Museums are in line with the disregard for museum ethics that the county council has shown. First and foremost the statue, a gift from the Marquess of Northampton to the people of the city and so held only in trust by the museum, was therefore not theirs to sell. Even if it were, to treat museum objects as assets as opposed to a collection, sets a dangerous precedent. Museum objects are to be preserved for their artistic, cultural or educational value. The actions of Northampton Museums run the risk of changing public perception of a museum collection to what Stephen E. Weil once called, “A Deaccession Cookie Jar,” meaning people view the objects as material of a financial value where the money could and should be better spent on other council services, such as schools and hospitals; a mindset with the potential to strip museums bare.

This is sadly what is now happening in Venice. With the city in huge debt and struggling to fund its municipal services, Luigi Brugnaro has cracked open the Deaccession Cookie Jar and pulled out several important masterpieces from the public collection. While still inexcusable, Northampton Borough council at least intended to keep the money from Sekhemka’s sale within their museum service. Venice on the other hand, should the sale of their works go ahead, will siphon the money into other things, leaving their museums culturally and financially out of pocket. On top of this, by placing other public services on a higher pecking order, the city surrenders all justification for preserving any of its collections should the public demand more sales to be made. Given that such action provides only short-term debt relief, it is entirely possible this could occur.

Brugnaro’s attempts to safeguard the majority of the collection whilst justifying these particular sales by claiming that, “they are not directly related to the history and culture of Venice” is merely further problematic. Using this logic, Venice has created two different sets of museum ethics, one for native objects and another for those of foreign origins. The result of this is that by publicly proclaiming it’s permissible for them to deaccession non-Venetian objects, they surrender one of their key counter-arguments to potential repatriation requests, further endangering their collections.

Above all, this is simply a saddening cultural loss for the city. Venice has long since ceased to be the merchant trading hub that may once have applauded such capitalist endeavour, and is now limited in the way that it functions. It is a UNESCO world heritage site in its entirety, meaning renovation is not permitted, only preservation and restoration. However the city has flourished under these restrictions for a long, long time as a city of art. Its beautiful exteriors are works of art in themselves, while the awkward interiors of its plethora of Palazzi are filled with everything from Greco-Roman antiquity to world famous contemporary artists.

I once heard Venice described as “like a Disneyland for grown ups,” but you could safely bet you would never see a cash-strapped Euro Disney packing up and selling Space Mountain just because it wasn’t related to any of their films. For Venice to sell its art is to sell part of its soul. Brugnaro rightly points out that Venice is a sinking city, but shipping out its paintings will not keep it afloat. In doing so, Brugnaro will be no better than his predecessors who shamefully green-lit allowing cruise ships to sail through the Guidecca Canal, causing irreparable damage to the city for short term financial gain.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 21.10.2015

Show Me The Money

MotM Advert

It’s a museum I have always engaged with, despite never actually setting foot in the door. The Museum on the Mound is the collected history of the Bank of Scotland, situated onsite at their Edinburgh head office where, outside, a sign expertly grabs your attention by simply asking, “ever seen £1 million?” No. Implicit in the question obviously is the suggestion that you should come inside, where you can see £1 million to which I again would say, no, thank you.

 

I’m under no illusions that some people will likely feel differently, but personally I cannot muster any interest in going to look at a big pile of unattainable cash. However the more often I passed the same sign, the more the issue began to bother me, and I eventually started to question whether £1 million in cash should even be a museum exhibit at all? So I asked myself what criteria it needed to meet: Is it of historical or artistic value? No. Can it help me better understand myself, or the community I am a part of? Not in my opinion.

 

Furthermore, is it even ethical for a museum to have £1 million in cash in its collection? To accession an object is an implicit acceptance that said item is not a liquid asset, and cannot therefore be deaccessioned for the purposes of generating funds. But cash literally has no other use. To accession £1 million in cash is to ring-fence money that can never now be spent. The Museum on the Mound is fortunate however in that it is operated by the Lloyds Banking group and is therefore well financed. One would imagine that any other museum that had deliberately written off £1 million in this fashion would find itself particularly dubiously positioned should it then require the reliance of volunteers or heritage funding bodies.

 

To exhibit any amount of cash, especially in that quantity, with seemingly no context beyond “because we can,” seems on the face of it slightly vulgar. It was clear however that I was going to have to see it, and I was surprised upon arrival to discover that it wasn’t part of the museum display at all. Instead, as staff promptly informed me, it is “just on the right” as you enter the building, in a cabinet in the gift shop. To me this was an immediate suggestion that the museum itself had found similar difficulty in actually justifying a position for it amongst the genuine art and ephemera in their collection. On top of that, the cabinet is filled exclusively with cancelled notes, meaning it isn’t even £1 million cash at all; it’s a box of valueless paper.

cancelled cash

All of a sudden this struck me as somewhat of a shame. The cabinet as I had imagined it was at least a thought-provoking piece. Further to that, it would have been a challenging exhibit as it refuses to adhere to one of the key museum conventions: that the price of their collections cannot be revealed. Museum objects are not for sale, so they do not have a price. This is the answer any visitor who asks the tired old “how much is that worth?” question should receive. In a previous job I was often asked how much Pablo Picasso’s The Poet was worth, to which I informed the visitor its value was as a key piece in one of the most influential art movements of the 20th century, crucial to the evolving style of arguably the world’s most famous artist, and provides a perfect historical context to the rest of the museum’s collection. It strikes me now how interesting it could have been for me to direct those visitors, seemingly interested only in the financial value of the museum, to an exhibit simply of £1 million in cash. To challenge them to actually ascertain for themselves whether this really was the satisfaction they were looking for. £1 million in cash not only unavoidably reveals to the visitor its financial value, it even shows them the money. One would hope this might inspire people to see more than just dollar signs in the masterpieces on offer.

 

In a late twist, a second £1 million in cash appears half way through the museum. Were it not for the fact you have already seen it before, this exhibit would make complete sense. The second box of cash, within the museum display this time is simply supporting interpretation for another object, a single £1 million note. The exhibit explains that these notes are solely for transporting large sums internally in the bank, and then uses the same value in £20 denominations to visually depict the practicalities of doing so. This is great. It reveals an interesting internal practice of the bank, as is one of the museums aims, and then perfectly interprets the object to help the visitor understand why, in a striking and memorable way.

 

This purposeful and effective second display however further highlights the elephant in the room that is the first exhibited million. For all of my pondering I still struggle to see what the point of it is. But then, maybe it is in this pondering that it finally finds a purpose. The key to all great museum exhibits is an ability to capture the imagination of the visitor not only during, but to encourage a sustained engagement with it subsequent to, and if possible, prior to their visit. The £1 million cash at the Museum on the Mound has unquestionably achieved this with me, quite possibly to a greater extent than any object before it.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 6.10.2015

Red Flags in Museums

Confederate display

 

“The flag belongs in a museum, not on our streets.” This is the sound bite du jour in current American politics, with Barrack Obama and Jeb Bush among others all claiming in the wake of the Charleston massacre that the Confederate Flag, which flies on the grounds of the South Carolina State House, should be taken down and transferred to a heritage institution in order to remove it from the contemporary and cement it in the past where it belongs. I have however seen several media responses to this that claim the flag has no right to such reverential treatment; that the flag does not belong within the collections let alone on display within a museum.

 

This of course is not true, a museum collection’s objects are deemed “worthy” by the assertion that people can learn from them, not through a perceived affiliation with “good or bad.” As a compassionate and humane individual living in Glasgow, I am all too often sickened by the banner-waving fanfare of the Orange Order. Yet should a time hopefully come when their antiquated iconography can be retired, it is imperative that some of it should be sent to a museum where it can help teach the values of an inclusive society through addressing the uglier elements of the past. The Confederate Flag should now serve a similar purpose.

 

Most of the objections to the suggested accession of the flag by a South Carolina museum tend to stem from the view that its display would entail some form of celebratory act, and that by accepting it as physical heritage, the ideology it represents will become “accepted” heritage as well. The flag is not the same as other morally dubious historical artefacts though; Adolf Hitler’s paintings for example, which have little value as political or social history sources, nor have a relevant position in the art history canon. They have no lessons to teach, whereas the Confederate Flag does.

 

It cannot teach those lessons if its message is censored however, and no museum should exhibit like that anyway. Exhibiting the dark elements of human history is not an acceptance of the values of the time. The Museum of Slavery does not champion the use of a coffle through their display, nor do the jars or hair and teeth at Auchwitz endorse the atrocities that occurred there. These objects are important museum pieces because they provide a physical dimension to history that cannot ever be forgotten. Physical reminders are important for future generations to literally show them of the realities of the past, helping to instil within them a morality that will not permit similar actions in the future.

 

The Confederate Flag is not a new problem for museums however. Perhaps most notable is the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, which is housed at Battle Abbey, a former monument to the Confederate Movement of the American Civil War. For many years they were troubled by what to do with the great murals of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, which they inherited along with the sight. Historical artefacts and great artworks in their own right, but bearing an explicit sentiment not in keeping with the institution or the society it is part of. Additionally, the museum came under fire from parts of its community for the decision to remove the Confederate Flag from its exterior, having flown there for 131 years. The flag, a tradition and again a historical artefact, gave the museum no option however other than censorship due to it’s “connotations of white heroism and black docility.”

 

To fly a flag however does suggest a compliance with its message, whereas to hang the flag in a museum does not. This is why the murals at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art can be displayed, but the flag has never again been run up the pole outside. A flag flown is a triumphant thing, and throughout history has often been the greatest statement a group of people can make. In a museum however, a flag can be contextualised amongst other objects, and its history can be interpreted appropriately. It is reduced from a statement, to simply an object.

 

However, to reduce the Confederate Flag as such may be more challenging for example than the Nazi Swastika. While there is very little public approval of Nazism now, the Confederate Flag is still widely admired in certain areas of America, and the views that it represents are unfortunately still a problem. An article on Slate.com declares that it is too risky to even hang the flag in a museum because institutions are not yet fully nor demonstrably equipped to tackle the difficult issue of race, far less to surgically remove an active support from something like the Confederate Flag, so deeply ingrained in much of the South Carolina community.

 

I believe however that these are the challenges museums should be tackling head on. An institution should not exist in fear of discussing an issue because they worry doing so will shed an undeserving light on it, or spread the existence of a message that is unacceptable. Museums should be confident that through effective exhibiting they could alter that message to one of social acceptance and inclusivity. In a more peaceful future I would hope to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan memorialised, and as part of that, I hope the actions of the Taliban in destroying them will be properly addressed, rather than masked to protect potentially impressionable visitors from an awareness of their extremist ideas. Here in Glasgow, if the marches of the Orange Order were to be rightly banned today, as they have been elsewhere for decades, I too would like to see their history effectively tackled by a museum despite the fact that the protestant supremacist views that they represent would remain a present concern. Taking down a flag does not fix a problem, but a well-presented discourse and education such as a museum provides, can. America has the chance to do this with the Confederate Flag now, and I hope they lead the way in doing so.

Grey Areas

alchemy-1947(2)

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has recently opened a new temporary exhibition based around their Jackson Pollock masterpiece Alchemy, and the intensive 18-month conservation it has just returned from to remove nearly 70 years worth of dust from its surface which, remarkably, is still yet to fully dry.

Divided into two rooms, the exhibition displays the work itself in one, and the science and theory behind this ground-breaking conservation and some historical interpretation of the work, Pollock himself, and his relationship with Peggy Guggenheim in the other. This information is conveyed through a series of videos, touchscreens and ephemera from Pollock’s Hamptons studio, such as paint cans and his mother’s old quilting frame, which he used to mount his canvases on the floor while conducting his famous “drip painting” technique. Perhaps most interestingly though, the exhibition contains a 1:1 scale 3D printed reproduction of Alchemy that visitors are invited to touch in order to explore the vastly textured surface of the painting.

Alchemy 3D

The rationale behind interpretive features like this are plainly obvious, everybody wants to touch things in museums. I’ve been at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for three months now and I see this phenomenon first hand every day. The difference with Alchemy however is that its “poured paint” three dimensional surface at least would provide a satisfying tactile experience. This is not limited solely to appeasing the ignorant fingers of visitors however. Museums have long known that education functions more successfully when multi-sensory learning is able to take place. This is why museums have long striven to find ways in which they can permit visitors to touch things within exhibition displays, and to varying degrees of success.

At the Museo Correr in Piazza San Marco I spent some time recently fiddling with a complicated “augmented reality” exhibit that required you to hold a white disc in front of a camera that would then show you an onscreen image in which said disc was replaced in your hands by the Capsella di Samagher, an ivory Roman Reliquary from 5 AD, which is displayed in a cabinet behind. The exhibit is disheartening though as it is obviously expensive and takes up a lot of space in a venue that has little to spare, and it is entirely ineffectual. I wasn’t having a tactile experience of the object, I was having one of a white cardboard disc. On top of that, I was no longer looking at the object itself, but at a computer generated onscreen version of it that in actuality looked nothing like the real thing. It also took me at least 5 minutes of fumbling to work out how to reach this disappointing conclusion.

IMG_8565 IMG_8567

3D printing is far more satisfying. While the materials and colours cannot be replicated yet, the shapes and textures certainly can. Nor do the advantages of 3D printing stop there. Jack Shoulder wrote an interesting piece last year about its implementation at the Grant Museum, where the bones and skeletal displays exhibited are accompanied by miniature 3D printed replicas of the creatures they once belonged to in order to help the visitor contextualise what they are being shown.

The idea of 3D printed replicas of exhibits as interpretive materials however was first brought to my attention at the second “Museum of the Future” debate at the British Museum last October. The idea was generally disregarded however but the reasoning for this was due to the gentleman following up his point with the alarming suggestion that visitors should be allowed to print off the exhibits they liked the most and then take them home with them.

In its current manifestation 3D printing does not pose much of a counterfeiting threat. I have no desire for example to take the ugly grey 3D Alchemy from the second room at the museum home and hang it on my wall, nor would I be able to successfully punt it through some dodgy backdoor art market. But technology is a vivacious beast and who are we to doubt that in the future such reproductions may not be possible? Alchemy of course will always be tricky as printing cigarette butts and sand is still realistically a long way off, but there are many valuable objects in museums across the world whose compositions are less complex. The ability to furnish 3D print outs with colour is something we must assume is being investigated, so the possibility of a Rosetta “Stone-effect” replica at some point is not such a ludicrous idea.

You could also argue that a 3D printer will never be able to replicate the artistic process, which is fair enough. The process of creating the artwork can often be what is of most interest when viewing the final piece. However, what if the interest in the piece lies only in financial gain? Artists and artworks have been fraudulently replicated, and even created for years. Sculpture for example will be incredibly susceptible to forgery via 3D printing in the future. Museums and galleries across the world are filled with statuary of questionable provenance due to the failure of artists to break their moulds after the initial production. Nowadays all it would take is a 3D scanner to digitally recreate the mould for any sculpture one desired, which if leaked to the online community could potentially lead to the “looting” of entire collections.

I am all for making collections digitally available however. The work of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for example, and increasingly in other institutions across the world to make their collections viewable either through their own websites or initiatives such as the Google Art Project is a tremendous development. The advent of 3D printing however poses some serious questions as to the extent to which this should be done. Is there a line that can or should be drawn as to the extent to which collections can still be shared digitally, as they should be, without putting them in the grey areas of jeopardy created by technological developments such as 3D printing?

Sticks in the Mud

bluesteel

There seems to be a lot discussion in museum circles of late regarding the infamous “selfie stick,” likely due to the wake of “Museum Selfie Day” and the news trickling in that sensible institutions such as the Louvre have started to ban them. Now, the Museums Association is running a poll asking its membership their opinion on the issue of whether UK venues should follow suit, or stick with the insufferable contraptions, deliciously referred to by Gawker recently as the “wand of idiocy.” I’m sure you have worked out by now which side of the fence I’m on.

 

This is no fresh grievance for me however. I am fortunate enough to be working in Venice at the moment where there are now more “selfie sticks” than there is water. Every day I run the gauntlet over Accademia Bridge between two rows of grinning tourists brandishing their baton-mounted phones into its centre at a 65° angle. It’s reminiscent of an enormous guard of honour until you consider the fact nobody in it has eyes for anyone but themselves.

 

The “selfie stick” has been on my mind for a while, and in my face, and I’ve been smacked in the shin with one, and had a drink knocked out of my hand. This is precisely the reason given by Deborah Ziska of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the “narcissi-stick” (thanks, Alyson) has recently been banned; they’re dangerous. They’re dangerous to people, and dangerous to the displays. When you take a step back to consider it, the “selfie stick” is essentially a retractable golf club, and nobody complains about not being allowed to bring them to a museum. Obviously I appreciate that nobody is coming into a museum and swinging them around, intentionally. But when your entire attention is focussed on the end of a 5-foot pole, and what’s at the end of said pole is a reverse image of yourself, you cannot possibly have any awareness or comprehension for the people or objects in your surroundings. You are literally brandishing it into the unknown. This is the point where you become a danger, and not just to other people, but yourself as well. As Ziska rightly points out, her gallery is filled with low balconies and stairs to topple over as you unwittingly shuffle around in search of the perfect angle.

 

To further the argument, there is no justification that necessitates their use in a museum environment anyway. People have tried though. One reason I’ve heard is, “you can fit more into the background.” Yes you can, but if that is your chief concern then you’re taking the wrong kind of photograph. If somebody wants, for example, a photo memory of the time they saw Picasso’s The Poet, they’ll remember it better if they don’t insist on obscuring half of it with their face. If they are more interested in remembering what they looked like that day than the art, why pay €14 to go to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection when there’s a boutique home furnishings shop around the corner selling mirrors for the same price?

 

I have also heard, “it’s safer, I don’t have to give a stranger my phone.” True again, but who is going to run off with your camera in the middle of a museum? Even in the street you have a better chance of retaining it by singling out one person to entrust it to than precariously strapping it to a shiny pole and waving it around in a sea of people. The fact of the matter is, the pole gives people greater control over their appearance in the picture. It’s not “I don’t trust you not to steal my phone,” it’s “I don’t trust you to make me look good.”

 

The “selfie stick” gives the photographer complete control, and perhaps most importantly of all, it can give the photograph the illusion of not being a “selfie” at all, by de-necessitating that “slightly too close to the lens and my arm is growing out of my chest” camera angle. “Selfies” are vain and people don’t like to admit to that. You can tell this is the case because some people still at least have the humility to look slightly embarrassed after taking one in public, some people. There is nowhere to hide if you’ve been waving a “selfie stick” around however, but this no longer matters as those who use them have demonstrably ceased to care about the opinions of those in their vicinity.

 

The reality is that the oxymoronically named “selfie” is not for the benefit of the subject at all, but for their connections everywhere else, chiefly those on social media sites. This is why museum people have embraced them. We like to “see” people in museums, and we like that people feel like their visit is one of these “show off” moments that they want to add to the rose tinted timeline of life experiences that they have chosen to share online. That’s as good as it gets though. There’s a reason we have “Museum Selfie Day” and not “Share Pictures of Your Favourite Exhibits Day.” People more and more are insistent on being the subject of the photos they take, and everything else, such as the museum, is secondary.

 

Essentially every “selfie” is the same, except the backgrounds change from time to time, like the “Blue Steel” calendar in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (see the above photo). A “selfie” is not a memory, it’s a momentary snapshot that is discarded from the photographers conscience as soon as a fresh one is taken, or in the case of Snapchat, discarded from existence after a mere few hours (more on that here). In a museum we can embrace the “selfie” as, despite being the secondary content, we can still benefit from their exposure. The “selfie stick” however only benefits the “selfie taker,” and in fact adversely affects the museum by endangering its collection and the other visitors.

 

I’m sure one day the “wand of vanity” will have a rightful place in a museum, presumably as a key piece in the British Museum’s “A History of the End of the World in 100 Objects,” presented by a robot Neil MacGregor in the year 2110. For now however it does not. The “selfie stick” hazardously facilitates a form of photography that increasingly has no appreciation for memory, for history, for art or any aesthetic external to ones own appearance. They do not therefore belong in museums and those that have banned them already have done so quite rightly. Sometimes it’s good to be a stick in the mud.