The #MuseumSelfie: Policing Heritage

I’m currently working on a presentation that I’ll be giving at the annual meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists in Istanbul in about a week and a half. It’s about visitor photography at heritage sites (with ‘heritage sites’ broadly defined to include sites of contested or ‘unauthorized’ heritage), and includes a discussion of museum and heritage site selfies, ruin porn photography, and general photography at archaeological or historical sites. My argument is that these types of visitor photography, though often viewed negatively by various sectors of the public, museologists, archaeologists, and other heritage professionals, can provide valuable insights into how people think about and interact with the heritage sites they visit. I credit two excellent blog posts (here and here) by historical archaeologist Paul Mullins for encouraging me to look at these issues more closely and from a different perspective.

I started thinking about visitor photography at heritage sites when I was in Greece for the first time (early 2013) and noticed some fellow visitors to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens getting a scolding from a guard for trying to take a photo in front of the Mask of Agamemnon. Since that time, I’ve seen the same scenario play out several times at museums around Athens. This past week, I failed to warn two friends, both archaeologists, about the policy, and they were scolded by a guard at the National Archaeological Museum for trying to take a photo of themselves in front of the Artimision Bronze. They said the guard rushed over and said very loudly, “No photos! Please have respect for the museum!” He then asked to review all of my friends’ photos and insisted they delete any in which a person was posing with the museum collections.

People are by and large confused and embarrassed when this happens (which is all the time). It doesn’t help that there’s no signage (that I’ve noticed) forbidding photos of people with the materials on display, and I can’t quite figure out how/why taking a photo of an artifact or display is usually allowed, but including yourself or someone else in that photo is not. This is a policy that is enforced with regularity at all major museums and sites in Greece that I have visited so far (including the Acropolis Museum and the museums at Olympia, Delphi, Mycenae, and Epidaurus).

Think it would be cool to take a pic with the Artemision Bronze? THINK AGAIN. National Archaeological Museum of Athens, photo via Wikimedia Commons

While Greece’s policies towards selfies-with-heritage are on the conservative site, earlier this year in the UK, The Guardian was actively encouraging museum selfies by promoting and publishing photos from the #MuseumSelfie Day project on Twitter, which aimed to “raise awareness of the great collections being housed by national and regional museums across the globe” (the online gallery is full of creative and interesting photos and definitely worth a look). In another well-known case, a visitor to the Crawford Art Gallery in Ireland used his smartphone to make it look like Greco-Roman statues were taking selfies. He escaped with no more than a few “strange looks” from gallery staff, and the images went viral on Reddit.

Statue selfie. Photo cred: Reddit/Jazus_ur_lookin_well

It’s difficult to understand or explain why some cultural institutions/heritage professionals encourage or at least tolerate visitor selfies and others are adamantly against them, but the very fact that these variations in policy exist indicates that visitor photography doesn’t conform in any clear way to the established socio-cultural ‘code of conduct’ at museums and heritage sites. There is a certain way that you’re expected to behave in the presence of Heritage With a Capital “H” in Western cultures, and woe betide anyone who violates those socio-cultural norms and expectations. If you call to mind how a ‘typical’ museum visitor might behave, especially at more traditional museums, it probably includes behavior like thoughtfully gazing at the displays with hands sometimes clasped in back (we usually don’t touch anything), occasionally leaning forward to read signage without getting in anyone else’s way, quietly discussing the collections with companions, and moving slowly through the exhibits. This is how you’re supposed to interact with these spaces, and we learn this from a very young age, when we go with our parents and families to museums or visit them on school field trips. We show respect for the materials on display and what they represent (i.e. history, heritage, art, innovation, etc.) through our behavior. There are exceptions to this, of course; museums are diverse and always changing, just as cultural norms are. But for the most part, this is still how we’re supposed to behave. (For more background on heritage discourse and how it influences what gets included/left out of museums/heritage sites and how visitors are supposed to interact with cultural heritage, see Laura Jane Smith’s extensive research on the subject.)

The trouble is that visitor photography not only tends to violate social norms surrounding museum etiquette, but it puts the interpretation and representation of heritage and heritage sites into the hands of visitors. Anyone who can gain entrance and who has a smartphone or a camera has the ability to interpret and represent the site and disseminate those representations instantaneously to the entire world. With this context, having and showing “respect” for heritage sites also means having and showing respect for the dominant discourse about heritage and about that particular site that has already been provided for visitors by a range of ‘specialists’ and ‘experts’ and by broader societal ideas about the place. The idea is that there are people who are qualified to interpret and engage with heritage, and unless you’re one of them, you should be content to just have the ‘experience’ of being in the presence of heritage, accept/reproduce the narratives provided for you, and move on. Inserting yourself into those narratives (via photography) or focusing on your individual experience and interpretation is a challenge to this dominant heritage discourse, and it creates a lot of unease and tension.

Selfies are often portrayed in the media as narcissistic and tone-deaf (and those being criticized most heavily for taking them are teenagers and young adults), but peoples’ motivations for taking them are complex and varied (I focus on heritage sites here, but other researchers study selfies more broadly). In “Imagining Heritage: Selfies and Visual Placemaking at Historic Sites,” Paul Mullins discusses how selfies taken by young people at dark heritage sites like Auschwitz and the National 9/11 Memorial Museum seem to “violate the unspoken ethics of respectful memorialization,” or the code of behavior that we expect at sites that are associated in some way with death, tragedy, and difficult/painful heritage; though as I mention above, these “unspoken ethics” operate at other museums and heritage sites as well, though perhaps to a different extent. [For more background info on the Auschwitz selfie debates that have emerged this year, see “Should Auschwitz Be a Site for Selfies?” in the New Yorker and this recent Washington Post piece about Breanna Mitchell, who has publicly defended a selfie at Auschwitz that she posted on Twitter, and for which she received death threats.]

Mullins goes on to argue that taking selfies is a place-making activity that “writes its subject into history and visually invokes a heritage without articulating its meaning.” In other words, taking selfies and other kinds of photos at heritage sites is a way for people to document their personal experiences of these places and include themselves in larger cultural narratives about what the place is and what it means. As Mullins mentions, visitor photography does this in a way that written narratives can’t. We recognize images of Auschwitz or the Parthenon and they represent certain kinds of heritage to us, but it isn’t as if we’ve all sat down to come to some consensus about the various meanings, associations, and cultural values that are assigned to these sites. Our perceptions of these places and what they represent are fluid and dynamic, influenced both by broader societal discourses and individual experience. The ambiguity that imagery and photography create simultaneously allows for more nuanced and complex engagements with/representations of heritage and leads to a lot of conflict about expected behavior and who has the ‘right’ to represent/engage with these sites in particular ways.

Auschwitz selfie

The backlash against the focus on the individual that selfies are associated with also appears in criticism of ‘ruin porn’ photography. People who document ruined/abandoned spaces and share those images online are often challenged both by fellow photographers and those interested in the genre, about different aspects of the image’s authenticity (“Did you move that chair into the hallway/photoshop this, or does it really look like that?”), and then by other viewers who assume that because you as a photographer find something beautiful or interesting in decay, you’re automatically ignoring the broader structural issues that lead to that decay (i.e. you’re focusing selfishly on your own interest in the subject and not the consequences of circulating that image). The message in both cases–from critics of dark heritage site selfies and ruin porn photography alike–is that inserting yourself into the scene via photography and/or putting yourself before the subject (both figuratively and literally) is to disrespect this larger, collective, ambiguous “Experience” that you’re supposed to be having (and which is already provided for you). Your photography and your experience has to be about more than just you–it has to fit into a complex network of visual cues and social values connected to our (largely unarticulated) ideas about place, memory, authenticity, and representation.

So how can taking a closer look at these types of photography and the backlash against them (including backlash from heritage professionals themselves) help us better understand what people “get” out of visits to museums and other heritage sites? We can learn about how people relate to and experience specific heritage sites and how technology and social media factor into that, thereby working to improve site design and policy. But beyond site-specific information and benefits, we can learn more about how people conceptualize heritage on a larger level–what it is, how we’re supposed to interact with it, and how changing technologies and the tensions, ambiguities, and gaps in policy they create can allow us to form new understandings of and experiences with heritage. An excellent volume edited by Elisa Giaccardi, Heritage and Social Media: Understanding Heritage in a Participatory Culture (2012), includes several contributions to this growing body of digital heritage research.

Working with visitor photography instead of against it seems like a good place to start. Many institutions have already realized the futility of trying to ban visitor photography (London’s National Gallery recently lifted its photo ban because guards had trouble distinguishing between those visitors using the free wi-fi to research artwork and those trying to take photos with their phones). But beyond just lifting bans, we could work on incorporating visitor photography into the museum and heritage site experience. More projects like #MuseumSelfie Day could encourage a productive dialogue between researchers/curators at heritage sites and visitors, who want to feel like they’re a part of the heritage site and that their experience matters. Talking to visitors (interviewing them or conducting surveys) about their motivations and reflections instead of automatically reprimanding them or publicly shaming them would help create an environment where visitors feel comfortable sharing their insights with one another and with those working at heritage sites. But even just better communication about institutional photography policy (and less scolding) could help.

Including more designated areas where visitors can contribute different kinds of reactions and reflections would also be useful. Many newer museums already have a version of this; for example, the 9/11 Memorial Museum has a video recording booth that allows visitors to share reflections on 9/11, answering questions such as: “What have you learned? How has America changed? How has your view of the world changed?” This model could easily be adapted to other sites.

I look forward to getting feedback on these ideas and to hearing from colleagues who are already working on these issues. I’m presenting in the session, “Public Perceptions of the Past, Heritage and Archaeology: Methodological Approaches and Applicability in Archaeological Management,” on Friday, September 12th from 9:00 am to approximately 5 pm (my presentation is at noon). If you’ll be there, swing by and say hello!

*The featured image for this post is from The Guardian’s ‘Museum Selfie Day’ project.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s