Public Perceptions of Heritage: Insights from the EAA Annual Meeting, or #MuseumSelfies Redux

I returned Sunday from the annual meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists in Istanbul. It was a fantastic conference–I learned a lot, met and spent time with colleagues from all over the world, and came away determined to try to attend more international conferences. My presentation on Friday could have been better, but I got some excellent feedback on it and know what to do differently next time.

My session focused on public perceptions of the past, and included excellent presentations about community archaeology and local understandings of heritage in South Africa, Greece, Scotland, England, and Turkey (stay tuned for a special issue in Present Pasts that will include papers from the session!). Most of the presenters were discussing specific instances and communities where local or visitor understandings of heritage differed from those of the archaeologists or other heritage professionals working in the area. Presentations included data from interviews and surveys with local community members and site visitors, and their findings had implications for curation, site design and museums, protection of sites, and outreach and community involvement. My paper was a bit of an outlier in that it focused on broad and somewhat dubious and difficult-to-research manifestations of public perceptions of heritage (i.e. museum selfies, ruin porn, and urbex).

One of the most interesting comments I received was from a colleague who asked if I’d considered or observed how gender operated in situations where people were being publicly called-out for taking selfies at heritage sites. I had mentioned that it’s mostly teenagers and young adults who come under fire in mainstream media for taking selfies in general, even though people of all ages take them. While young men certainly do receive some of that criticism, young women seem to get the most negative attention for it (sometimes resulting in death threats, as in the recent case of “Auschwitz Selfie Girl,” Breanna Mitchell).

Breanna Mitchell takes a selfie at Auschwitz to remember her father (and their plans to travel to important WWII sites together) on the anniversary of his death.

That young women are often at the center of mass media criticism and public shaming re: dark heritage selfies reveals something about how, on a societal level, we associate selfies with too much of a focus on–you guessed it!–one’s self, and how this trend is often viewed in a more negative light for young women especially, because dominant social norms dictate that they’re supposed to be more concerned with how they appear to and impact others. I think the majority of the mainstream media criticism of the “Selfies at Auschwitz” phenomenon was focused on policing young women’s behavior at these sites. First, most of the images shown were of young women by far (is it because women take more selfies? I don’t know), and most of the fake captions written for those photos (like “Even here, I’m drop-dead gorgeous!” or “Hot! Saving you a seat on the bus ride to Treblinka!”) suggested that young women are focused entirely on their own appearance and are oblivious to social norms and history. When critics called the photos “reprehensible” and said they depicted a “youth culture that is completely out of touch with history,” I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that both history and war are traditionally very ‘masculine’ pursuits, and the people involved in documenting and sharing their experiences at this historical war site were young women.

Breanna Mitchell provided some context for her selfie at Auschwitz (above) by explaining that she and her dad used to study history together and were especially interested in WWII in particular, even planning to visit WWII sites in Europe together after she graduated high school. Her father passed away before they could take the trip, however, so she went to Auschwitz and took the photo on the anniversary of his death as a tribute to him. The fact that Mitchell publicly defended her actions and appeared “unrepentant” made people even angrier; she was still ridiculed, harassed, and threatened, and her selfie became a viral meme (see photo below for an example; please be aware that the image does show violence and human remains). People dismissed the act of taking the photo as a “total sorority move” (Mitchell isn’t in a sorority) or wrote the situation off as just another example of how ‘self-absorbed’ young people are these days (‘self-absorbed’ because she was focusing on her own grief and experience at a place where so many others had died).


A lot of recent media attention has focused on the hostility that women encounter online just for being there, and I think Mitchell’s case is a good example of that. Mary Beard, a classics professor at the University of Cambridge who regularly receives death and rape threats online, commented in a recent New Yorker piece about trolls:

“The more I’ve looked at the details of the threats and the insults that women are on the receiving end of, the more some of them seem to fit into the old patterns of prejudice and assumption that I have been talking about. It doesn’t much matter what line of argument you take as a woman. If you venture into traditional male territory, the abuse comes anyway. It’s not what you say that prompts it—it’s the fact that you are saying it.”

The media and public response to Mitchell’s explanation falls into this category of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” that Beard is talking about here. The media made many assumptions about Breanna when her photo surfaced without knowing anything about the situation or about her. She was expected to publicly defend her actions, but her defense didn’t mitigate the hostility at all; it only redirected and increased it (i.e. she began receiving comments about her father’s death, and people threatened to visit and do violence to his grave site). If Mitchell had appeared remorseful and had publicly apologized, it’s very likely that she would’ve still been subject to threats and hostility simply because she was still there and still engaging.

Both men and women receive criticism for taking selfies at dark heritage sites, but I think that the response to Mitchell’s selfie reached the fever pitch it did because she’s a woman who had the gall to defend her actions publicly and to focus on her own grief and her experience at the site. Most of the people involved in the media frenzy over “With My Besties at Auschwitz”  just removed their photos out of shame and embarrassment and didn’t engage with the criticism publicly at all.

Via the “Selfies at Serious Places” Tumblr

If there is a lack of understanding about the history of a given place and the social norms regarding behavior there, wouldn’t it be more productive to have a discussion about these issues rather than immediately vilify and publicly shame/threaten to kill the person who made a mistake? I think so. Why doesn’t that happen? I’d argue that it’s because cases like Mitchell’s aren’t about education or encouraging open discussion…just the opposite, actually: they’re about policing and reinforcing certain social and cultural boundaries (i.e. who decides how one is supposed to behave at places like Auschwitz and who gets to publicly judge/comment on others’ behavior when they break the ‘rules’). The politics of heritage and the policing of behavior at heritage sites intersect with broader societal ideas and assumptions about gender, age, and public behavior.

Mitchell’s Twitter account is now private due to the volume and nature of the threats she received. I think it’s telling that as soon as she stopped having any public presence at all, media coverage of the issue, and the demands that she apologize or at least appear ‘repentant,’ stopped.

Mitchell’s selfie photoshopped into an image of the Twin Towers burning on 9/11

There’s a lot more to discuss here, and I’ll have my work cut out for me if I continue to look at these issues more in-depth. Though I’ll be turning my attention back towards my dissertation research in the upcoming weeks, I look forward to continuing the discussions started at the EAA annual meeting.

Update 9/23/2014:  The Selfies at Serious Places Tumblr (not entirely sure it’s still an active site) does encourage open discussion about these issues to a certain extent. Though still premised on the idea of publicly shaming people, the site owner does allow the people who took the photos to apologize/explain their selfies and will block out their faces and protect their identity, if requested:

“A reporter recently asked me if I thought these selfie-takers defined a spoiled generation, and I replied that no, absolutely, they did not. There’s a lot of youthful stupidity on display here, but every prior generation would have embarrassed themselves publicly, were they equipped with the technology to do so. This Tumblr captures people in moments they haven’t fully thought through, but that doesn’t mean they’re incapable of thinking further.

“And so, although this wasn’t the reason I launched this Tumblr, let’s make it a conversation. To all the other people whose photos appear here: If you’d like to speak to the viewers of this site, you’re welcome to reach out. I’ll post your words, and block out your face.”

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