Standing in front of a painting, squinting, admiring, moving to the next. Until fairly recently, this was a typical museum experience for art lovers. Every now and then, a visitor might find herself stopped in her tracks, lost in contemplation, seconds melting into minutes as each scrutinized brushstroke evoked a fresh wave of awe. Replicas of favourite works, purchased in the inevitable gift shop, served as reminders of an ephemeral moment.
In museums such as Florence's Uffizzi, where photography without a special permit is strictly forbidden, this is still the default. In others that allow (usually flash-free) photography, visitors' habits have evolved slightly: standing in front of a sculpture, squinting, finding the best angle for a shot, posting to Instagram. Increasingly, these images are not merely of an artwork, but also of the visitor: the museum selfie.
Visitors are coming equipped to reinterpret art quite literally through the lens of their own experience. While traditionalists accuse selfie fans of turning masterpieces into mere wallpaper, the practice is becoming more accepted and even encouraged by curators and museum directors around the world. Not only can inserting oneself into a work of art result, in the best cases at least, in a new work altogether, but the overwhelming love of selfies on social media can be an effortless way of promoting museums and their art.
Which is why institutions are grappling with a new conundrum: how to deal with the selfie stick. The gadgets have been banned by London's National Gallery, Berlin's national museums, and New York's Museum of Modern Art, generally on the grounds that waving around sticks while ignoring one's surroundings--consisting mostly of priceless art and other human beings--is a terrible idea. (This neatly bypasses the criticism that selfies in general are a dooming indictment of the human race: the triumph of shallow narcissism over art appreciation.) Other museums, such as the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, embrace the selfie stick to entice a younger audience.
The clear victor in catering to the needs of all its visitors is Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum. Reacting to complaints by visitors regarding photography, the institution has banned all picture-taking... except in a special room filled with replicas of its best-loved works.