sensory, material, & digital anthropology
On 22 January 2014, the world (of Twitter) saw the first #MuseumSelfie Day, a day when Twitter users shared selfies taken within museums. The project was thought up by museum-lover, -consultant, and -blogger Mar Dixon and arts website Culture Themes. By the morning of 23 January 11,143 people had tweeted with the hashtag and 5,591 photos had been shared.
The rise of digital technology within museums has offered increased access to collections and the stories and knowledge they hold. Museums are increasingly distributing collections through means such as the digitisation of their collections, apps, cinema livecasting of exhibitions, online research networks, and social media presence. Museum Selfie day is a great example of how the digital can overcome geographical distance and open collections up to anyone and everyone online. According to website ‘Statistic Brain,’ at the start of this year Twitter had 645,750,000 active registered users. Whilst many museums have their own Twitter accounts, sharing information and images with followers, many of which contributed to Museum Selfie day, #MuseumSelfie was about users, museum professionals and museum goers alike, directing their own content and providing each other with access to museums, objects and personal moments of engagement.
Museum Selfie day also raises questions about the power of in-gallery mobile technology and how the digital can affect engagement with museum objects. In November 2013 I attended a one-day workshop, ‘Beyond the Digital Guide: Cultural objects, gallery spaces, and mobile devices,’ hosted by Carl Hogsden at the University of Cambridge and facilitated by Ross Parry and Alex from the University of Leicester. The workshop focussed on designing and thinking through mobile technology used in-gallery. When mobile technology is used within galleries, in close proximity to objects, does the technology bring the visitor closer or distance the visitor from the object? When designed to encourage the visitor to look at the detail of the object and explore its many stories, mobile technologies can offer a more intimate and expanded engagement with an object. Of course #museumselfie was not about a designed experience but a more inspired and in-the-moment engagement with museums. Many of the selfies uploaded for Museum Selfie day reflected the possibility of the digital to draw visitors’ attention to objects; in a huge amount of the photos, visitors recreated or interacted with poses, stances and facial expressions of sculptures and portraits. People were relooking at the shapes, textures, and meanings of museum objects closely to get the best selfie.
The most successful digital engagement projects seem to either fill a gap or solve a problem, or tap into ways people already engage with world. Taking a selfie, the word of 2013, has become a natural behaviour for audiences and it was an inspired idea from Mar Dixon and Cultural Themes to play on this.
#MuseumSelfie was mostly about having fun! Several museum professionals took it as a chance to show behind the scenes goings on, and many revealed a playful side. Museums were having fun with their own organisations and collections, and museum-goers were having fun finding objects to feature and finding the right pose. The selfies also showed people having fun in museums together!
There also seemed to be an air of cheekiness. Some photos show people inserting mobile phones into the hands of sculptures, definitely not a typically allowed museum behaviour. This made me reflect on the interesting subject of museum etiquettes. Constance Classen and David Howes have written a great deal on this, with a particular focus on the historical shifts in sensory engagement within museums (see Classen and Howes 2006; Classen 2007). There are of course good collections-care-based reasons behind ‘no touch’ policies, but a few people seemed to protest this or took their selfies without a thought for this policy. Part of the now habitual selfie-taking is often engaging with the things around you, in an embodied and multisensory way that contrasts the largely visual experience established within museums.
This moment of mass digital engagement further raises interesting questions about the dangers of objects being removed from their context and being used by visitors who may not understand or value the object’s stories. Many museum objects, particularly within ethnographic collections, carry certain sensitivities. Museums should (though perhaps do not always successfully) display objects with these sensitivities in mind. To what extent must and can museums ‘protect’ these objects and their stakeholder communities? There is much debate around the display of objects that within their original context should not be viewed by people of a particular sex, age, status etc. or those that are the subject of controversial ownership debates. Although most objects that appeared within people’s selfies were ‘harmless,’ the question of who can and should control engagement with these more sensitive objects is pertinent.
Building on #MuseumSelfie, #MuseumVideos day was held on 26th February. Last Spring, Megha Ragjuru spoke at the ‘Brave New Worlds: Transforming Museum Ethnography through Technology’ Museum Ethnographers Group conference about the prevalence of museum-based YouTube videos. Similar to some of the behaviours and impacts of Museum Selfie day, through their YouTube videos visitors are increasing worldwide access to museums and their collections, sharing personal interpretations and experiences, and deconstructing and reappropriating exhibitions and objects. Filming, in opposition to photographing, perhaps offers more scope for storytelling. I look forward to what these continued digital engagements with museums will bring!
by LORNA CRUICKSHANKS
Sources and further reading
Classen, C. 2007 Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum, Journal of Social History 40:4: 895-914
Classen, C. and Howes, D. 2006 ‘The Museum as Sensescape: Western Sensibilities and Indigenous Artifacts’, in Sensible Objects; Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, edited by Elizabeth Edwards, Chris Gosden and Ruth Phillips (Oxford: Berg)
Rajguru, M. 16th April 2013 ‘See how I see it? Museum ethnography through the eyes of the museum visitor’, at ‘Brave New Worlds: Transforming Museum Ethnography through Technology’ conference