Selfies at the Museum

Social media are increasingly utilized by museums to promote their works to an eager audience. The contents and events they hold are far more accessible thanks to the museums’ accounts on digital platforms; they allow their viewers to see far beyond closed doors. However, this also leads to these museums inadvertently advertising themselves as a backdrop for Instagrammable photos. Thus, is a museum’s primary goal changing with the times?

Yayoi Kusama’s exhibition, Life is the Heart of a Rainbow, ran its course through four months at Museum MACAN. It’s divided into three chronological sections, each depending on their work. With an astounding 3,000 visitors per day, it’s quite a struggle to get through the exhibition in ease. Instead of seeing art, you’d be seeing people jostling for a place to pose.

Performance space
Kusama’s artwork is immensely attractive for a splashy backdrop: her swathes of swirls and polka dots are eye-catching, whether online or offline. Waiting times for her famed Infinity Room displays can take up to an hour or longer; inside, you’d only be given 30 seconds to admire the seemingly endless display of lights. Its Obliteration Room, where one can stick stickers to the all-white room (and furniture), had people scrambling for photos instead of stickers in the mere three minutes we were there.

It appears that what people look for isn’t visual art, it’s a performance space.

While Kusama has approved of her artwork being used for a selfie-taking session, it shows a worrying trend in which visual art has become a set piece for a ‘performance’, of sorts. It appears that what people look for isn’t visual art, it’s a performance space. The crowds who willingly wait hours in line to see Kusama’s vivid artwork is, more often than not, there to pose. It seems that even the help text, meant to bring some clarity to Kusuma’s enigmatic work, is just a piece of wall art. They walk along the exhibit as if they’re seen through a lens; maybe they are, as you couldn’t escape the cameras anyway.

A pop-up phenomenon
A side effect of Kusama’s success at her exhibitions is the rise of pop-up museums. A recent addition in Jakarta, Indonesia, is called Moja Museum. MoJA’s fifteen rooms are peppered with cutesy film puns such as “Flower Gump” and “(500) Seats of Summer”. Confusingly enough, despite its actual name (Museum of Jakarta) MoMojaja, MoJA serves no purpose except being a pretty background for people’s social media snaps. Its publicity thrives through social media; an onslaught of social media influencers help to hype its grand opening up.

Nonetheless, flitting through the exhibit rooms leaves a feeble impression of the museum. The interactive museum’s themes seem forced; while all rooms draw inspiration from films, it can be rather hard to sustain enthusiasm as you walk from one room to another, only to see people scramble for the best photo spots. But instead of feeling seen, the crowded museum gives a ghostly quality. With people bustling from one photo spot to the next, it’s not hard to finish your museum tour with a vacuous quality attached to it.

Furthermore, these pop-ups are expensive and often require its audience to be “in the know” to actually visit it. The creators of these pop-up museums have realized that people often want the aesthetics of a museum without actually going to a traditional museum. After all, you couldn’t really take good pictures at such a museum, due to their dark tones and dull colors.

In the end, museums would have a tough challenge in balancing interest and making sure that their content is more substantial than a pretty backdrop to take pictures in. On the meanwhile, visitors would have to contend with rising prices and not much else in return. Visiting a museum is no longer for the posterity of enjoying art; you’re supposed to look polished, sophisticated, and enjoying yourself all the while. But at least you got that perfect shot for your Instagram, right?

Cover: Flickr/KarinaAfandy / Final Editor: Ivo Martens

Karina Afandy
Hailing from Indonesia, Karina is currently studying Communication Science at UvA. Whenever she’s not stressing about the films she’s going to watch next, you can find her reading history books or napping.

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