The Instagram Museum: Visitor Participation in the Age of the Selfie

Visitors taking a selfie at the Museum of Ice Cream (Photo Credit: Laura Morton)

Have you ever heard of an “Instagram Museum”? Often temporary, these pop-up exhibitors are often part-art gallery, part-immersive experience, but all about the selfie. Although the Museum of Ice Cream, which first opened up in NYC in 2016, is arguably the most famous of these Instagram Museums, it wasn’t the first – for that, we turn to the Renwick Gallery in 2015. There, a exhibition called “Wonder” became hugely popular due to the Instagram-friendly environment. Although the exhibition quickly embraced the popularity, with new signs stating that photography was encouraged, it should be noted that the exhibition was never intended to be an Instagram hot spot (Pardes 2017). The trend continued throughout 2017 and 2018, with many pop-up exhibits following in the footsteps of the Museum of Ice Cream and more or less opening as a series of interconnected photo-ops, mostly about food (DeJesus 2018).

In some way, we can see the popularity of these exhibits as a logical continuation of visitor participation in museum spaces – specifically art museums. Art inherently asks the viewer to engage through the senses, with some pieces taking this further than others through immersive experiences, of course – but what about other museums? Specifically, scientific and historical museum spaces? These museums already have their own forms of participation – think of natural history museums which have displays of animal bones for guests to pick up, or of history museums that have re-enactors speak to guests in period-specific characters. Ultimately, Instagram Museums are taking the next step, moving from simply engaging with material and placing the visitors in the material (which, coincidentally, is also perfect for a selfie!).

Woven thread artwork by Gabriel Dawe at the “Wonder” exhibition at the Renwick Gallery (Photo Credit: Rachel Barron)

So, what are the implications of these spaces, specifically with regards to the future of museums? For starters, I’d say that it marks a shift in the level of participation that is desired by some visitors – that immersion is key, which has also been seen in the popularity of immersive art collective places such as Meow Wolf. “Wonder” curator Nicholas Bell probably states it best: “It’s like this new first-person narrative of the museum experience” (Judkis 2016). And while many museums will want to further capitalise on this trend for the sake of marketing and raising tourism, I also think it raises an interesting new perspective by which future museums could be intentionally designed and curated around. Again, visitor participation is nothing new – but, to take Bell’s phrase, how can we shift the perspective to a first-person narrative? And, more specifically, what does a first-person narrative mean to a museum whose exhibitions are more “objective”? Imagine this perspective as applied to a science museum, in which an exhibit is tailored to engage the visitor in an immersive experience focused on the evolution of humankind. As we find ourselves able to conjure up images and videos of faraway things in an instant thanks to the Internet, how do we allow museums to take it a step further with regards to providing a new perspective to visitors?

To end this blog post, I should point out that I originally drafted this prior to the 2020 pandemic, so the question of what these immersive experiences may influence in museums moving forward is even more complicated. As I write this post, a majority of the United States and the United Kingdom have re-opened to the public, albeit with many new safety and health measures installed. Although the unfortunate reality is that some of these participation-friendly will continue to operate as usual – perhaps with the bare minimum of occasionally sanitising exhibits – many of these museums will find that they will need to drastically change with the times, thereby ending the forward momentum of this trend. As museums, generally speaking, struggle to survive during a pandemic, how will they also contend with the changes of visitor engagement and participation? What does it mean to a curator that visitors are contexualising their museum experience through protective screens, masks, and the heavy burden of a world in crisis around them?

References

DeJesus, E. (2018) Fake Food Museums are Our Greatest Monuments to the Brand Hellscape of 2018. Eater. Retrieved from https://www.eater.com/2018/12/21/18151663/fake-museum-of-ice-cream-pizza-instagram

Goldburg, G. (2017) Double Scoop of Fantasy at Museum of Ice Cream in SF. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.sfchronicle.com/style/article/Double-scoop-of-fantasy-at-Museum-of-Ice-Cream-in-12216063.php#photo-14127511

Judkis, M. (2016) The Renwick is Suddenly Instagram Famous. But What about the Art? The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/the-renwick-is-suddenly-instagram-famous-but-what-about-the-art/2016/01/07/07fbc6fa-b314-11e5-a76a-0b5145e8679a_story.html

Pardes, A. (2017) Selfie Factories: The Rise of the Made-for-Instagram Museum. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/selfie-factories-instagram-museum/

Where is the Line Between “Respectful” and “Objectifying”? Some Thoughts on Death Positivity and Academia.

I recently finished reading Caitlyn Doughty’s book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death (2017), which I absolutely loved. As an archaeologist whose research is partially focused on funerary archaeologies, I was happy to find a non-judgemental book detailing the diversity of death practices and cultures around the world. However, I couldn’t help but wonder about “death positivity” (for example, see Doughty’s movement for more positive and normalised engagement with death and dying – see more in this blog post) within academia…what actually is the line between “respectful” and “objectifying”?

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Note: This is a 3D-printed replica of a human skull.

For starters, let me note that Doughty makes clear that her death positivity movement, known as The Order of the Good Death, is based on respect – particularly in regards to the deceased person’s wishes, the cultural values and ways in which death is engaged with that are non-Western/European, and not viewing said death cultures as “oddities” (Doughty 2011, Kelly 2017). In this blog post, however, I am speaking of “death positivity” as a broader movement, which includes but is not exclusive to Doughty’s specific approach. In particular, I am interested in the sort of “death positivity” that  appears in research disciplines and fields that are intimately connected to death studies, such as bioarchaeology and osteology.

As someone who works within these fields, I have a lot of first hand experience of seeing how academics engage with death, both as a concept and as a tangible thing in the form of remains. Amongst some academics, it’s hard not to shake this feeling of pride in their hands-on engagement with the dead – whether it’s by writing about death freely and without fear in literature and papers and texts, or by trying to share these positive interactions with others through hands-on workshops and demonstrations and, again, death positive movements, to show that there is nothing to fear from the dead or from death itself.

But at what point can “respect” cross into “objectification”? Many archaeologists decorate their offices with models of skeletons – sometimes even with real human bones – is that respectful adoration of their research subjects, or reduction of human remains to their ornamental value (side note: I am currently writing this from my home office which is covered with animal bones – both real and fake – so this is not me trying to be sanctimonious or preachy!)? What about how we approach physical analysis of the dead? I know some scientists who refer to their research subjects by name and treat them as though they were alive – on the opposite side, I also know scientists who give unnamed individuals names of their choosing and develop nicknames or imaginary backstories. Is this humanising their research subjects? Or is it (unintentionally) demonstrating dominance over the narrative of a deceased person’s life (and death)?

Perhaps the most serious example of this question is when it crosses paths with research ethics – for example, when a skeleton that could be considered scientifically important for X reason is also being called for immediate repatriation and reburial by the deceased person’s living descendants (Lambert 2012). Is refusing to repatriate these remains until scientific analysis is done a sign of “respect” – in that the deceased person is now (posthumously) contributed to scientific knowledge – or is it “objectification” – in that the deceased person is reduced to data? I’d like to believe that most scientists today would agree with the latter and choose to repatriate and rebury the remains…but, unfortunately, there are still those who decry these acts of respect as “social justice gone awry” or “anti-science”.

I don’t blame folks who think the idea of physical analysis of human remains as a whole could be disrespectful (not including situations in which one has the deceased person’s consent to donate their body to science, of course). Archaeological research of human remains has resulted in a greater understanding of the past and the people who lived within it…but often as the result of racist, colonial approaches that dehumanises and objectifies others. Science has (finally!) begun to take ethical considerations seriously, but we still have a long way to go to regain a semblance of morality in the grander scheme of things.

As with many – if not all! –  of these blog posts, I don’t necessarily have an answer to the overarching question. I think there’s less to debate with regards to repatriation cases, particularly when it concerns the bodies of Indigenous ancestors. But, despite how circular and perhaps unanswerable these thoughts and questions may be, I wonder if we, as academics and scientists who work with death, need to think more about our actions and how we ultimately contribute to death cultures today.

References

Doughty, C. (2011) The Tenets of the Death Positive Movement. The Order of the Good Death. Retrieved from http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/death-positive.

Doughty, C. (2017) From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Kelly, K. (2017) Welcome the Reaper: Caitlyn Doughty and the ‘Death Positivity’ Movement. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/27/caitlin-doughty-death-positivity

Lambert, P.M. (2012) Ethics and Issues in the Use of Human Skeletal Remains in Paleopathology. In A.L. Grauer (ed) A Companion to Paleopathology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 17-33.