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/

Selfies with the Dead: ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ and the Dehumanisation of Human Remains

Content Warning: Discussion of human remains in this blog post. No actual images of human remains are used, however there are images of digital human remains from the Shadow of the Tomb Raider video game, so please be advised.

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(Image Credit: Dia Lacina via Waypoint)

Recently, the third instalment of the rebooted Tomb Raider video game franchise was released. This game, titled Shadow of the Tomb Raider, places playable heroine Lara Croft in Meso-America and South America attempting to stop a Mayan apocalypse that she had unknowingly set into motion after stealing an artefact.

The game has received a fair bit of criticism not only for its gameplay, but for the content of the story itself. Despite being a property who has been in the public eye for over two decades, Tomb Raider has never been able to truly shake off its title – Lara Croft has always been a looter of tombs and ruins, despite any good intentions. Although this recent instalment has arguably made the most effort in confronting the inherent colonialism of being a “tomb raider”, the game still reproduces much of it itself (see Lacina 2018). Dia Lacina’s article on Tomb Raider and colonialism is a thorough breakdown of the game’s attempt to critique its own problematic setting, but only briefly mentions the problems caused by the game’s photo mode. What I would like to add, as an archaeologist, is how the photo mode plays into a well-known trope of colonisation: the dehumanisation of specific people, particularly their remains.

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(Image Credit: Resetera Community Member Sabrina)

Let me preface all of this by saying that I do not necessarily think the developers of the game intended for the photo mode to be used to take “silly” selfies with human remains! Photo modes in video games has been a relatively recent trend, with big name games like God of War and Spider-Man having their own versions of a photo mode as part of their gameplay. However, due to the context of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, the addition of a photo mode touches upon an issue regarding human remains that I slightly touched upon in last week’s blog post: what are the ethics of displaying and photographing remains?

This question is a relatively recent one, coming as part of a renewed interest in the ethics of remains amongst archaeological bloggers, writers, and curators. Harries et al. (2018) write that although there are plenty of ethical guidelines for the handling and display of  human remains, less work has been done on creating uniform guidelines for displaying photographs of human remains. This is mainly due to a key debate that is still underway: are photographs and other depictions of remains equal to the actual remains? Or are they just a likeness, and therefore a separate thing? Is the very act of making the dead the subject of your photo (without their consent) an act of objectifying and dehumanising them?

To further tie these questions in with the themes of Tomb Raider, let’s consider dehumanisation. Dehumanisation of human remains, as well as living humans, was and still is a key component to colonisation efforts. The remains of Indigenous people across North America were often displayed as “educational tools” in museums or as “oddities and curiosities” in roadside exhibits. Regardless of the setting or the perceived intention, these places had commodified these human remains, removing any agency and “othering” them as objects on display, rather than people (Rewolinski 2014).

So, is the photographing human remains ethical? I do not claim to have any concrete answers, of course, but I think in the case of Tomb Raider, what changes the answer is the fact that the player, as Lara Croft, can take selfies with human remains. In this context, it could be argued that the human remains are used as props – the same way one would pose with a statue, a landmark, or any other object. Not to mention that many players use the dead in-game for the purposes of hilarity, juxtaposing a corpse with Lara Croft’s awkward smile (McGladdery 2018). I’d argue that the use of a dead body for one’s punchline would consist of dehumanisation, to be honest.

So perhaps the next time you, or Lara Croft, come across human remains…maybe put the camera away. And reflect on why you instantly “other” the remains before you, instead of treating them as what they represent: a person who once lived.

Screenshot_2018-10-01 Andy Kelly on Twitter
(Image Credit: Andy Kelly via Twitter)

References

Harries, J. et al. (2018) Exposure: the Ethics of Making, Sharing, and Displaying Photographs of Human Remains. Human Remains and Violence. 4(1). pp. 3-24.

Lacina, D. (2018). ‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’ Tries, but Fails, to Tackle its Own Colonialism. Waypoint. https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialismhttps://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/d3jgeq/shadow-of-the-tomb-raider-review-tries-but-fails-to-tackle-its-own-colonialism

McGladdery, M. (2018) Grin in the Face of Danger: Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s Hilarious Photo Mode. LAD Bible. http://www.ladbible.com/technology/gaming-shadow-of-the-tomb-raiders-hilarious-photo-mode-20180913

Rewolinski, D. (2014) Remains to be Seen: the Disparate Disposition of Culturally Unidentified Human Remains under NAGPRA’s Final Rule. Unpublished Thesis. New York University.

Square Enix. (2018). Shadow of the Tomb Raider.