Do selfies and smartphones belong in museums? Many curators say yes.


Today is #MuseumSelfie day, an annual happening started by a group of clever museum professionals last year. And though it’s not like they needed an excuse to hold up their phones and pose, Bostonians are already doing their part to contribute — even Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers has chimed in.

But the presence of tech within such hallowed halls belies a broader question that museums across the country are grappling with. For these keepers of history, what’s the best way to integrate cutting edge tech onto their exhibit floors?

“People don’t necessarily come to the museum to come for the content,” said Mark Check, vice president of information and interactive technology at the Museum of Science. “Our studies are showing us that people are coming for a social experience.” Cue selfie.

Check describes the MoS as a “very hands on, very engaged, very kinetic type of institution,” a vibe that’s somewhat at odds with our generation’s advanced smartphone-addiction.

So the museum is leaning in, using the tech already in their visitors’ hands to enhance their experience. A collaboration is underway with local company ByteLight to design location aware exhibits that activate a phone or tablet when a visitor approaches.

Check also envisions visitors using their devices as a digital treasure map to track down the exhibits that match the themes they are most interested in. Boston startup Spotzer raised a round of funding early this year to sell exactly that kind of experience, powdered by bluetooth “beacon” technology, that connects smartphones with exhibits.

Spotzer has already run pilot tests at places like the Boston Athenaeum, MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, and New York’s Neue Galerie.

At the Boston Children’s Museum, project director Tim Porter has been lobbying for a smartphone app since 2008, barely a year after the first iPhone was launched. This year, the museum will finally deploy one that’ll enrich visitors’ experience a brand-new Asian cultures exhibit.

“There’s this tension between wanting to connect with visitors and wanting to give them experiences to connect outside of the digital realm, [and] provide connections to the real world,” said Porter.

Museums have social media teams for expert outreach, promoting new exhibits and openings on Twitter and Facebook. But recently, the MFA decided to use Instagram, inviting a group of high-profile Instagrammers to shoot smartphone pictures two hours before its 10 am opening. (It borrowed from photographer Dave Krugman’s project #EmptyMet, in which Instagrammers posted photos of one another in an empty New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

Such efforts are all in keeping with MFA director Malcolm Rogers’ vision for the museum. In a lecture last year celebrating his 20 years with the institution, he told an audience that Tim Burners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, was among his many influences. The reason? Lee has provided us with limitless possibilities to share art with the world.

All of which means that selfies are welcome at the MFA. The museum encourages them, in fact, a spokesperson said. After all, it means people will spend a bit more time with a piece.

Photo of the MFA by Flickr user Andrew Catellier.

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at [email protected].
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