It’s possible, though unlikely, that you’ve managed to make it through the last few weeks without hearing about the biggest news story in museums, a slowly unfolding epic tale that has been reported breathlessly moment by moment by news outlets both big and small. A story that is so important that even museums who aren’t yet involved are being asked to weigh in. You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out, gentle reader, because you are living through The Great Museum Selfie Stick Ban of 2015.
Just think! Years from now, you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren stories of how, in 2015, museums around the world collectively said “enough!” and banished selfie sticks to the Land of Wind and Ghosts. They will listen in rapt attention, marveling at sepia-toned tales of the era before The Ban in which hundreds of museum visitors a day wandered around brandishing selfie sticks openly and wantonly. You will chuckle to yourself, thinking how little we knew back then. We used to be able to go into a museum, of all places, and take photos of ourselves from three feet away with sticks? Why didn’t we just go ahead and smoke cigarettes on airplanes while we were at it?
So, yeah. We here in the museum world have been dealing with the media’s fascination with our recent prohibitions of selfie sticks for a few weeks now. It seems that nearly every day yet another museum announces that it is banning the dreaded selfie stick, and nearly every day a new article dutifully appears in some publication reporting about said museum’s prohibition of the popular self-expression object/practical device/signifier of cultural decay. This story refuses to die. A full accounting of the number of articles on The Ban might lead one to believe that this is the most important issue facing museums at this moment, or at least that selfie sticks were somehow pervasive in museums before The Ban took effect.
Neither is the case, of course. If there is a real story here, it is that at the same time The Ban is sweeping across the museum world, many museums are actually liberalizing their photography policies. Here at the Blanton, prohibiting selfie sticks was almost an afterthought, added in at the last minute after several weeks of discussion about loosening up our own policies. We already prohibited tripods, monopods, and other pointy things, so we had a de facto selfie stick ban in place anyway. I honestly don’t know, when we began to play our part in The Ban, if we had actually ever even seen anyone try to use a selfie stick in the galleries. We were mostly focused on making sure we were allowing our visitors the maximum amount of expression while still ensuring the long-term safety of the objects in our care. The real story, for us, was not “we’re banning selfie sticks” but rather “visitors can take more photos and videos than ever before.”
But “museums liberalizing photography policies” isn’t a great story for the media, because that story doesn’t make conspicuous use of the popular search term “selfie.”
I seriously doubt that any of the reporters covering The Ban truly think this is big news. But they (and their editors) do know that any article with the word “selfie” in the title is likely to have waaaaay more page views than an article that doesn’t. And page views and clicks are what matter—the actual story being told is largely irrelevant. It didn’t matter if the real story was “museums are finally allowing photography,” because the hook that would get users to click the link was the word “selfie,” and that’s the quote-unquote angle most of the media went with. (Though I give much credit to the New York Times for providing some real context in their coverage of The Ban.)
I recognize that optimizing content to maximize search engine hits is Just How The Media Works Now, and that complaining about it is effectively the “get off my lawn” of the Twenty-Tens. I accept that. But watching The Ban somehow turn into a big story, despite there being virtually no story to tell, worried me. It has long been my contention that a museum that doesn’t appear in search results for a given topic is effectively not an authority on that topic, no matter how many experts it may employ. And seeing how the story of The Ban grew made me realize how difficult appearing in search results is going to be for museums.
Fundamentally, I think it would be wrong to ask a curator here at the Blanton to re-write his or her essay in listicle form just so we can get all the likes. The way that museums produce content just isn’t geared for Search Engine Optimization. But at the same time, this non-optimized content we produce is having a harder and harder time finding an audience organically. And by not attempting to show up in search results, we’re effectively making a decision to give up on using our online presence as a means of reaching people we wouldn’t—or couldn’t—reach otherwise.
There’s got to be a middle way here, and I don’t yet know what that is. I see promise in Google’s possible move towards using facts as a way to rank search results, but museums (art museums, anyway) rarely traffic in the kinds of facts that could be added to Google’s Knowledge Vault. So I don’t know how much of a difference that will make if and when Google moves in that direction. I certainly think there’s value in playing the long game and sticking to our guns, hoping that great content will win in the end. But I don’t know—by the time it does (if it does), will museums still have a place on the Internet?