Museums are banning 'selfie sticks', the extendable poles that attach to your phone to take Bigger Better Selfies. It's a no-brainer, really. Long metal poles and distracted visitors focused on their selfies are a recipe for disaster in museums brimming with fragile and precious treasures. And it's an intrusion on other visitors' space, imposing a cordon around the selfie-taker. I don't blame people with selfie sticks; museums themselves are giving out the message that art exists so that it can be a backdrop for selfies. But oddly even people who have argued that people should be able to behave exactly as the please in 'their' museums have endorsed a selfie stick ban. It's an intrusion too far, though I do wonder how the decide where to draw the line (and who gets to draw the line).
What has surprised me is the way the story has taken off. Why has it captured the imagination? I think it epitomises the tensions of the museum experience today. The 'official' message is that museums must become more accessible and relevant: fewer rules, more fun, more technology. But a lot of people are actually uneasy with that proposition. Just read the comment threads, here at the Guardian for example, to see many people railing against the behaviour of selfie-taking visitors. In my experience it's not just crusty old art lovers who are objecting. People don't want their museums to be simply an extension of the street; they actually want a differentiated experience, they want to engage with art and they want to learn more.
I've led a cloistered life, and I'm uncomfortable in all kinds of social situations. I'm still not quite sure which cutlery I should be using in nice restaurants, and no matter how much I try I still can't get a tie to sit right. But for many people the ritual is part of the point of a nice restaurant - dressing up and using the right tools is part of their pleasure. How daft would it be to insist that restaurants become more accessible by letting everyone eat with their fingers (and, incidentally, taking photos of meals is frowned on in nice restaurants too). It's not just high-end restaurants; pop concerts and sports have their rituals too, and people actively seek to become part of them, learning and adopting shared forms of behaviour. There's nothing elitist about it, provided anyone in principle can partake.
People - even young people and even people who like to share selfies on social media - appreciate differentiated experiences. There are places to dress up, and places to dress down, venues for raucous behaviour and others demanding reverence. We all instinctively get this. We don't need to be told to behave differently at a wedding or a funeral, a football match or a night at the opera. But museums struggle with the concept. They pay half-hearted lip service to the idea that some people go to look at art and might be distracted by selfie-taking mobs, suggesting they might spare an hour a week when the museum would prohibit selfies. But the mainly emphasise their openness, their willingness to let people behave exactly as they please. Their obsession with relevance and access is actually ruining the experience for everyone, because if museums are nothing special there's no good reason for people to go in the first place.
Banning selfie sticks is a good start, but it's only a start. Bring back the photo ban, National Gallery!