Museums For Selfies: A New Kind Of Culture Or Pure Commerce?

Exhibitions in the U.S. are held specifically to allow visitors to take pictures of themselves. European museum curators cringe, but competition for the attention of the social-media generation is real.

At SF's Museum of Ice Cream
At SF's Museum of Ice Cream
Florian Delafoi

SAN FRANCISCO — In the center of San Francisco, an elegant building with columns attracts attention. In the 1900s, the massive structure housed a bank. Today, its facade is covered with pink stripes and a large inscription: "Museum of Ice Cream." A new cultural spot dedicated to the history of ice cream and other sweet summer treats? Absolutely not.

This museum is a temple for selfie enthusiasts. Inside, visitors pose amid a brightly colored decor. In the center are astonishing installations: a unicorn, a pool of rainbow noodles, or giant candy. People wait patiently to get the perfect shot, to be posted right away on Instagram. More than 100,000 photos have already been uploaded with the hashtag #museumoficecream.

The concept has been spreading around the United States. Three temporary versions of the Museum of Ice Cream have already opened throughout the country, the first one in New York in 2016.

"We're all looking to create content and kind of build our own personal brands ... and show who we are as individuals," the museum's founder, Maryellis Bunn, said on the American radio network NPR. "The museum serves, I think, to do that quite well. And every room is built in mind with how do you create the best capture for photography and social."

The Museum of Ice Cream is not the only place to offer this kind of experience. Other spaces have opened, such as the Color Factory or 29Rooms. The first is a room filled with confetti, the second is a room decorated with flower garlands. The spaces may be designed by artists, but are they museums? "The United States is the place for original experiments in the museum world. But the best ones stand alongside the worst," said Pascal Griener, an art history professor at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland.

These exhibits are inspired by photogenic art installations and become famous on social media networks. Wonder, which opened at the Smithsonian in 2015, seduced contemporary art lovers, many of whom took photos of themselves in front of the giant rainbow made of thread. In 2012, Rain Room drew huge crowds at the Barbican in London. In the exhibit, rain fell inside the room but would stop just before coming into contact with visitors.

Museums have to come up with new ways to solicit visitors.

Marco Costantini, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Design and Applied Arts (MUDAC) in Lausanne, has looked to accommodate this new need to photograph oneself at a museum. He even encouraged visitors to do so at the exhibition Mirror Mirror, which looked at the reign of the image: "Sometimes, it's only through doing this kind of thing, which appears ridiculous or absurd, that we encourage visitors to ask themselves questions."

American entrepreneurs have picked up on the scent. The "Museum of Ice Cream" project, for example, has styled the New York version after the dating app Tinder. For Bunn, this is about businesses getting a "return on investment." The target audience? Generation Y, aka, Millennials. Bunn's dream is to compete with Disney theme parks.

It is an ambition that diverges from the classic definition of a museum. According to the Paris-based International Council of Museums, a museum is "a non-profit making, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for purposes of study, education and enjoyment, material evidence of people and their environment."

It is a serious and honorable mission that does not appear to correspond to the new concepts flourishing on the other side of the Atlantic. These extreme examples are nevertheless capable of shaking up traditional museums, which are being forced to reinvent themselves. "Straightforward visits, as we knew them in the 19th century, will more or less disappear. Museums have to come up with new ways to solicit visitors," explained Griener, the art history professor.

In Lausanne, the Musée de l'Elysée recently unveiled a new interactive space. In the installation, internet users were invited to post photos to social media with the hashtag #ceciestimportant (#thisisimportant). The shots then appeared on a screen on the wall. The goal: to show the impact of "this extreme popularity of photography, in a place like a museum, which contrasts with this trend," the museum explained.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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