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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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