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GLENDALE, Calif. — Selfies are now receiving the museum treatment. Selfies (or, if you want to be generous, photographic self-portraits) have been critiqued as symbols of millennial narcissism, but also celebrated as examples of defiant self-representation. The Museum of Selfies, which opens in the LA suburb of Glendale on April 1, wears its museum identity lightly. It’s halfway between silly sites like the Museum of Ice Cream — essentially, brightly-colored photography studios geared toward Instagrammers — and more traditional art institutions.
The hybrid nature of the space is apparent immediately. The walls are painted bright colors and explanatory placards have limited text in large fonts. Hashtags abound, inviting visitors to comment on the sights as they’re being experienced. Much of the art on display is digital, like sci-fi-style graphics of robots taking selfies.
Part of what makes the museum accessible is that it doesn’t presuppose any prior knowledge of art history. Its timeline of selfies whizzes from the Big Bang all the way to 2018 (naturally, with the opening of the Museum of Selfies), with stops in between for cave drawings and innovations in portraiture and photography. To keep the parade of dates and facts from becoming dry, the timeline is perched high above eye-popping displays, including a life-size recreation of Van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles” (1888). There’s also a 1920s-style photo studio, where all the objects are in grayscale.
The design of these spaces, though different from most museums, is meticulous and impressive, a testament to the curator’s background designing video games and escape rooms. Another room looks like a gym, but its mirrors distort the visitor’s reflection, a comment on the “gym selfie” subgenre, and on the ways that self-representation often misrepresent.
But the highlight of the Museum of Selfies may be the bathroom, which ushers visitors in with a brief description of how bathroom selfies have gone from awkward and maligned to an Instagram staple. There’s a delightful, incongruous shock upon seeing the bathroom “mirror.” Where the visitor’s reflection should be, the curator has designed a mirror image of the room with perfect symmetry. There’s such attention to detail with the props that it isn’t immediately obvious why one’s own reflection doesn’t show up.
The museum excels at evoking a sense of childlike wonder and surprise around each corner. Massive displays of fake food poke fun at the popularity of selfies taken with food. A sparkly VW Beetle is there to references selfies taken in the driver’s seat, or in front of fancy cars. And a room lined with black tape, which form stark lines on a white background, pays tribute to Darel Carey’s tape installations.
These references are sometimes a bit strained. A recreation of the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones, constructed out of selfie sticks, is eye-catching. But the description, which likens the battle for dominance over the Seven Kingdoms to the struggle to stay popular on social media, is a stretch.
In general, the labels do little more than explain, in a “fun facts” kind of way, that a certain type of selfie is popular. It touches upon the debate over who owns a selfie taken by a monkey, gendered differences in the popularity of selfies, and the damage to artworks caused by selfie-obsessed museum visitors. But these are all discussed briefly. A description of museum damage turns into an opportunity for visitors to themselves take a selfie with a Renaissance-style sculpture, which has already been broken into pieces. The Museum of Selfies aims to entertain, more than enlighten.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Just as selfies can counter the stuffiness and formality of certain traditions of self-portraiture, the Museum of Selfies is a counterweight to pompous art museums. With its unexpected objects ― including an “edible selfie” on a cookie, and what has been billed as the world’s largest selfie stick ― it falls into the “Wow, that’s cool,” rather than the “Hmm, that’s interesting,” school of art appreciation. There will of course be detractors, but as artworks like the Rain Room and Carsten Höller’s outdoor slides have shown, art doesn’t need to be sober and somber to be worth considering.
The museum could be more comprehensive. Visitors interact with the space by taking selfies, of course, but there’s little attention to the widespread practice of manipulating selfies; there’s also little attention to connections between selfies and other types of portraits. And while it’s laudable that the museum is, in theory, attempting to make art history accessible, the $25 ticket price is a clear barrier to entry.
Still, the powerful response to the creation of the museum points to the importance of selfies as a cultural phenomenon that deserves thoughtful attention. The Museum of Selfies is trying to have it both ways: acting as both a playground for selfie-takers, and a gently educational venue for learning about self-portraiture. It doesn’t commit deeply to either. But the attempt is cheering.
The Museum of Selfies (211 N. Brand Boulevard, Glendale, California) is open from April 1 to May 31.