In a true procrastinator’s fashion, I attended the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts’ exhibition This Is Not a Selfie on the last day it was open.

Admittedly, I did not know what to expect as far as contents for the show, but I had seen friends’ and acquaintances’ social media abuzz with images- mainly selfies- from the show since it opened August 25, 2018. Based on their posts, I anticipated bright, bold imagery, interactive exhibits, and I assumed that photographs were at the crux of it all. I was mostly right, and yet, the artworks featured in the exhibition were not selfies at all. They were photographed portraits of all varieties.

The show was laid out in an atypical fashion, as far as traditional photography exhibits that I’ve seen go. Photos were displayed in all different frames, at varied heights, in unusual arrangements, with little thematic continuity. The majority of images were self-portraits by the artists, largely experimental in nature with then-new techniques, but none taken at arms’ length: true to the show’s title.

So the exhibition featured portraits, some of which were self-portraits, with bold, attention-grabbing selfie stations interspersed throughout. I observed many people flocking toward the interactives over the revolutionary photographs displayed on the walls, and it got me thinking. These selfie stations were simply advertising schticks! Designed and placed there to attract visitors to the show, and for visitors to provide authentic, user-generated content to share on their social profiles using the MFA’s prescribed tag. Genius!

This made me wonder: have we graduated past the age of shock value and therefore need new hooks to raise attendance? We’ve become so desensitized to media and traditionally shocking things like gore, incest, and nudity, that we’ve turned to the next most interesting thing: ourselves. Museums continue to battle the stigma of being stoic, yawn-inducing institutions where you have to whisper and “understand” the subject matter, so they are constantly looking for ways to bolster excitement and attendance.

In the age of the blockbuster exhibition with such gems as David Bowie Is, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, Michael Jackson On the Wall, and [now seemingly tame] predecessors like The Treasures of Tutankhamun, Bodies, and Picasso.Mania, less well-endowed museums have some lofty competition to bring in visitors. In that sense, the MFA’s Not A Selfie was a solid move. With a relatively low budget fueling the show, the MFA saw throngs of new visitors and got them to advertise the attraction for them.

But at what cost?

Don’t get me wrong: I probably would not have attended the show if not for the selfie-driven advertising surrounding it. Even if you had insisted that I see the exhibition of photo portraits borrowed from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art with no other context, chances are I wouldn’t have carved out an otherwise beautiful Sunday to catch it on its last day. So the schtick worked! But what message did these selfie stations send their audience? Were the actual works of art as revered as the photo ops were, and was this even the intention? Most importantly, will these selfie-taking visitors ever return to the Museum?

We’d love to hear your thoughts on these advertising gimmicks and their effectiveness. Share your experiences in the comments below!

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