Photography with Selfie-sticks:
A Safety Concern for some Museums

Robert Foreman

The art of the selfie may be evolving, but some prime selfie locations are not jumping on the bandwagon. The selfie-stick – notoriously named the Narcisstick – has been banned at multiple museums in Canada. The tool, which allows people to take self-portraits with their smart-phones at a distance further than arm’s reach, is a concern for some museums.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is one of the latest Canadian museums in the spotlight after forbidding selfie-sticks inside the exhibitions in March 2015. While some people try to use the argument that it is restrictive of the very thing that the museum stands for, vice president public affairs Angela Cassie said that the museum has always promoted photography in the museum for non-commercial use.

“Even before selfie-sticks we tried to encourage the use of handheld recording devices,” she said. However, Cassie said that safety and visitor experience were some reasons they do “not allow selfie-sticks within the museum.”

The CMHR is not the only museum that says safety is an issue with selfie-sticks. The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) has also joined the growing list of institutions forbidding the tool. But what could be so dangerous about a thin metal stick, you may ask? Some museums argue that the danger is both to people, as well as the exhibitions themselves. AGO director of membership and visitor services, Sandra Dobroski, said that people become unaware of their surroundings, while using selfie-sticks.

“If people are taking selfies and they walk backward into the art, it can be damaging to our art,” she said. Dobroski also noted that selfie-stick users might be unaware of the people around them, and potentially walk backwards into a group of people.

Cassie’s explanation for banning the selfie-stick at the CMHR is unique to the museum itself, with an emphasis on the safety of visitors. The museum has many ramps and staircases that overlap each other as well as a tower.

“Having selfie-sticks that would hold a phone over rails, there is an increased chance of falling objects,” Cassie said.
“In some cases it can be a 200 foot drop in our museum.”

For this reason, the museum also discourages backpacks beyond a certain size, tripods and any other extension devices. All of those items are also banned with the universal concern of damaging artefacts. Cassie said that one of their large installations of Metis beadwork is not covered by glass so that visitors can get as close as they want to view the intricacy. But they do not want people touching the artwork. For this reason, like the AGO, they do not allow visitors to have extension devices or bulky objects that could accidentally bump into the artwork.

With these safety arguments against the selfie-stick, not all museums consider them to be a threat. Places like the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) actually embrace them.

“We encourage people to take photos in the museum, it’s just another tool to allow them to do that,” said the museum’s digital engagement coordinator Ryan Dodge. He thinks that the concerns over people touching the artefacts with the tool are slightly sensationalized.

“You could probably find a handful of incidents where people have touched an artefact with them but the reality is people touch artefacts all the time at museums,” he said. “Selfie-sticks don’t cause people to touch artefacts more so than just not having any barriers or anything like that.”

Dodge said that he thinks the whole issue is born out of the fear of new things. The ROM encourages all forms of visitor photography as an important aspect of how the museum experience is communicated. This also increases the likelihood that visitors will share their experiences on social media, enticing more people to the museum.

“If you’re not encouraging people to take photos in your galleries and share their experiences, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity,” said Dodge. “Selfie-sticks are a really small part of that and it’s unfortunate that some galleries have bought into the fear of what they can do to an object.”

The CMHR and the AGO are still strong supporters of visitor photography — just not with selfie-sticks.The annual event #MuseumSelfie day, a global Twitter project that encourages visitors and curators to take pictures with artefacts, has been successful at most museums no matter what their selfie-stick policies are. January 18, 2017 is when the next #MuseumSelfie day takes place. The event was started in 2014, but not long before that, Dodge said the event would have been nearly impossible.

“I remember when smartphones started coming out and the issue was trying to police what people were doing on their phones in galleries,” he said. “It didn’t really make sense for us to tell people what to do and what not to do in terms of photography.”

Robert Foreman is a freelance journalist studying journalism at Ryerson University. He has worked in two editor positions at the Eyeopener, Ryerson’s independent student newspaper. As a diverse journalist who has covered everything from sports to politics to crime, Robert is accomplished in both print and broadcast.

  This museological report has been made possible through funding from the Government of Canada. This report was also published in Muse Magazine, July/August issue, 2016