While smartphone selfies are a 21st century phenomenon, the first selfies appeared more than 33 centuries ago. Archaeologists, discovered a selfie made in 1365 BCE by Pharaoh Akhenaten's chief sculptor Bak. The great Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn is the all-time king of the selfie. He painted self-portraits from the time he was a young man, until shortly before his death in 1669.
During the first half of the 19th century selfies became a photographic staple. Robert Cornelius, a life long Philadelphian, is reputed to have made the first photo selfie in 1839. The famous US Civil War photographer Mathew Brady made many self-portraits.
Travelers have been making selfies in front of favorite sights such as the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, at the edge of the magnificent Grand Canyon, or while just having a meal on a cruise, since photography became mainstream.
I like selfies and have been making them for years. For travelers, perhaps more than others, selfies capture precious memories they can review for a lifetime and share with friends and family.
The image at the top of this column is a self-portrait I made while visiting the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The stainless steel skin on the building, molded to the wavy exterior of the hall, produced my distorted reflection portrait.
Sometimes, because their arms are too short, with no one around to snap the photo for them, it's difficult for travelers and others to make good selfies. To the rescue came the selfie stick, a device which quickly became a serious concern for museums.
If you're not familiar with the selfie stick, it's typically a telescoping pole, which closed, is a little shorter than a foot (0.3 m), but can be extended to about three feet (0.9 m) or so. It has a clamp to attach a smartphone on one end, and a handle with a button at the other end, to activate the smartphone's camera to make a photo or video.
With one hand, you can hold the selfie stick in front of you, with your smartphone attached, far enough away to frame you and perhaps family and friends, with enough background to show everyone where you've been, and snap the photo. Most selfie sticks are easy to use and relatively inexpensive at less that $50.
What's not to love about these selfie sticks? Why are museums across the globe so fed up with their use that they are now starting to ban them as has been done by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, MOMA, the Guggenhein, the Palace of Versailles and others?
The Smithsonian Institution states,
“For the safety of our visitors and collections, the Smithsonian prohibits the use of tripods or monopods in our museums and gardens. Monopod selfie sticks are included in this policy. This is a preventive measure to protect visitors and objects, especially during crowded conditions.”Most museums are saying the same thing. They're concerned about dangers posed by selfie sticks. Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, said,
“I am pro-selfie, just not pro-selfie stick. I'm worried about visitor safety and protecting our art.”I've seen the problem first hand. Far too often, when travelers and others whip out their selfie sticks, they're so wrapped up in getting their selfie, they're oblivious to everyone and everything surrounding them, and those sticks too often hit the people and objects near them.
Deborah Ziska, of the National Gallery of Art, said it well, simply and directly of their selfie stick ban,
“We do not want to have to put all the art under glass.”Every museum I know which permits photography, doesn't allow tripods and monopods. Those bans are for visitor and museum object safety. They're not banning that gear or selfie sticks to prevent general photography or selfies themselves.
UPDATE: Beginning on Tuesday, June 30, 2015 Disney is banning selfie sticks from all their theme parks, including Disney World in Florida. Disney World spokeswoman Kim Prunty said,
“We strive to provide a great experience for the entire family, and unfortunately selfie sticks have become a growing safety concern for both our guests and cast”I'm very much in favor of visitor photography in museums, though I have railed against flash photography there for years, and continue to object to it because it interferes with visitors enjoying the exhibits and their objects.
I'm in favor of museum selfies. I think they're a legitimate way for travelers and other museum visitors to enjoy and interact with museum exhibits and the objects in them, but I don't think it's necessary to let museum visitors make their selfies, to express themselves, document their experience or preserve their memories, unfettered. Gear that interferes with other museum visitors' experiences, or may injure visitors or museum exhibits should be banned.
For those who can't get a good selfie at the Getty Center or other museums without a selfie stick, they merely need to use an age old method instead. Ask someone to snap the photo for them, perhaps even a friend.