Selfie Behaviour at the British Museum


It is ‘Museum Selfie’ day 2015, and I have found myself at a loose end – a very unusual occurrence. I have hit the British Museum to observe this ‘Museum Selfie’-taking behaviour first hand. I have decided to park myself in the Parthenon Gallery for 30 mins and see what happens. Will I be overwhelmed by a wave of ‘Selfie Stick’? will I witness a ‘Selfie Surge’? Or will I just get really cold standing there for half an hour?

Here are 10 quick and dirty observations on the phenomenon that is the ‘Selfie’ –

"Let me take a selfie"
“Let me take a selfie”

1- Not everyone at a museum is taking a selfie! Obvious I know, but aside from seeing a ‘selfie stick’ within 2 minutes of entering the gallery, I was really surprised how few people took a selfie in the (very short) time I was there (11.30 – 12 Wednesday 21st Jan). There were several different statues in the corner of the Parthenon Gallery I was in, that I thought were begging to be ‘selfied’, but I only counted 9 selfies from the 100 or so visitors who were there. I spent 30 minutes by the Moai – Hoa Hakananai’a – I didn’t witness a single selfie. I wandered around lots of galleries and only saw 2 selfies being taken. So perhaps not the overwhelming phenomenon we are led to believe.

Double Bubble Selfie with stick and without
Double Bubble Selfie with stick and without

2- Selfie sticks are on the rise (slowly). In the entire 3 hours or so I was in the galleries I saw a total of 6 selfie sticks. 4 of those were people visiting on their own. The rest of the visitors simply passed their camera/phone to a friend to take a pic, who needs a stick when you can have a friend instead. Selfie sticks seem to be handy if you are on your own or you have 15 friends with you who all want to get in the picture in one go. This is the first time I have seen selfie sticks at the British Museum.

3- People still use ‘old-fashioned’ cameras a lot more than you would think. This is not a generation thing, young and old use them, not everyone is using a camera phone and I only saw one iPad being used to take a picture. I also saw one person taking a small video clip of the Buddhas in the China Gallery.

Video in the gallery
Video in the gallery

4 – The whole selfie taking is coming from a younger dynamic, sadly I saw no-one over 25 taking a selfie. Is this just because a younger generation are more tech savvy or are the young happier to make a fool of themselves? Is the younger generation really more self-obsessed. The only ‘posing like a statue’ I saw was from a group of school kids. I have to admit I felt very self-conscious taking a selfie, perhaps the young are more care-free!

5 – The ‘profile selfie’ and ‘posing selfie (copying a stance)’ are completely different things. The ‘profile selfie’ is fairly quick, the ‘posing selfie’ takes more practice and takes up more time. Often you actually get more posing from those taking ‘traditional’ photos, passing the camera to a friend pouting/pointing at the statue then passing the camera to a friend for them to repeat all over again.

6 – Selfie taking isn’t always obvious! It was actually really hard to spot what people were taking a picture of (unless they have a selfie stick). Quite a few people were taking ‘artie’ selfies of the gallery behind them not the sculpture in front. Selfie taking isn’t always an obtrusive process.

I really want to see someone selfie this pose!
I really want to see someone selfie this pose!

7 – Photo taking in general varies massively – there are those who literally walk up take a snap and walk away, they spend no more time looking at the object other than to take the picture. Then there are those who take multiple pictures from every angle and spend time focusing in on particular parts of the object. There are those who bend backwards/forwards, get down on their knees to take pictures. There there are those who just want to take picture of their friends/family next to the object. You can’t generalise about why and how people take pictures. One lady with a selfie stick only took picture of herself with objects in the background which I have to say I found a little odd after the first 10 or so.

8 – Selfie taking is fun, lots of smiles and giggles going on. Selfie sharing is not just digital. Really interesting is the sharing of the actually selfie taking process, fitting a few of you in a picture is a good laugh, showing others in your group the picture on your phone. Taking a selfie (unlike the name suggests) is not always a solitary action.

How disruptive is taking a photo?
How disruptive is taking a photo?

9 – Traditional photo taking actually can cause more disruption. I witness a good 10 minutes where a lady with a traditional camera wanted to take a picture of her family member by the Moai. She waited a couple of minutes patiently but there were too many people around, finally with only one chap in view she interrupted him reading the information panel and asked him to move. Then there was a chap in the way, bending down going through his bag, she asked him to move too. He then offered to take the picture, more shuffling in front of the Moai, more people asked to move etc. Selfies on their own don’t always cause the most disruption, ‘traditional photographers’ can cause problems too. Best to ban them all really! But to be brutally honest, the most disruption came from groups of school kids sitting on the floor filling out their worksheets, so better ban them too while you are at it.

10 – Where an object is in a gallery can affect the number of selfies people take, is there room to take one? Are there too many people in the way? Further away from the busy galleries there was less photo taking and more people reading panels, perhaps off the beaten track in such a large museum there is less selfie taking? It certainly seemed very hard to take a selfie in front of the Rosetta Stone because it was totally rammed with people. I would love to watch on a Saturday to gauge peoples reactions if someone did try to take a selfie in front of a packed crowd. What the object is can affect the number of selfies taken too, human forms seem to generate more interest.

In conclusion, after my amazingly scientific half an hour or so in the British Museum, I have decided that not as many people take selfies as you think. If you are going to ban the selfie, you might as well ban all photographers (and school kids while you are at it too). Selfie and picture-taking is fun, and engaging. Museums need to learn how to engage more with this visitor behaviour, is retweeting and instagram enough? So many people are taking pictures, there needs to be new ways to display the pictures that are being taken of the museum in the museum.

To be honest I only witnessed a few selfie sticks but if everyone had one, that would be a) – weird and b) – annoying. Thinking back to the rather packed Viking Exhibition, if I had shuffled round for 15 minutes to get to the first case and the person in front turned their back on the exhibit to get out their selfie stick I might not have been responsible for my actions. Will they become a ubiquitous addition to the museum experience? If football stadiums and music venues are banning them, how long before museums start to? Or, like camera phones, will they just become an accepted part of the visit? Who knows, it might take a bit more than 30 minutes in the Parthenon Gallery to answer that one!

2015-01-21 11.18.44
No ‘selfie sticks’ were used in the taking of this picture



  1. […] hamper another visitors freedom to enjoy the same objects without being disturbed by the cameras? Is the issue as big as it’s made out to be? It really is all very interesting. But my head’s too full, too tired at this stage of my […]

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