Museum Selfie-Takers Are Causing Damage by Backing Into Artworks

The fastest-growing threat to museum collections is not, as some members of the public might think, climate protesters wielding canned goods, but a scourge of selfie-takers backing into paintings and other objects. As some visitors are increasingly more interested in stunting for the ’gram than having an ecstatic art experience, art insurers hope to promote more rigorous protections.

“It strikes us as something that’s becoming a growing trend,” Robert Read, head of Fine Art and Private clients at the Hiscox insurance company, told Hyperallergic. “We’re not going to change the whole way we underwrite, but it’s something that’s becoming concerning for museums and other public spaces, as well.”

While Hiscox does not keep specific statistics on selfie-related damage versus other kinds of claims, Read contends that it is fairly obvious when the incident involves a visitor backing into a piece of art versus being mishandled in shipping or sustaining other forms of damage. In recent years, there have been several high-profile art accidents, including the destruction of a Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture at a 2023 Miami art fair and a confirmed selfie-related incident in 2017 that broke a Yayoi Kusama pumpkin sculpture in one of the artist’s notoriously selfie-friendly Infinity Mirrors rooms.

Laura Doyle, senior vice president of Fine Art at the Chubb insurance company, added that private collectors who lend pieces to museums should ask about how objects will be displayed and protected. “We also recommend that protective glazing (glass or plexi covering a work) be added in some cases in order to help prevent accidental surface damage, such as from selfie sticks and other similar items,” Doyle told Hyperallergic.

Read said museums are taking more stringent measures. Institutions including the British Museum banning selfie sticks to mitigate the problem (though, frankly, this seems like the least of the British Museum’s problems), and some are considering installing more robust barriers around certain pieces.

However, Read emphasizes that the risks to art museums are not just physical but existential as well. “Even if it’s not causing damage, there are those of us who don’t want to take selfies every two seconds and actually want to see the art,” he said. “It is an annoyance that you’re looking at something and someone just sticks a camera in front of your face to try and get a picture of it.”

Some venues have gone the other way, leading to the creation of institutions like the Museum of Ice Cream, which appears to exist solely for the purpose of selfie culture, or the Meow Wolf suite of art experiences, which favor interactivity. But for those that plan to stick to more traditional collections, with the ever-increasing hunger to self-document comes new considerations to institutions and the insurers that underwrite their holdings.

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