I have a not-so-surprising confession: I love taking pictures of myself.
I grew up in the era of the front camera, a post-Myspace/early Instagram no-man’s-land. I take “selfies” all the time – to show off an outfit when my cats climb on me first thing in the morning to document everything from a visit to my parents’ house to a trip to the ER in 2020.
Still, the relationship I have with selfies is complicated. It’s an emotional roller coaster from “Selfies are cheesy but I can’t stop taking them” to “I’ll take them but won’t post that many” to “Who cares, I’ll take pictures of them and post myself.” , if I want to.” The newly opened Original Selfie Museum in downtown Raleigh doesn’t calm those feelings.
Follow the music through a door on Fayetteville Street, located near the City Museum and behind a local gift shop. The pounding bass will echo off the steps as you descend into a basement room and be greeted by pink accents and the smell of fresh paint. Two rooms lined with niches are waiting for you: a room with a bed and a bedside table against the wall, a room full of smileys, a room with a disco ball, a wall of pink gumball machines with gumball-colored balls (not to be eaten) and other patterns and Lights and props to create the magazine spread or album cover of your dreams for $29 weekdays and $34 weekends.
The purpose of the Selfie Museum is not to be art in and of itself. It exists to turn the visitor into art. Andrew Butenko, one of the co-founders of the museum franchise, which launched in Colorado in 2019, says they stay away from politics and art that would be “offensive.” When choosing artists, they look for ideas that have already been worked out so they know the subject and what the colors will look like and they know it will look good in the background of your photo.
Selfies can be art. Frida Kahlo has spent her entire career painting herself in new, surreal ways to capture her suffering. Vincent Van Gogh documented the bandage framing his face after cutting off his left ear. More contemporary artists like Man Ray and Andy Warhol photographed themselves in their quest to make sense of the world. I’ve personally found the work of Anna Marie Tendler, the former wife of comedian John Mulaney, whose self-portrait series has captured loss and rebirth following her public divorce last year, to be very important.
If self-portraits can be art, they can also be products. The Kardashian/Jenner clan has perfected this: Not only did Kim Kardashian create a photo book of selfies, she received one of the best comments about the medium when her mom said, “Kim, would you stop taking selfies? of yourself? Your sister is going to jail” on a 2007 episode of the family reality show. There are supermodel selfies and influencer selfies, using a combination of beauty and fame already there to convey “tummy tummy” or new clothing lines for sale.
The original Selfie Museum falls in a blurry middle ground, but ultimately leans into Ware. The booths are there for you to take photos, and those photos are meant to be shared on social media to increase social capital (the setups are great if you’re missing photos for your dating profile). If you weren’t sure, the souvenirs in the corner give away its existence as a shop: a pink hat that says Make Selfie Great Again, a mug with disco balls, and T-shirts.
Maybe it’s better that something exists outside of art museums or graffiti; It offers a way to take cool photos without blocking the view of the latest NCMA exhibit. At the same time, is it detrimental when someone has photos of themselves that they like, that capture their personality, that don’t highlight a messy house or lack of decoration? What is the difference between this and the Van Gogh traveling exhibitions that project images of the artist’s work onto blank walls?
Thinking about this as I walk through the museum, Butenko points me to a blue and yellow striped wall in solidarity with Ukraine (where he’s from).
Reality always pulls in, even in a neon-colored, apolitical world.