This picture has been all over my social media feed for the last week. It's a group of teenagers engrossed in their phones in front of Rembrandt's Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. And the more I read comments from my colleagues, the madder I got. I didn't get mad at those teenagers, I got mad at my colleagues (and others) whose comments included "so sad," "sigh," "how have we let this happen?"
As it happened, I spent a day at the Rijksmuseum last winter including some time in that very room looking at the art and yes, taking photos. Here's one I took.
The same absorption, but with a different tool. Would this have caused the handwringing? Probably not. Instead, we'd celebrate this deep dive into a topic. How about this?
Wow, a student reading to learn more (take a closer look to see what he's reading). Just imagine, for a minute, what could those students at the top of the post might be doing on their phones:
- Sharing a selfie. I noticed that when school tours came up to the Night Watch, the museum educators made time for selfies before they began talking. I thought it was a great adapted compromise between content and connection. Older visitors bemusedly and easily moved aside to let this happen. Still think selfies are stupid? Alexandra Korey took a fascinating look at #Uffizi posts on Instagram and what she found might surprise you.
- Looking at a really, really close detail.
- Considering how to enter the Rijksmuseum's Make Your Own Masterpiece competition.
- Wishing the Rijksmuseum had a teen program like its neighbor, the Stedelijk Museum so they could create their own mood app.
- Checking out Rembrandt's Amsterdam to understand that they walk the same streets he did.
- Thinking that they might come back with their families to use the museum's Family Game, in which you use your own phone to solve a series of mysteries.
We all know that photographs only capture a single moment. It's the viewers' perceptions that help define the image. Students absorbed in cellphones is just one image--and can be defined in so many ways, positive or negative. To expand the pool, here are some more images of what I observed teenagers doing at the Rijksmuseum: looking, talking, engaging.
But why did the comments make me mad? I'm mad because it revealed some serious failures to me: a failure of empathy, about understanding these students, their lives and their needs and a failure of imagination, unwilling to imagine what else they might be doing on their phones. I'm mad because despite the enormous potential (and the resources devoted to them) of these new tools, far too many museum people still think of them as useless or silly or sad. Many commenters saw distractions; far fewer saw potential.
I think there's an enormous amount to be said for learning to just look at art. I saw teenagers at the Rijksmuseum and plenty of other places learning to do just that (and a big shout-out to the Rijksmuseum education team who I saw engaging audiences of all ages and of course, to the abundant generosity of Rijksstudio projects) I think balancing lives lived digitally and in the real world is a huge challenge for all of us. But I also think the comments I saw pulled back the curtain on a not-so-attractive part of our field. That's the part that still thinks we know best. What did you see when you looked at that picture?
Update: thanks to tweep Jason Alderman (@justsomeguy) for pointing me to the photographer; and very many thanks to Gijsbert van der Wal for taking and sharing the image.