A woman clutched her phone to her heart the way a missionary might hold a Bible. She was anxious to take a picture of a stunning bouquet of flowers that sat not 10 ft. away, but first she had to get through a crowd of others jostling to do the same. The cause of this recent frenzy was Bouquets to Art, one of the most popular annual events at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. For the 34th year, florists were asked to create bouquets that respond to pieces of art on display, from ancient carvings to contemporary sculptures. A tower of baby’s breath imitates a frothy waterfall in a nearby painting by Gustav Grunewald. Red flamingo flowers and neon blue sticks echo a surreal portrait of a woman by Salvador Dalí. It’s entrancing and also extremely Instagrammable, to the point that it has become a problem.
In recent years, the de Young received more than a thousand complaints from people who felt that cell phones had tainted their experience of the exhibit. Institutions of fine art around the world face similar problems as the desire to take photographs becomes a huge draw for museums as well as something that upsets some of their patrons. So the de Young responded with a kind of compromise: carving out “photo free” hours during the exhibition’s six-day run (which is short because of flowers’ perishable nature).
One common complaint in the ongoing debates over the effect of social media on museum culture is that people seem to be missing out on experiences because they are so busy collecting evidence of them. An oft-cited study published in the journal Psychological Science suggests there is some truth to this; it found that people who took photos of an exhibit rather than simply observing it had a harder time remembering what they saw. But the issue is complicated for the professionals running museums. Linda Butler, the de Young’s head of marketing, communications and visitor experience, acknowledges that not everyone wants a museum to be “a selfie playland.” Yet a lot of other people do, and her take is that the de Young is in no position to assert that one motivation for buying a $28 ticket is more valid than another. “If we removed social media and photography,” she says, “we would risk becoming irrelevant.”
If this is a battle, signs indicate that the pro-phone crowd has already won. On this visit to the museum, most people seemed to treat the photo bonanza as the new normal. Many politely waited their turn and got out of other people’s shots, even as visitors bumped into each other in cramped galleries. Morgan Holzer, a millennial who was surprised by the furor, said that as she approached bouquets to read their labels, she found herself holding up the process. But rather than expressing frustration about this awkwardness, she said she felt guilty, as if she were the one defying convention. “I felt bad blocking everyone’s photo,” she said.
This appears in the April 02, 2018 issue of TIME.