Thoughts on Photography in Museums

Last month there was a flurry of activity regarding photography, especially photography in museums. I spent a good 12 hours on planes over Christmas vacation and read through a few of the articles discussing the pros and cons of photography, how it can affect our memories, why it should or shouldn’t happen, etc. The articles were interesting and opinions ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other, and made the flight go by a bit quicker.

I wholeheartedly agree with Nina Simon’s 2009 post from her blog Museum 2.0, wherein she expresses that museum photo policies should be as open as possible. Personally, the strongest argument I feel is that when visitors take photos in your museum and then share those photos, you are getting free advertising (as Nina points out in her post). Who wouldn’t want interesting, new, different images of their galleries and exhibit halls posted on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? When others see those photos, they might very well be inclined to visit themselves. I’ve had this experience several times; in fact, just yesterday I took a photo of a deinonychus fossil for Fossil Friday and shared it to my Instagram feed. Within an hour, a friend of mine asked what the admission prices were, whether or not there were guided tours, and when the best time to visit was. Sharing photos = free marketing materials. And who doesn’t love free things?

There was one article that I read that I had a visceral reaction to. It’s a good thing the plane was jam-packed (and it was very early), or I would have been yelling at my Kindle. Eric Gibson’s piece in The New Criterion titled “The Overexposed Museum” made me sad and angry at the same time. In his article, Gibson claims that photography needs to be banned from all art museums, or these institutions will fail. He sees visitor photography as a threat to the collections, and to what he calls “the art experience”.  He fears that visitor loyalty will decrease because of photography, and that “creating an environment where the visitor is invited to stop, look, and take something away from the experience is the museum’s first duty to the public – not shops, restaurants, or public engagement programs.” He wraps up by questioning what museums are for, if they fail to ban photography.

My reaction to this was, as I said, visceral. Museums have a responsibility to the public to steward and preserve the art and objects they collect, yes, but they also have a responsibility to engage with the public. As times change and families bring their kids to the museums they grew up with, evolving policies and growing with technology is something that museums must do, or suffer the consequences of becoming out of touch. By evolving and allowing photography in the galleries, museums are engaging with their visitors on a new level. These photos are shared with others and can bring in a broader audience. I don’t agree with Gibson’s comment that allowing photography means a loss of control of the collections; sharing the collection is your primary objective as a museum. I would go so far as to ask, what is a museum for if it isn’t sharing its collection? Plus, if you allow staff to photograph objects behind the scenes to share them on their personal social media sites or on a museum blog, you increase awareness of just how incredible your collection is, which could lead to donations and support from the public. But a loss of control? Come on. Every website that I have ever seen that hosts photos of artwork makes note of where that art can be seen in person, even if that website is some poorly managed Geocities (oh yeah, remember Geocities?) or Tumblr blog.

On the subject of visitor loyalty, I think the exact opposite of Gibson. People aren’t taking photographs in museums so they can go home with a Van Gogh or Monet and never have to visit another museum ever again. They’re taking these photos to have a memory of their visit; yes, for some that means standing in front of every masterpiece and taking a selfie. But who are you to say how someone can interact with a piece of art? Everyone has their own way of interacting with art, and for many, that interaction includes photographing it. I can’t even say how many pictures I have on my phone of the Albert Bierstadt paintings I’ve seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, but I can say that having those pictures on my phone and my computer doesn’t mean I never go back to the Salon to look at them again. In fact, having those pictures reminds me of where they are in the museum, so when I go back, I can quickly find them. When you create a strict photo policy and then have staff roving around reinforcing it every time someone pulls out a phone, you create a hostile environment, whether you intended to or not. I would say that this would be a cause for loss of visitor loyalty more than anything else; if I felt constantly hounded at a museum, I would not visit.

Also, Mr. Gibson, museums in fact are responsible for public engagement. To you, engagement might be as simple as unlocking the doors in the morning, but for many visitors, engagement means providing meaningful, memorable ways of interacting with art, which leads to a better understanding and appreciation of the art, the artist, and the museum. Providing visitor engagement, whether it be a scavenger hunt, Twitter/Instagram hashtag, QR code, etc., ensures that more visitors have some way of appreciating the objects and the art they see around them, instead of just staring at the painting, reading the label, and maybe walking away with something. Without engagement programs and ways of offering visitors new and different methods of interacting with art, you will lose visitors for good.

The one point I will agree with Gibson on is that visitors forget that you can’t touch things in museums. I have seen this happen and it bothers me as well. Working at a natural history museum, I have had to remind visitors that just because the taxidermied animals look like they can be touched, they really shouldn’t be. I’ve caught visitors trying to climb onto the full-sized moose we have in one of the galleries, and have been shocked when having to explain just why you can’t do something like that (the answer for this is, “You don’t know what kind of chemicals are sitting on that thing, and we really don’t want you getting sick.”).

Other articles posed reasons for allowing photography that I agree with. ARTnews had an article that discussed the very real issue of guards being too busy yelling at visitors for taking photos, and missing others touching art or stealing. They also state that “as a culture, we increasingly communicate in images” – this has been true since the dawn of art history, when cave drawings were a way of communicating stories to one another. By photographing in museums we show others what we like, how we feel, what we are doing – in other words, we are communicating without using words.

My personal feelings on the matter (other than what was shared above) are simple. Museums should allow photography. I understand the issues that come with intellectual property rights and loan items/exhibitions, and to tackle these problems, I believe museums need to take a proactive approach. If you are a contemporary art museum, include in your contracts with artists the option of allowing photography of their art; if you can, perhaps have a gallery that holds only pieces that can be photographed, and a separate gallery for those that can’t be. Make it clear which galleries can and can’t be photographed, both on your maps and with well-done signage (and yes, a guard/gallery guide or two).  If you’re taking in a loaned exhibition, try to work with the lending institution on photography rights, and if the lender doesn’t want to allow photography, then make that explicitly clear to your visitors. But banning photography all together can be difficult and, again, can end in a loss of visitor loyalty. When you’re constantly hounding people to put away their iPhones because they might be taking a picture, you create an unwelcoming, uncomfortable atmosphere that can turn many visitors off from coming back to your institution (or worse, from visiting any art institution ever again). In my experience, most visitors will ask if photography is allowed. I’m always happy to tell them YES! GO NUTS! (Just don’t bring a tripod/monopod in!) Recently, I visited a historic mansion that has a no-photography policy. Their reason was that the artifacts in the house were sensitive to light and could be damaged by flash. As much as I understand this, the mansion had windows that reached 30 feet high, were overabundant, and allowed in plenty of natural sunlight. This policy was clearly instituted as a way for the mansion to keep total control over what images were produced of the inside of the house. I was pretty bummed that I couldn’t take pictures inside. If you’re concerned about damage from flash photography, the simple thing to do is to ask visitors not to use flash. I do it all the time.

Where was I going with all this? Oh, right. C’mon, museums. Lighten up. Let us take photographs.

Thoughts on Photography in Museums