Often when I travel, I try and leave my camera behind. Tourists tend to see things only through their viewfinders. This is equally true at museums. I remember once, while visiting the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, a fellow visitor would stand at a good distance from a painting, frame it, take the picture and then move on to the next picture and repeat. What kind of experience is that? A shady one if not worthless.
No matter if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, the practice is growing. More people have cameras because of camera phones. And more people are taking (terrible) photos because of this fact. And museums are finding the task of prohibiting pictures to a be bit too daunting. What’s the big deal anyway?
First, and least, flash photography is dangerous for light-sensitive works. But that just means no-flash, which the world needs a whole lot less of anyway. Many camera phones don’t even come with flash, so I doubt this is the real problem.
Secondly, and more important, these photos are copyrighted to the extent of any duplication. Usually, this is used to prevent anyone from making money off reprinting the photos. But most visitors to museum just want family vacation slides to later gather digital dust. There are exceptions of course:
Naturally, there are museumgoers who will occasionally break the rules: a visitor to the Indianapolis Museum recently took pictures all over the building—including galleries that were off limits to photography—and then offered them for sale online. “We had to intervene,” says Anne Young, who oversees rights and reproduction for the museum. This type of behavior, however, is an extreme exception.—Carolina A. Miranda/ARTnews
An Extreme exception. That’s it. So why should museums be so strict? Well, not all museums are sure they need to be, and many are starting to loosen up a bit.
But the ubiquity of digital cameras, along with the irrepressible urge to take pictures, has led many museums to revise their policies in recent years. Institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Art, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and theGetty Museum—to name a few—all allow photography in some or all of their permanent-collection spaces.—Carolina A. Miranda/ARTnews
So what’s really persuading museums to allow visitors to take photos? First, there’s not enough guards to catch everyone—there’s just too many camera-wielding tourists.
“You are fighting an uphill battle if you restrict,” says Nina Simon, director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of The Participatory Museum. “Even in the most locked-down spaces, people will still take pictures and you’ll still find a million of these images online. So why not support it in an open way that’s constructive and embraces the public?”—Carolina A. Miranda/ARTnews
And the small amount of guards that museums do have are so distracted by catching these trigger-happy tourists that they might miss out on more vicious crimes.
“Guards are spending so much time focusing on someone holding a device that they might not see the person next to them touching the art,” says Alisa Martin, senior manager of brand management and visitor services at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution that has allowed photography in the majority of its galleries for roughly half a dozen years. “As the devices get smaller, it gets harder to manage. We have to ask ourselves, are we using our guards appropriately?”—Carolina A. Miranda/ARTnews
Another point, outside of the hypothetical and in the realm of digital, is museums are embracing social media, and they’re posting photos. Of the installations!
Social media also complicates the issue. This past January, the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project reported that 97 percent of the more than 1,200 arts organizations it polled had a presence on platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for example, posts photos of artworks and installation processes on Facebook (where it has around 1.3 million followers), the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art has photos of its Sol LeWitt wall drawings on Instagram, and various other institutions—from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo—can be found on the picture-sharing and blogging service Tumblr. Moreover, places like the Brooklyn Museum and LACMA have high-resolution images from their collections available for free on their websites.—Carolina A. Miranda/ARTnews
A museum bans photography but posts pictures themselves? Isn’t there a word for that? As with everyone else, museums are using social media to gain followers (or a bigger audience) to hopefully increase their real-world visitors and support. And, visitors’ photos can help just as well as their own.
Besides forcing visitors actually look at the photo with their organic eye (which should be what we all do), ultimately, the restriction of photos in museums seems like a waste of time.