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Should photography in museums be allowed?

13 July 2014

Photographs are really experience captured…To photograph is to appropriate the thing being photographed.

Susan Sontag

The relationship between photography and museums is a vexed one. From the camera-happy tourist snapping away at every object on display, to issues of copyright, photography provokes questions about the very nature of the museum and its cultural purpose.

Photography – the act of capturing, reproducing and often manipulating an image – is about ownership and record-making; which is why a camera in the wrong place at the wrong time can be such a provocative instrument. In a museum context, this is most obvious when observing visitors wielding cameras and smart-phones in front of art objects. It’s both endearing and frustrating to see the enthusiasm with which some people frantically click-click-click: endearing, because their excitement at being in the space and surrounded by the collection is palpable; and frustrating because the presence of the camera can negatively mediate the experience of the museum.

In the museum, the camera replaces the act of close looking, and acts as a substitute for contemplation. Museums and art galleries are full of people rushing from one famous work to the next, taking selfies next to busts and waving their cameras in the air to get a shot of the Mona Lisa (which inevitably includes another 20 cameras lifted up for the same purpose).

Of course, there are high-quality reproductions of artworks available, but that’s to miss the point of this photographic compulsion. It’s not about being able to admire a painting in close detail after the visit is over; it’s about proving that you were there, and ticking off something on your cultural shopping list. It’s about acquisition and consumption.

Is this a reason to discourage, or even ban, photography in museums? Do curators have the ethical or intellectual right to intervene that drastically in visitors’ experience (assuming there are no additional conservation or security issues)? I think the answer must be no, tempting as it is to argue otherwise. It’s hard to resolve the question of who ‘owns’ an image – the creator, or the subject? It’s certainly true that the cost of image reproduction in museums can be prohibitively high; though some institutions, such as the Rijksmuseum, are moving away from the commercial model. The museum is a public institution, and its collections must be disseminated and enjoyed as widely as possible – even if that does mean putting up with the camera crowds.

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3 comments

  1. David Cockburn Aug 12 2014 at 9:45 am

    In the case of the National Gallery, I as a taxpayer own the pictures and should be allowed to take photos if I wish. I would suggest banning flash as it is so intrusive, is said to damage watercolour pictures and it would be too difficult to ban it selectively.

  2. There are also issues about intellectual property with regards to contemporary works on temporary loan to an institution.
    Where there is a ‘no photography’ notice, this should be respected (but often isn’t).

    With regards to nationally owned objects, it’s depressing (as well as intrusive) to see members of the public snapping away, without also taking a shot of the information label. Unattributed images of cultural works are floating about, as if the objects had no provenance or status.

    Photography (in this context) replaces considered response and impedes knowledge. By implication, the camera / smart phone ‘does the thinking’ and actually serves to ‘reduce the experience’. Everything becomes trivialised.
    (and naturally flash should be banned in museums and galleries, I thought it already was.)

  3. Daniel Jackson Jan 11 2015 at 6:22 pm

    Why is it to museum curators to decide how people experience the museum ‘the right way’? Museums are there to serve the public. Why should someone staring at a painting for half an hour be more worth as a visitor than someone who takes a selfie with the piece of art? Both probably admire it or at least are happy to be there. As long as the art is not damaged or endangered by people taking pictures, what is wrong with it?

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