Apollo Magazine

Should photography in museums be allowed?

The relationship between photography and museums is a vexed one. Do attitudes need to change?

Crowds gather around the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Photo: Greg Dunlap/Flickr

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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Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY 2.0)

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