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To Shoot or Not to Shoot: Photography in Galleries

21 March 2014

Like it, snap it, share it – this is the message we’re given as consumers, encouraged to broadcast everything from the food we’re about to eat to the item of clothing we’re considering buying. In art museums, however, policies on camera usage run the gamut from outright bans to being actively encouraged. To make matters even more confusing for gallery-goers, we’re seeing some of the institutions that temporarily welcomed photography now backtracking – most recently, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Once upon a time the matter was simpler: taking photos indoors generally required a flash and this damages light-sensitive paint, so nearly all galleries had an out-and-out ‘no cameras’ rule. Then, with the advent of digital cameras and smart phones, it became far easier to take good quality photos without a flash, thus many institutions started to relax their rules. Cue hoards of amateur paparazzi looking at the Mona Lisa on their camera screens despite being stood right in front of the actual work of art (something about this always makes me think of the chained shadow-watchers in Plato’s Cave), as Apollo’s editor Thomas Marks bemoans here.

Letting cameras into the hallowed art-viewing space was always going to be controversial. Now researchers have found that it actually detracts from individuals’ memories of a gallery visit: a recent study by Fairfield University, Connecticut found that people taking photos of works of art in a gallery remembered far less about what they had seen than those who had not.

Whether you’re one of the snap happy crowd or camera shy, you’d be right to be perplexed by the status quo. Take London, for example: The Tate and British Museum allow personal photography, with a spokesperson for the latter saying it ‘opens up possibilities of dialogue and engagement’, yet the National Gallery does not because photography ‘could spoil the visitor’s enjoyment of the art’. Things are similarly contradictory across the Channel as visitors can take photos in the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre, while the Musée d’Orsay reintroduced its ban in 2011. The Hermitage and Metropolitan Museum say ‘yea’ to photography; the Uffizi and Prado ‘nay’.

Now Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has jumped ship, too. Only last May, it decided to permit personal photography for the first time ever, in response to the growing numbers of visitors who wanted and expected to be able to take photos in its galleries. However, in January it announced that the practice was causing too much friction among its visitors, following a number of complaints from visitors sick of their view of Sunflowers being blocked by someone else’s selfie.

As long as the waters remain so muddied, tensions between those photographing art and those looking only with the naked eye will no doubt continue to run high. I’d wager we’re not far off witnessing our first camera-rage gallery casualty – a smart phone-wielding scrum taking out a stubborn old-school view-blocker in front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, perhaps? Or a tourist bludgeoned by their own SLR before Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes? You’ve been warned.

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Snap Happy (Thomas Marks)

Is it time for major museums to rethink their rules on photography? Let us know what you think in the comments below…

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