Photographing objects and the self in the museum

Say cheese!

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 15.05.2015

In recent months, a quasi-revolution has taken place in many a museum1: you will no longer see security staff chasing after “illicit” photographers (read: visitors). This relaxation of museum photography policies has been observed in nearby countries like the United Kingdom and Italy and in others as far away as Australia. Museums in Luxembourg that hitherto have been reluctant to allow visitor photography, such as the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg and the Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, have also given in to increasing numbers of people armed with smartphones. While this change has been applauded by some for widening access, others have viewed it as an unnecessary intrusion that distracts from the essential (the objects on display). So, what exactly are the implications of this photo-revolution? In my opinion, permitting photography goes much further than simply enabling visitors to take a picture of a work of art. It does not hinder their appre­ciation of the objects on display – in fact, quite the contrary. The camera, particularly the smartphone camera, can be a great resource for museums.

Opponents of open photography policies in museums generally raise three major concerns: copyright, conservation and “proper” appreciation of the works on display. Some might also say that while it is fine to take photos of objects, other trends, such as taking selfies, have no place in a museum.

While on a moral level we might question whether the notion of copyright can be justified at all when it comes to the display of human culture, the legal dimension cannot be overlooked. For this reason, many museums have limited photography to their own collections and permanent displays. For temporary exhibitions, copyright issues need to be checked with the various lenders and artists – a cumbersome yet worthwhile task. Furthermore, it is always possible to signpost exceptions to the open photography policy – as far as museum attendants are able to ensure that visitors observe the restriction.

At this point, it is important to mention the difference between amateur and professional photographs. Photography may be tolerated in the museum, but bulky professional equipment is generally not accepted without special permission. And, while smartphones and compact cameras are increasingly taking better pictures, the quality of an image taken without a flash in a semi-dark environment will be far from professional and these images are unlikely to be used for commercial purposes.

Generally proscribing the flash should address one of the major conservation issues as well. Interestingly, however, a recent study suggested that the tiny flashes produced by smartphones do not damage paintings any more than commonly used gallery lights do2. This news will probably displease many opponents of open photography policies, but banning flash photography remains useful for reasons of courtesy rather than conservation3. The same goes for selfie sticks. Some museums that have opened themselves up to photos – and selfies, inevitably – have forbidden the selfie stick because of the potential risks to objects and other visitors4. In Luxembourg, it seems that “selfie sticklers” are not posing a threat for the moment5. While access and conservation are frequently conflicting needs, they can often be reconciled by encouraging respectful behaviour toward works of art and fellow visitors, and this can be supported by museum rules.

The third concern that is often raised in relation to the loosening of photography policies is about appropriate behaviour and how people should enjoy museums. Some people might worry about increasing congestion in front of popular objects as visitors jostle to get the best shot (of the artwork or of themselves with the artwork). However, thinking of the Mona Lisa (c. 1503-19) at the Louvre, the Rosetta Stone (196 BC) at the British Museum and Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889) at the Moma, I wonder whether there would be a significant difference between crowds of people trying to get the best view to the naked eye and those who try to do so through the camera lens. While the vast majority of museums are not affected by such “problems” (and some may even dream of attracting large crowds), these particular cases raise a different question that goes beyond the scope of this article: how can museums deal with crowds so that people can enjoy artefacts without hindering other visitors? Of course, it is always possible to visit at quieter times. Museums can also limit viewing time or, in a more radical fashion, use a conveyor belt – like the one in the Tower of London that moves people along the famous Crown Jewels. You might feel like a carton of milk in a supermarket, but an unobstructed view is guaranteed.

Concerning the “proper” way to enjoy museums, there are as many ways to have a pleasant time in a museum as there are shades of grey. While it may appear hideous to some people to walk through a gallery trying to find the best angle for a photo or a selfie, it is exciting and enriching to others. It is the possibility of so many diverse experiences in a single space that makes museums so special.

The over-ubiquity of smartphones is making it increasingly difficult for attendants to enforce a photography ban in museums. Besides, widespread Internet access and digital technologies allow for many more uses of smartphones and other cameras than merely taking photos of objects. In fact, they can be a real resource for museums and their visitors in terms of education, engagement and publicity.

Rather than diverting attention away from the objects, smartphones and cameras can add to it. QR codes, image recognition and augmented reality apps allow for an interactive experience of the works on display. Visitors can instantly get more information about an object and save the details for later. Digital technologies can also widen access by adding a new dimension to the traditional museum visit and supporting people with special needs. In museums where security is ensured by gallery assistants rather than security staff, these employees will have more time to help and provide information to visitors if they do not have to scrutinise them for illicit use of cameras.

In addition to the educational benefits, photography also allows for a different kind of engagement with objects, which will please a number of recurrent visitors and might entice new audiences, too. Social networks and photo-sharing applications, such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, have demonstrated the sheer creativity of museum professionals and, above all, visitors. By taking photos and selfies, visitors appropriate the museum experience and become creators themselves. Statue selfies6 and the Museum of Selfies on Instagram7 show works of art from unusual angles, enable new ways of looking at them and may even constitute works of art in their own right. While not all selfies are driven by profound thoughts, they cannot all be dismissed as narcissistic representations of the self that are symptomatic of our modern era. Firstly, the self-portrait in itself is not a new thing8. Secondly, its popularity and democratisation shows that the selfie is a new way of engaging with one’s environment and sharing it – and the museum environment is no exception. In Manila, even a selfie museum, Art in Island, has opened its doors. Here, the point is to be part of liberal reproductions of famous works of art by climbing into the frames and taking photos9. Although Art in Island may not be a “real” museum, the fact remains that it illustrates how people’s needs and how they engage with their environment change over time. Besides, having fun does not need to be contradictory to a museum visit. Rather, the museum can be a place for “edutainment”: education and entertainment.

Apart from creating their own souvenirs by taking photos, some people like to share their experiences with others through social networks. Hashtags relating to museums, such as #museumselfie, tweetups and events like Museum Week on Twitter are becoming increasingly popular. It is clear that these trends are not replacing physical visits; rather, they are complementary. They show how visiting a museum is also a social experience: during and after the visit. Besides, social networks offer an unprecedented way for museums to reach people across the globe and make themselves known to new audiences. If used in a well-thought-out and inventive way, social networks can be a real benefit in terms of publicity for museums – particularly local museums with limited financial means.

The propagation of photography in museums gives rise to a number of concerns among museum professionals and visitors alike – especially in museums that previously maintained a ban. Even in places where people have been able to take pictures for a long time, the new trends of creating and sharing online content can generate ambivalent feelings. However, if museum policies are in accordance with conservation needs, if copyright issues (which may have to be adapted) are observed, and if respectful behaviour toward objects and fellow visitors is maintained, photography and its outcomes can be a genuine resource for museums and their visitors in terms of education, engagement, publicity and diversifying experience.

Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Emeritus Professor of Museum Studies, once said, “The only people to whom museums are of central concern are those who work in them. For everyone else, museums must be fitted into their busy schedules, their personal and social identities, their interests and agendas. For everyone except museum workers, museums are at a distance, out there, one of a range of social institutions that can be used or avoided at will. In fact, of all social institutions, museums are one of the easiest to avoid.”10 Photography might play only a minor role in removing barriers, but I believe that the creation and sharing of images can make the museum visit a social experience that transcends the walls of the building and shows people outside how wonderful and inspiring museums can be.

1 In this article, the term “museum” also encompasses art museums, which may be referred to as “art galleries” in some parts of the world.
Laurence Brasseur
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