To Capture or Not to Capture: The Long Debate About Photography in Museums

Added to Medium, May 17, 2018

For as long as I can remember, I have come across a number of signs in museums that express their values in taking pictures within the exhibits. Museums post various signs such as “no photography”, “no flash photography”, and “no selfie sticks”. As a museum professional, I have received numerous responses from visitors who asked why they cannot take pictures, and a lot of them also began lengthy discussions about whether or not photography should be allowed in museums.

When I gave tours at the Butler-McCook House and Isham-Terry House, I have on occasion had to remind visitors of their no-flash photography policy. The reason why we told visitors about our policy is because almost everything in both of the houses, which were built in the 1780s and 1850s, are original to the house from the structure to the furniture, and from the silverware to the toys. Since the majority of the items in the houses are original to the families that lived in them, we want to protect and preserve the items for future visitors to enjoy. There are some visitors who respected the policy while others asked questions and expressed their thoughts on photography in museums.

It is tempting to take out a camera or phone to take pictures since one is able to capture the experience. At the same time, one can argue that it distracts from actually experiencing the visit to the museum.

In the New York Times article “At Galleries, Cameras Find a Mixed Welcome” by Fred A. Bernstein, he discussed the mixed reactions to photography policies. Bernstein revealed that some like Nina Simon support having cameras in the museum. According to the article, Bernstein revealed Nina Simon, executive director of the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz, California, believed people rely on their cameras as extensions of their senses and that

In Ms. Simon’s view, “Museums should prioritize providing opportunities for visitors to engage in ways that are familiar and comfortable to them” — and that means using cameras.

Simon does bring up a good point in giving visitors opportunities to engage in ways that are familiar and comfortable to them; as we move forward into the future, technology has open up ways people can interact with artifacts including but not limited to interacting with them on the museum website and sharing their pictures on social media outlets.

Bernstein also pointed out that there are individuals who shed light on why not allowing flash photography in museums is not an adequate policy. His article shared a statement made by Mervin Richard, who is the chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Richard stated he had personally examined studies of the effects of light exposure on art and he concluded that there was little risk, and said the fear of the flashes damaging the art came from when people used flashbulbs (which could explode).

While the previous article’s discussion focused more about art, it did not include discussion about history museums and historic sites. The article “Why is taking photographs banned in many museums and historic places?”, written by Jay L. Zagorsky, focuses the discussion on historic places and museums.

Zagorsky shared five reasons that were used to answer the question posed in the article’s title. The first reason is camera flashes, which emit intense light, are believed to hurt paintings and the patina of delicate objects but research conducted by the University of Cambridge suggested that the use of flash poses little danger to most museum exhibits. The second reason is eliminating cameras improves the visitor experience since visitors, according to the article, are more likely to enjoy their experience when less visitors are stopping to use selfie sticks and causing traffic jams.

The third reason shared in Zagorsky’s article is by preventing photography ensures the gift shop maintains a monopoly on selling images. In other words, when photography is not allowed inside the museum or historic place the gift shop’s books, posters and postcards are the only legitimate source for high-quality images of a famous painting, statue or room. The fourth reason is it is believed by banning photographs this boosts security to prevent thieves from visually capturing and pinpointing weaknesses in alarm systems and surveillance cameras; it can be argued that uploading digital photographs to the internet is not more likely to boost museum security than compromising it.

Finally, the last reason shared in Zagorsky’s article is taking photographs often violates copyright protections. One of the arguments presented in the article was,

Copyright is more of an issue for modern artwork, especially when the piece is loaned to a museum. Museums don’t own the copyright of loaned paintings or sculptures since it resides with the owner or the original artist. However, today it is relatively easy to check if an image is being sold on the internet or used for unauthorized commercial purposes to ensure the copyright holder is paid their due.

A lot of the reasons presented in the article had counter arguments that makes it hard for museums to continue photography bans. Another thought I believe was a good point I think museums should consider is what Zagorsky shared; he stated

How can some museums generate more revenue and still satisfy our desire to take photographs? One simple model I first saw in the Natural History Museum in Rwanda is to charge a photography fee. Patrons can take as many pictures as they want as long as they pay upfront for the privilege.

I think museums should at least consider this idea since museums could not only protect copyrights and generate revenue but it would also allow visitors to capture their experience with the museums especially images that may not be included in gift shops.

Each museum has their own views about photography in its exhibits, and this debate would probably not be settled anytime soon.

What are your opinions about cameras and photographs taken by visitors in museums?

Resources:
https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/15/arts/artsspecial/art-museums-photography-policies-vary-widely.html
http://theconversation.com/why-is-taking-photographs-banned-in-many-museums-and-historic-places-66356

 

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