If I came over to your house and started rearranging your furniture, or fiddling with the pictures on the walls, you’d probably be more than a little bit put out. No one likes people touching their “stuff” without permission. However when it comes to art museums, there’s often a tension between those who approach them while maintaining a respectful distance, and those who want to do the equivalent of putting their shod feet on the coffee table. An example of this tension can be seen in the very current issue of public photography in this, the age of the selfie on social media.
News this week that London’s National Gallery will now allow personal, non-commercial photography of their collection reversed a very long-held policy. Even though other London institutions such as the British Museum, Tate Britain, and Tate Modern have all permitted photography for years, the National Gallery was a hold-out. There’s been a fair amount of division in the art press as to whether this was a good decision, with some raising the question of ,”Whose art is it, anyway?” – given that the National Gallery is paid for by British taxpayers. Others decried what they see as a lowering of standards, and the turning of a formerly hushed place of learning into a noisy free-for-all.
Museums differ widely when it comes to this issue, and surprisingly there’s no universally accepted standard. A survey by The Art Newspaper earlier this year of some of the most popular art museums around the world showed that not only are there differing rules, but flip-flopping of those rules occurs periodically as well. Recently for example, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam reversed its policy permitting photography in the galleries, thanks to amateur photographers making the place something like a rugby scrimmage.
Here’s a rundown on the current positions of several major art institutions:
- Louvre: Allowed
- Metropolitan: Allowed
- National Gallery (US): Allowed
- Orsay: Banned (was allowed until 2011)
- Vatican Museums: Allowed in the galleries; banned in the Sistine Chapel
There are numerous reasons why museums may ban photography, the most obvious of which is the preservation of the art itself. Even those which do allow public photography almost always ban flash photography. Repeated exposure to bursts of artificial light can damage the art, particularly objects such as fragile paintings, drawings, or textiles. Yet an even more practical reason for the ban has to do with basic human clumsiness.
As a species, humans tend to fall over a lot more often than others do, and we don’t always land elegantly on our feet with no collateral damage, as a cat does. Understandably, many institutions worry that when non-professional photographers try to maneuver to get a close-up, take a group shot, or even snap the dreaded “selfie” with some piece from the collection, they might accidentally stumble, and as a consequence jostle the art object, or worse. This is why even those museums which permit photography insist that the visitor stay a certain distance away from the art. Should you happen to visit the National Gallery here in Washington, for example, get too close to an object on display and you’re going to get a sharp word of warning from the guard watching you.
The debate over members of the public photographing public collections however, creates a more complex sort of problem. On one hand, it seems only fair that art which taxpayers have funded, and which is held in trust on the public’s behalf, should be accessible. On the other, because of the concomitant duty of the institutions housing these collections to preserve the art and educate the public about it, curators and museum staff have to walk a very fine line between allowing too much access and not allowing enough.
From my point of view, I’d rather purchase a book with professionally photographed images of art anyway, since a good photographer can create a far better image than I. At the same time, I can understand why others feel it’s only right that they be allowed to capture images of publicly funded objects for themselves, to share on social media with family and friends. So I’ll confess, while I recognize the existence of the issue, I don’t know that I’ve formed a fixed opinion about it: and given how opinionated I often am, gentle reader, that is quite an unusual development indeed.
What do you think? Is public photography a good or a bad thing in museums? The comments section is open and waiting for your contributions.