You Own It, But Should You Photograph It?


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.

The Louvre Mona Lisa Photographers


56 thoughts on “You Own It, But Should You Photograph It?

  1. It has been over 20 years since I was there, but I don’t remember even being able to get a camera out at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg in 1992.

    Their current policy is no flash photography and you have to purchase a permit to take amateur photography and wear a sticker showing you have.


  2. No phones, no bikes, no motor cars, not a single luxury is the best way to appreciate art, but for some it isn’t the art, it’s the experience of being seen in a museum (why else post selfies, etc.). Do they mistake the attention I give the art for attention they think they deserve for acting uncouth?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha, ha! Well short of putting a museum on Gilligan’s Island, I’m not sure we can avoid the social aspect. People used to go to museums to see and be seen, of course, and that probably still happens in some instances. Thanks for reading!


  3. Firstly, good read. It is an interesting point, one which I don’t yet have an answer. I tend to feel as you do about seeing these masterful pieces from a professional photographer, if not in person. However, there is the quandry of them being taxpayer funded.

    The clumsiness of humans is possibly the best argument for not allowing public photography, or at least requiring a safe distance.

    I just really think all of this stems from society’s need to feel validated via social media. People want to prove that they’ve been somewhere. They must take a selfie to show that. I think this is due to a couple of reasons:

    1. People are unable to articulate in words their experiences anymore.
    2. People’s word doesn’t mean much any longer. Obviously, there are honorable people still, but most people, I would not trust their word at all. Therefore, they need to “show” that they visited these art pieces or places to prove to everyone.

    Maybe I’m way off base. Not sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the kind comments, and you raise some good points there. Does something really happen if it’s not documented in social media? Where do we draw the line between personal enjoyment and personal glorification?


      • Well, I don’t believe that to be the case (something not happening if it is not documented in social media), but I believe that is the general consensus of the masses. I think we are far past the line of personal enjoyment. My dad, at the sight of my plucking a single leaf off of a tree in a public place as a kid, told me, “If everyone took just one leaf, there would be nothing left for other people to enjoy.” That has really stuck with me. I think it applies here.


  4. I was at the Vatican Museums recently with a friend who kept pointing at art in a way that her finger was only a centimeter or two from the surface. The guards didn’t seem to notice but she was giving me a heart attack!!

    On the one hand I am of the camp that we could all stand to put our cameras down for two minutes and just appreciate what’s in front of us. Then again, it is nice to be able to snap a picture of something particularly interesting — say, a detail, or a curious hanging decision in the gallery — and share it with others. I’m partial to making jokes, myself, but sometimes things are just that lovely or I want to ask a more knowledgeable friend.

    Finally, I agree that my photos are never going to be as good as a professional — but then it can be surprising how often a nice postcard isn’t available. The National Gallery in London (probably not coincidentally) is especially good about having postcards available, but then the Art Institute in Chicago rarely has the image that caught my eye and even then the quality is often disappointing. For instance, a painting notable for its bright red tones is muddy brown on the postcard in the gift shop. Of course, I’m probably being a cavewoman on this point, since there are high quality digital versions on the website!


    • There are so many ways now that you can have an image of a work of art, not only books and postcards but through online media, that it does seem weird that people want to take pictures of art themselves. But the points you raise about a more obscure work that might not be reproduced for sale, or the setting or a detail, which might not be apparent through an available printed or digital image, are valid. There’s a favorite painting of mine in The Prado for example, that until I saw it in person, I didn’t realize the background was dark green; I always thought it was dark brown. Thanks for reading and commenting!


    • I’m with you on this one, Julie … put the cameras down and look. Look at the detail. The absolutely amazing detail that often the best photo won’t capture. That said, I did take a photo once, at the National Gallery of Victoria. Mum has a large tapestry of Tom Robert’s “Shearing the Rams”. I could not pass up the opportunity to take a photo of her looking at the original. Turns out, the tapestry looks more like the original than my photo. But, just as you have remembered the bright red tones, I can still see the surface texture of Robert’s masterpiece. So cool.


  5. I was embarrassed to be told no photos at the St. JP2 exhibit recently, and although it should have been an opportunity for me to put away the camera and prayerfully view the relics and prints in real time, I had a hard time fighting the urge to send some to my husband who couldn’t make the trip.


    • Right, and that’s part of the issue. Trying to share something with family and friends who can’t be there shows that we care about them. But if we allow that, then we have to allow the self-promotional picture as well, because a guard isn’t going to be able to ask everyone their motivation for snapping a picture. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  6. Great reading. Thanks for sharing. I share the same opinion of… not having a fixed opinion on the matter. There’s always the copy right issue that gets me. I always want to take images with me for further contemplation, inspiration and analysis; not to sell them, I think. But alas… the kind reminder that someone needs to make a profit from creating the work (or displaying it, in the case the author walked the face of the earth a few centuries ago) always creates an internal conflict in me that makes me obey and put mi camera down in loyalty to the institution that is acquiring, curating and displaying. Hopefully one of the high-resolution libraries on-line will have it…

    Liked by 1 person

    • And of course being a professional photographer you have a different reason for looking at it as you do, rather than the issue of whether a selfie is the do-all end-all. Thanks for reading and the kind comments!


  7. Photos can be good because they help us to remember our experiences of being there. Even if the photo is not as good as seeing it in reality. That, in itself, is interesting – to realize what an amazing creation our eyes are. I like to look at a photograph I’ve taken while I’m there to see what it does or does not capture of the experience. Sometimes a photograph reveals things that are not apparent when you see it in reality. I had an interesting experience recently when I converted a photograph of a stained glass window of St Brigid into a line drawing (using software) for a children’s activity for our Church’s centenary. In the drawing there was a St Brigid’s Cross clearly evident that was unnoticable in real life. I think the important thing with taking any photograph is for it not to impede the experience of others (or yourself).


    • Thanks for sharing and yes, you’re right – sometimes the personal photo can pick up details we miss in the reproduction, which is why I suppose it’s still a question in my mind as to whether it should be completely banned or completely allowed.


    • I agree that some, maybe many, people are taking a memento, a reminder for the future of where they were and what they saw. Instagram is so much more useful than storing packets of photos in a cupboard.


  8. Fantastic post, William.

    I was just at a museum last weekend and took some photos. I always ask the museum staff before taking photos because, as you say, policies vary widely between institutions and often change within any single institution as time goes on.

    As an IT professional, my take on museums is that they are woefully behind the times when it comes to technology – particularly in the social media arena. I wrote an open letter to museums on my technology blog a couple weeks ago

    Creating digital images of the collection and sending a few tweets about the exhibits is hardly cutting edge stuff. Museums are largely just trying to react to digital treads as evidenced by their confused and wishy-washy policies. They need to start leading!

    They need to become pro-active in helping patrons enjoy their visit on both the analog and digital planes. Like it or not social media sharing is here. Time to get cracking.

    I think I’ll write a post specifically about photography in museums and I’ll be sure to link back here.



    • Thanks very much for reading and sharing your perspective. And you raise a good point, which is whether the institutions themselves are making the best use of the objects in their care, beyond the more famous images they may have. Look forward to your post!


  9. I think it is an absolutely terrible idea. Many tiny cameras in cell phones have no “off” button for flash, the camera decides for itself what light level to use. So selfie or plain photos, you will still get some flash. What happened to looking then buying a professional postcard as a reminder, should you forget you have seen the Mona Lisa? The answer, in American anyway when I last was doing galleries there, is that there are very, very few postcards…


  10. Well, I admit that I am someone who takes a lot of pictures when I am visiting a museum (if allowed) and am careful never to use a flash (and frown disapprovingly when others do). Why do I snap away? Well, for one, I know that I can’t afford to purchase the lovely books available at the museums stores (and they are not that accessible second-hand either). Secondly, they connect me to the experience. I have an attitude that I ‘may not pass this way again’ and thus want to capture as much as possible of what I see. When I create my albums, they bring me right back to my earlier visit. [In contrast, I have only vague memories of what I saw at the Borghese Museum for the Napoleon exhibition (no pictures EVER allowed).]

    As for people damaging artwork — I have never seen a person with a camera touch a work of art (probably because cameras — and cell phones — have zoom lenses).

    What is most important, is that the museum employees ensure that people remain quiet and respectful of the artwork. And when I see a person trying to take a selfie — I offer to take their picture for them 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s a shame that places have to ban photography, though I can understand why. Maybe it would have been better if photographers could give each other a bit of space and courtesy, then it wouldn’t be such a mash up in front of the favourite paintings.

    Great post! 🙂


  12. I think that images such as the Mona Lisa have been reproduced across the world so many times that the original piece of art, and its spirit, is nearly lost. Photography may have made that reproduction easier but is not solely responsible; prints done of choice works, intended for the lower classes to be able to enjoy artwork, have been around for hundreds of years.

    Personally therefore, I am fine with the photography rule in the NG, because I think that even if you prevent it you are not preventing the dissemination of the artwork, as you elude to when you say you often buy the book.

    (For the record) I also tend buy the book, as I feel almost guilty photographing a piece of art in a gallery. Although, I should say, I have this same photograph of the Mona Lisa in one of my own blog posts from a while back! To that end I end up photographing works quite a lot – it’s the only way to put the image in your posts save scanning the books!

    In any regard it was a very good post, congrats on being freshly pressed!


  13. I agree that it is better to look for an image in a published version if you can get it, but there are many images in museums and collections that do not make it. If you have a particular interest it is frustrating if there is a ban on photography.

    I am not even so sure about the ban on flash photography. I read an article in the National Gallery restoration magazine a few years back titled: Flash Photography: -Threat or Nuisance. The conclusion was that flash represents a negligible threat to the integrity of paint surfaces. because the amount of light is miniscule compared to normal daylight exposure. Perhaps the delicate pigments of watercolour would be an exception.

    As for the social side, I am all for the democratization of art consumption just because you can’t have it both ways. People who define ordinary tourists and interested visitors as “the herd” and want to differentiate themselves from the crowd end up sounding priggish and vain. These collections would not survive without the tourist dollar!


  14. I would imagine that for even the most avid social media fan a selfie outside, a tag saying you’re there and a status saying saw The Mona Lisa should suffice. I like to enjoy museums quietly without the snapping of shutters and jostlings of groups into shots but then that’s just me and the world is changing. It would be nice though to keep museums a little old fashioned. What better place for it?


  15. Great post. I actually understand the urge to take pictures of pictures as silly as it sounds. Several years ago, I got the chance to see my all time favorite painting, Olympia in Musee d’Orsay and I had the overwhelming urge to document the experience. Out of respect to the museum policies, I didn’t. Sadly, I think many people disregard this policy, which is why museums feel the need to cave in.


  16. Great post! I agree that it’s hard to form an opinion as art varies from piece to piece. If someone doesn’t want their private art documented that is their right. I love taking pictures of art in museums though and do find it frustrating if I am not allowed to take a photo. But you just have to respect that in those cases. I agree with Rosie that sometimes a photo with something you’ve had a connection with… you want to remember the experience you’re capturing at that moment in time with that particular object. I don’t see any harm in that 🙂


  17. Certainly made me think.

    Four things:

    – The Hermitage allowed photography in Soviet days. I visited in the 60s, 70s & 80s and took photos every time. Pre-digital and pre-mobile-phone and so I had to think about the expense and not just snap away continuously.

    – Walter Benjamin focused very early in this debate (late 1930s) in “The Work of Art in the age of mechanical reproduction”. In the last year or so, the philosopher Alain de Botton has wondered what it is we are doing when we insist on travelling to a museum to see a picture when we can do this easily without leaving home. Indeed, we can “see more” by studying a digital image (one example above) than in “looking respectfully” at the “original” from a distance.

    – I went to see a Grayson Perry exhibition of tapestries in Birmingham (England) a little while ago. I had down-loaded the accompanying app to my iPad and studied that first. Looked at the app in the gallery. Tweeted – and quickly received a reply from the museum’s tweet service – and then maintained a twitter correspondence while I was there. Did it enhance my experience? It certainly enhanced my enjoyment.

    – And then, at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, I’ve just followed an “alternative” route through their huge collection using an Alain de Botton iPad app – art philosophy, you might say, rather than art history or art criticism. (“What can long-dead Dutchmen tell us about how to lead our lives today?” gives you a flavour.)

    Anyway, thanks for the blog post!


  18. Hard question.. I myself have taken numerous pics in museums. But at the same time, I think to myself that that’s taking away from the art. Does one go to a museum to take a picture of everything or to stand in front of a work for hours basking in its glory? I’d love to say the latter, but then why do so many of us tend towards the former?


  19. In the early 80’s a gallery commissioned me to paint a series from Van Gogh. Exact size with precise brush strokes. A visit from the FBI and the gallery owner went to jail. Watch what you copy!


  20. That’s why they have a ‘shop’ in most museums. So, if you want some nice, professionally made photos, you can purchase them. I think most people are too self absorbed in their own world with quickie cell phone pictures to even think of it. Unless you are a professional photographer, put the cell phones away in a museum and enjoy the art. In this day and age of social media, we have created a society of social self absorbedness.


  21. I understand the sentiment about buying a proper photo shows the art better. But than all you’re buying is a generic photo of the art. You’re not capturing YOUR connection with the art. I like taking my own photos of things as it reminds me of what I saw and what I felt.


  22. Interesting assumption that art in a museum is set apart from the rest of the world! The world is full of art, sculpture and architecture, and there are very few things that aren’t available in photographs somewhere. And yet we are taking more photographs everywhere of everything. I think the real question is about our motives, not our subjects. I love the photo of the cameras shooting the Mona Lisa 🙂


  23. The Uffizi is my gallery of choice. In the 10 years I have been holidaying in Firenze, photographing the paintings has not been permitted. With the luxury of a membership of the Amici degli Uffizi, I do not pay entry and so can stand and look or sketch just one painting per visit instead of dashing through trying to see it all at once. I don’t think I would even bother to look at the photos I took if I could because the quality would be so poor.

    It doesn’t matter how often people are told not to use flash they do out of simple ignorance of their cameras or refusal to believe that the rules apply to them. The damage to delicate pigments are just not worth it.

    Go and buy a postcard. The reproduction is better than most amateur photographers can achieve and it helps a little to fund the gallery. After all, mostly the artworks don’t arrive there for free.


  24. As a museum employee (public museum, private art collection) I just wanted to weigh in here about why our museum has its “no photography” policy. We are a little smaller than most museums, we have six galleries on our first floor, two on our second, and classrooms on our second floor. The museum also brings in exhibits that are not part of our permanent collection and even some of the pieces in our permanent collection that we own the work, but not the rights to the image. That means we would be in serious copyright violation to allow any reproduction of the images. Im wondering if the museums who allow photography no longer carry living artists or if they must buy rights to every image. (buying rights to an image is different from buying the work. if you buy a piece from an artists you are not able to go out and have prints made to sell, unless you have purchased that license from the artist) If so thats wonderful, but that also means the museum is paying more for art, and it can accept no traveling exhibits. more money laid out by the museum and for what? all so someone can snap a selfie? I think sharing art is great, but if a piece speaks to you, get the artist’s name and the title of the piece and look it up online for your friends later. If the artist provides images then he/she has made that as a financial decision, if not that is also important. Its easy to forget when looking at a 200 year old watercolor that has stayed in the same frame, in the same spot, in the same museum for many years that there are modern artists, today, that have to make a living at this. Yes, art is to be loved and seen, but the artists still own their work and it must be displayed and respected according to their terms. Letting photography in galleries to me just seems like an unnessacary expense that limits who the museum can bring in as artists.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. I am so happy to have found your blog. This post just translates many thoughts I’ve been through lately, which are usually repressed when sometimes I decide to express it more openly. After 2 years in Europe already (which comes along with many and constant museum visits as well), I started observing people’s behavior even more, and I really don’t manage, in any reasonable way, to understand why people take pictures of art pieces. Some people don’t even look with their own eyes to the object – they just shoot, continuously. In my opinion, that’s pretty sad. Brilliant text, William!

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Just spent two months in Paris – with a week in Tuscanny – I´m in favour of banning. More time for the eyes. Flash can’t be controlled. On a given day at any museum where photographs were allowed, I would personally scold 5 to 10 tourists flashing away. Guards can’t keep up. And the answer is always of innocent surprise: “Oh, really? I didn’t know flash was bad”. Same goes for touching statues. Many statues in the Louvre end up black, covered with fungus.
    Nice post.


  27. No flash-for reasons you give. But, take the photos and let the world know. Art is a good thing and the masters were great. Let not art be lost and educate the public.


  28. Back in the late 70s, no one thought of taking selfies unless they had someone else take the picture of them but I remember raising my 35mm up high above the crowd to take that one shot to show I was at the Louvre. The large flash attached to the camera was turned off but that didn’t stop the guard standing by the Mona Lisa to raise his hands up at the same time in disgust. Oh, I got the picture; turned out good –without the flash of course. Today with social media gone crazy everyone wants the attention the selfie gives, if anything proof they have been some where. “Oh look where I went”. As for myself, I hate pictures of myself.


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