To ban or not to ban photography

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As the Van Gogh Museum reintroduces prohibition, it’s no wonder visitors with cameras are confused

By Martin Bailey. Museums, Issue 255, March 2014
Published online: 12 March 2014

Smart phone, shame about the museum experience?

The world’s most popular museums have widely differing attitudes towards visitors taking photographs. The current situation is confusing for visitors because of different policies taken by museums, even those in the same city. Although most now permit photography for personal use in their permanent collections, it can lead to “camera-rage”: tension between those looking at and photographing art.

Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum reintroduced its ban on personal photography in January because of the friction it caused. Last May, for the first time, it allowed personal photography, since growing numbers of visitors wanted and expected to be able to take photos. However, the museum attracts 1.4 million visitors a year (88% tourists) and its relatively confined space means that it is always crowded.

Permitting photography led to constant tension between those who wanted a clear view for their camera and those who wished to look at the paintings. Many also insisted on photographing their companion or themselves in front of a picture. This led to numerous complaints from other visitors.

A few works hung with the museum’s permanent collection are loans, most of which should not be photographed. When the National Gallery in London lent Sunflowers, 1888, last year, there was a “no photography” symbol on the label. But visitors either failed to see the symbol or chose to ignore it, and gallery staff could do a limited amount to prevent them.

Now the Van Gogh Museum only allows pictures to be taken in areas where there is no art, such as the central atrium.

The rise of digital cameras

Until a decade or so ago, photography was generally prohibited in museums because cameras usually required the use of flash indoors. The development of digital cameras (including those in smartphones) that can produce a good image in low light has created the current confusion. Museums want visitors to enjoy the collections and to share images with friends, but it can be disruptive when large numbers of people are snapping away with their mobile phones and tablets around popular works.

We surveyed the world’s top ten museums, in terms of visitor numbers (see box). Only three of the ten museums ban photography. The seven that permit personal photography do not allow the use of flash or tripods. Photography is banned for light-sensitive works on paper and in temporary exhibitions (where many items are on loan).

Whatever the policy, enforcing restrictions puts a strain on gallery staff, and diverts them from their key role, protecting the collection. In London, for example, many visitors find it difficult to understand why they cannot use cameras in the National Gallery, but can in Tate Modern and Tate Britain. And when in the Tate’s permanent collection, many do not observe the small print on works on loan saying that they should not be photographed.

Photography in galleries also raises copyright issues. The Tate for example, does not reproduce many of its own 20th- and 21st-century works in the collection section of its website because of “copyright restrictions”. Yet visitors regularly photograph these same paintings and upload them onto social media sites.

The ubiquitous digital camera raises the key question of how we look at art. A recent study at Fairfield University, Connecticut, confirms what some might expect. Linda Henkel, a psychologist, produced data that shows that visitors who took photographs remembered fewer works and fewer details in them than those who only looked at them.

Henkel explains: “When you click on that button, you’re sending a signal to your brain saying, ‘I’ve just outsourced this, the camera is going to remember this for me’. The photos are trophies. You want to show people where you were, rather than saying, ‘This is important, I want to remember this.’”

Where you can and can’t snap the art

London: The Tate has allowed photography since 2009. A gallery spokeswoman says this “opens up possibilities of dialogue and engagement”. While the British Museum has allowed photography for decades, the National Gallery bans it. Photography “could spoil the visitor’s enjoyment of the art”, says a National Gallery spokeswoman.

Paris: Photography is allowed at the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre. In the Louvre’s gallery with the Mona Lisa, 1503-06, the crowds surge around the barrier, making it impossible to really look at Leonardo’s masterpiece. In less popular rooms photography creates little difficulty. Photography used to be allowed at the Musée d’Orsay but the policy was reversed in 2011. An Orsay spokeswoman says that the opening of the refurbished Impressionist galleries increased attendance and the growing number of people with smartphones meant the situation had become “very uncomfortable”.

United States: New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has allowed photography since around 2000, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has permitted photography for many years.

Vatican: Photography is allowed in the Vatican Museums, except in the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo’s ceiling is the museum’s main attraction, and the room is constantly thronged).

Taipei: The National Palace Museum bans photography “to preserve and protect” its ancient artefacts.

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