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Tomorrow’s News Today: The Evolution of Museum Photography Policies

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Here’s an interesting item: This article talks about the decision of Seattle’s Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum to allow non-flash photography in their exhibits. One-off or trend? I think the latter—that this is an early signal of a growing movement to question the traditional policy of “no photography allowed in the galleries.” This policy evolved to protect the objects, of course, as well as out of concerns for copyright. Why question it now?

I can think of several reasons:

  • In an era of ubiquitous cell phone cameras it is impractical to enforce.
  • With respect to preservation, as long as the camera doesn’t have a flash (and most cell phone cameras don’t), it isn’t an issue.
  • With respect to copyright, give me a break—most of these photos are of such quality, overall, that they are no threat to the potential income sources of artists or museums.
  • Allowing, or even better, encouraging people to take photos and share them with their friends through email, Facebook, Flickr and other social media is a great way to cultivate social experiences around the museum visit and spread the good word about why other people may want to come.

Nina Simon recently expressed her own frustration with restricted photo policies, arguing persuasively that such policies should be as open as possible. It has also been a lively topic of discussion on the listserve Museum-L.

As a former registrar-cum-collections manager, I realize how convenient it is, when struggling to set boundaries, to present a clear black-and-white delineation of what is acceptable and not acceptable in museum practice. “No food or drink in galleries, ever!” is another such popular dictum. But the more museum staff understand the real benefits and risks involved in such decisions, the hollower such reductionist arguments sound. Letting someone take snapshots for personal use isn’t the end of museum civilization as we know it. And some galleries are more at risk from food and drink at receptions—depending on the type of objects (lithics or textiles?), how they are displayed (cases or no cases?), the nature of the gallery (carpet or tile?) and the food (passed canapés or serving stations with Sterno?!).

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To the extent that some practices pose measurable risks, we may choose to accept them anyway—and our tolerance for risk may change over time. I speculate in this post about the possibility that in the future, society—and museums—may give more weight to the benefits of access, even at the potential cost of preservation.

One thing that might drive such a change is a better understanding of the risks related to people, to balance our pretty thorough understanding of the risks to objects. Perhaps I should call this “risks to relationships”—the potential damage to our relationships with visitors when we ban various behaviors. Because museum staff are trained in object preservation, and rarely trained in human psychology, these risks may go unnoticed and unmeasured. Sure, it’s possible some people may be annoyed enough by what they regard as unnecessary rules to complain, but most will grumble to themselves. Others may not even be consciously annoyed by the rules, but may enjoy their museum experience less than they would if the restrictions did not exist. And, consequentially, they may visit museums less frequently or over time may come to think of museums as places they don’t enjoy visiting. This is an important risk, and needs to be weighed in the balance when making decisions about access versus use.

So now might be a good time to take a fresh look at your museum’s photography policy. Is it reasonable? Necessary? Enforceable? Would you and your visitors be better served by something more nuanced and flexible? It might not be an easy or comfortable argument to have internally, and it may take more training for staff to consistently and appropriately enforce a policy more complex than a simple ban. But no one said that running a good museum was easy …

Weigh in here to share how your museum’s photo policies are evolving. Or not.

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1 Comment

  1. I could not agree more in defending photography for personal use within galleries at art museums. To me, a photo is a reminder of a piece of art, and by no means replaces the experience of viewing it in person. I think it is fascinating and wonderful that people's first instinct when they see something they like in a gallery is to take a picture… maybe museums should have a sign that says, "carefully observe, enjoy, and then photograph, if you must."

    "My museum" is the great Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the photos I take there are an essential element for my blog: MetEveryday.

    The Internet has forever changed information sharing and created a forum for discussion of every niche in society. In order to evolve, museums must adapt and come up with creative approaches to the modern world.

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