Sunday, 31 August 2014

A guide to the museum photography debate

Picture: MS
There has been a huge response to the National Gallery's unannounced about-turn on photography. I've been immensely gratified that there has been such passionate debate and so many thoughtful and intelligent arguments made on both sides. Initially some thought it beyond debate that photography should be permitted, but the Telegraph, Guardian and Evening Standard all editorialised against it. I've been struck by the comment sections of new reports, which are full of heartfelt protests against intrusive photography in museums. In the Independent 'PMcC' reports that he traveled specially to see a sculpture by Richard Serra in Bilbao, described as 'unexpected transformed as the visitor walks through and around them, creating an unforgettable, dizzying feeling of space in motion'. But he says:
Sounds good — unfortunately, what I visited was a backdrop for visitors to take photographs of themselves and their friends. It is bad enough having to edge round the camera's sight lines and peer round family groups assembled for their photographs when walking round a picture gallery but it's impossible to appreciate "space in motion" when it is diminished so profoundly by the camera and its requirements. [...] I am very sorry that the camera has been accepted into so many galleries.
Specialists will delight in being able to get their own high-quality pictures of details and displays, which is of course good. But very few people are doing more than taking conventional snaps of conventional masterpieces, and in doing so they are changing the museum experience for the rest of us much for the worse. Viewing art is not just about studying details and determining attributions, fascinating though I find that. It's also about a rare and precious experience of the transcendent, as PMcC expressed. We're gaining the ability to record a pentiment on Instagram, but we're losing sight of why those details matter.

In this post I've collected links to some of the key articles on this debate. A good starting point is this YouTube video of two minutes in front of Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Some people think this is just great - an example of well-behaved museum visitors engaging with art. I can't reason against that opinion, but regarding it as positive engagement with art seems utterly bonkers to me.

Supporters of photography haven't given enough weight to the problem of flash, which is endemic to all large museums that allow photography and won't go away. The strongest response so far has been to assert that it's mainly a problem in front of the most popular art. But that art is popular for a reason - often it's the most iconic and great works. Are we happy with a world where the best pictures are reserved for tourist snaps, and anyone wanting to look closely must move further down the pecking order? 

Bendor Grosvenor has been the most ardent supporter of photography on his blog Art History News, and summarised in the FT. He asserts that allowing photography is somehow 'forward looking', implying that new must be good. But the substantive arguments are that it's patronising to tell people how to look, and that engaged photography can represent a different way of looking rather than an alternative to looking. He takes that claim to implausible lengths in his latest contribution, suggesting that people might look more closely if they're taking pictures. That experiment has been running for a long time in many major galleries, and the evidence is all in the other direction. Michael Kimmelman spoke to the experiences of most when he wrote that 'At the Louvre, many stop to snap but few stay to focus'. The tourist taking pictures without looking is now a cultural stereotype, but I've never seen reports of people paying more attention to paintings because they are trying to set up the best photo shot.

The argument becomes even more hard to follow when he asserts that "if we liberate images, both in digital and print format, then we can begin to look at art in entirely new ways." I simply don't know what that could mean. I don't think the ways we've looked at art have actually changed much over the centuries, although technology has made it more accessible. Will having a few million online snaps of Van Gogh's Sunflowers through a crowd really transform the way we see art? Of course it's good to have more and better images, but at the moment finding good pictures on the internet often requires trawling through lots of identical tourist snaps of variable quality and still not finding what you want. High-quality images taken in good lighting with tripods and cameras with gazillions of megapixels, properly labeled, easily accessed and freely available online would be brilliant. But that's something that museums need to organise themselves. Allowing smartphone snaps won't help, and might actually be an excuse for museums to avoid taking their own proper photographs.

Didier Rykner also offers a strong defence of photography along similar lines. He has not been disturbed by photographers at the Louvre, but as many other people are disturbed we can't resolve that debate simply on the strength of personal experience. Both Bendor Grosvenor and Didier Rykner emphasise the libertarian argument that people should be free to take pictures in public museums, but I do not find this persuasive because public museums, like all institutions, rightly have rules that are agreed on to enhance everyone's enjoyment. Be it a dress code at a fancy restaurant or the injunction not to talk through a play, rules are set to enhance enjoyment not to repress. It is quite reasonable to debate what those rules should be, but the bald assertion that photo bans are wrong because restrictions are wrong is not tenable.

Even more forceful is John  Wyver's piece for Illuminations, which describes my post on photography as 'nostalgic, ignorant and elitist twaddle'. A key argument is that we own the pictures, so we should be able to take pictures of them. But he doesn't explain why the pro-photography owners' wishes should trump the anti-photographers' wishes. Everyone can agree that there must be some rules and restrictions in museums; we just need to decide what those rules are. More substantively he adds to the chorus of claims that museum selfies are just another way of engaging with art. That view is central to Sam Leith's argument in London's Evening Standard, and Archie Bland's in the Independent. But this is the shallowest of arguments, asserting that it's just different engagement rather than disengagement. When you look at the clip of snappers in front of Van Gogh, one's first thought isn't 'oh, look at the varied forms of engagement'. More meat is needed before this argument can be taken seriously. 

On the theme of selfies, Rebecca Atkinson of the Museums Association thinks objections to photography are just Selfie Scaremongering. And Zoe Williams went to take her own selfies. The Brisbane Times is less positive about selfies.

Neil Jeffares has written a thoughtful and balanced review of the arguments. Ultimately he decides in favour of photography, but he is attuned to the costs and shows a fair appreciation of the way that photography affects the museum experience. I place different values on certain elements of the museum experience, but I find little to disagree with in this analysis. 

This excellent post by Nina Simon identifies over-crowding rather than photography as the problem. I agree with all her points about over-crowding, but I still believe that photography does have a negative impact. It really is harder to see Van Gogh since the photo ban was removed at the National Gallery. And permitting photography really does affect the ambiance of museums. This is a key point that I will return to in another post soon, but do read Nina's post. Her blog is a must-read on museums. She is on the opposite side to me on many debates, but always thoughtful, interesting and open-minded. The internet can be an echo chamber rather than a debating forum, so it's refreshing to read constructive dialogue from 'the other side'.

On the 'photo-sceptic' side of the debate, I was particularly gratified to read this post by Christopher Moore, a teenager who resists the conventional and determinist narrative about his generation of 'digital natives'. Sarah Crompton in the Telegraph thinks you shouldn't take pictures in museums, saying that the NG is "betraying all those who want to contemplate rather than glance ... [it's] not a means of making art more popular or accessible. It is the surest path to depriving it of all purpose and meaning". Finestre sul'Arte gives us five valid reasons for not taking pictures in museums - an excellent piece, in Italian. And Tiffany Jenkins laments the distractions of technology and makes a case for focusing on art. Hers is one of the most important contributions because it recognises the context for the debate.

I think the wider questions are key. Several related stores about the place of technology have broken during the NG photography debate.

The Stage asks if theatres will buckle to the 'selfie generation'. I commend Richard Gresham's Theatre Charter in response. And Kate Bush asked fans not to take pictures during her recent performance in London. The comments left below the Guardian's report are worth reading. There's a lot of heartfelt support for her stance.

The Guardian also reports that PSV Eindhoven fans have protested against WiFi at games because it spoils the atmosphere and distracts from the game. In the Guardian's poll, 70% agreed with them. And the Chronicle of Higher Education carries an article on the benefits of banning laptops from lectures. It reports a study showing that not only laptop users, but also handwriters who could see others' laptops performed worse in tests.

In all of these instances people have taken a conscious decision to resist the intrusion of elements of modern technology, either because they want to maintain a special aura to certain experiences, or because technology is a barrier rather than a help. When mobile phones started to take off it took some time to establish appropriate etiquette, and we're still negotiating that question. But no one thinks we should be able to take calls anywhere, any time. We restrict them particularly from the situations that we value most, like wedding ceremonies, church services, concerts and meals out. Museums are welcoming photography at just the time when everyone else is starting to think about how to restrict it. It seems that museums have lost sight of their specialness and seek to promote themselves only as backdrops for selfies.

I am a passionate believer in the benefits of new technology, and politically I am a Millean liberal with views on personal liberty that some regard as unhinged libertarianism. I am not against technology,  and I am generally opposed to regulation. I do not seek to ban photography because I hate smartphones, or because I like restricting people, but because I believe they are harming our ability to appreciate art. It is because I believe in the specialness of art, the preciousness of the experience of visiting great galleries, that I want to prohibit photography. Much to my regret, evidence from the National Gallery shows that it has already regressed to a place where flash photography is normal, contemplation of art is interrupted by constant electronic shutter noises, and people line up to get the same snaps of the same paintings and then move on to the next obligatory photo op. I find that immensely sad.

Missing from the debate has been the National Gallery itself. For all its talk of 'audience engagement', it made the change without asking or telling. It claimed that it was too hard for guards to stop people taking pictures when they use smartphones for other purposes, but guards deny this. On the other hand, it really is impossible to stop flash once photography is allowed, so the same logic would see flash permitted soon. It already is in practice, so the rule will likely soon fall. The only response has been a quote from Susan Foister that there are six million visitors and six million different ways of looking, which wins the prize for vacuous relativism. As Neil Jeffares points out, scenes in the YouTube clip above show that she's providing a way to avoid looking rather than offering new ways to look.

Please let me know if I've missed any other links.


  1. Thanks so much for mentioning my blog, Michael!

    I've really appreciated your stance on this issue. You've made mincemeat of some dubious arguments.

    Looked at Nina's piece, definitely following her blog now. Looks like a keeper.

  2. Thanks Michael for this excellent and informative (as usual) piece on the debate. And good to have all sides neatly pulled together in one article.

  3. another texto to discuss

  4. Charter of good practices for taking pictures in French museums!-La-charte-des-bonnes-pratiques-dans-les-etablissements-patrimoniaux

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  6. I get it, but the reason I take photographs in museums (with a good camera, not a smart phone) is that reproductions are rarely available of lesser known works that I would like to look at again. I suppose I could search museum websites and find their reproduction, but I like getting in the frame as well.

    I do also enjoy taking photos of people looking at art. I don't do flash, of course. I got yelled at in the Dulwich Picture Gallery for even having a tiny indicator light. I thought that was a bit extreme.