Museums United Kingdom

To ban or not to ban photography

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

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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Comments

11 May 14
22:51 CET

PETER SOEMERS, DEN HAAG / NL

I understand many statements made by ‚both sides‘ in the article and in the comments. My personal experience is that photographing can help to better appreciate works of art (agree fully with Chuck), the article is a little bit to negative on this point. Some thoughts: 1) The main problem is not the photographing as such but the manner in which people behave. At this point we need some education of visitors 2) Museums nevertheless not allowing taking pictures should present on their website for free high resolution images of works not banned by copyright (cfr. Rijksstudio from Rijksmuseum) AND they should tell about this service loud and clear to their visitors on spot. (Of course museums allowing taking pictures should do the same) 3) Both points could be presented in a short video that continuously is displayed in your entrance halls (cfr. videos about securitychecks on airports)

24 Mar 14
16:18 CET

CHARLIE GARNETT, TROO

Sadly so many pieces either aren't photographed or images not readily available. I would willingly by a CD with images if the were for sale in the "gift shop" but sadly they are very rarely available In addition, my passion & my interest is predominately furniture & the decorative arts and these are rarely reproduced - I possibly photograph too much but they are for my reference & not trophy shots I am perfectly happy to pay an additional fee to have a permit. The good news is that a number of collections, museums, etc., today have wonderful photographic libraries which can be accessed on line & images down-loaded for personal use.

19 Mar 14
16:31 CET

EDWARD AUFDEMKAMPE, LOVELAND OH

During a recent visit to Paris, I was elated that the Louvre allowed photography and the d'Orsay did not. I would have been GLAD to pay a premium for a photo pass for the privilege. Never a flash, and for a catalogue for my own personal use. Maybe it is time for museums to recognize the value added benefit this could provide. An added benefit for the docents: if you are caught taking a picture, you owe the premium. I would welcome a 50 euro premium for photographing at the Musee d'Orsay. And to answer a previous poster, I would gladly pay for a postcard, if they had the one I wanted. Another wonderful solution would be for museums to offer all of their offerings online. The Google cultural institute is a big step forward.

19 Mar 14
16:33 CET

EDWARD AUFDEMKAMPE, LOVELAND OH

During a recent visit to Paris, I was elated that the Louvre allowed photography and the d'Orsay did not. I would have been GLAD to pay a premium for a photo pass for the privilege. Never a flash, and for a catalogue for my own personal use. Maybe it is time for museums to recognize the value added benefit this could provide. An added benefit for the docents: if you are caught taking a picture, you owe the premium. I would welcome a 50 euro premium for photographing at the Musee d'Orsay. And to answer a previous poster, I would gladly pay for a postcard, if they had the one I wanted. Another wonderful solution would be for museums to offer all of their offerings online. The Google cultural institute is a big step forward.

18 Mar 14
17:40 CET

MONICAR, AMSTERDAM

It was practically impossible to study the Van Gogh at Work exhibition in 2013 because of the pressure of 'selfies', and piccies taken. It is on the other hand the best way to have a picture of a painting because the quality, the colours, of reproductions/ postcards and catalogues has sunken dramatically. Often don't have any resemblance to the original. So what is wise?

13 Mar 14
15:12 CET

JOHN BENCE, NEW YORK

While the Vatican prohibits taking photographs in the Sistine Chapel, guards don't enforce the rule. When I was there two years ago, the room was filled with flashes.

13 Mar 14
15:14 CET

KAREN, ANAHEIM

It will be news to all the tourists taking pictures with their iPads in the Sistine Chapel that photos are forbidden.

13 Mar 14
15:15 CET

CAROL, STRICKLAND

If we want to encourage cultural tourism, sharing photos of great art works helps encourage others to visit & see the art first-hand. I just toured the Vatican collection and the crowds were seriously studying the art as well as snapping souvenir shots. It's not necessarily a dichotomy.

13 Mar 14
15:16 CET

ROBERTO, YOKOSUKA, JAPAN

Exit through the gift shop ... and buy postcards.

13 Mar 14
16:50 CET

CHUCK, MIAMI

I have found that sometimes the process of photographing an object makes me look at it more carefully and I come away with a deeper appreciation. I don't expect other viewers to get out of my way and I wait patiently. For those who feel that some how they have more priority because they want to study or appreciate than those who simply want to look briefly or photograph, you don't. You are but one click on the turnstile like any one else. Were the museums dependent only on such visitors, most could not stay open.

12 Mar 14
19:35 CET

MIKE GAYLER, LEICESTER, UK

There is a prevalent attitude of 'if there's no photo, it never happened / I never saw it' which needs to be addressed in society. These rules are confusing for visitors - do we need a concensus? For example: 'no phototography on Saturdays & Sundays' in any museum anywhere, and at the museums discretion any other days? Snappers are a real distraction if one wants to study, or appreciate, famous artworks.

12 Mar 14
17:7 CET

DAVID BROOKS, TORONTO

Bravo, Van Gogh Museum! When I visited in September the cameras were a huge distraction. The VGM is always jam-packed, but the cameras made a challenging visit even more so. Also, shouldn't people just appreciate the art, rather than snapping selfies and publishing them online three seconds later? Well done, VGM.

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