In Cairo, at the world famous Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, commonly known as the Egyptian Museum, photography is forbidden. It isn't just flash photography, it's photography of any kind. In fact, you can't even bring your camera into the museum. If you have a camera with you, the guards turn you away. You must leave your camera in your car, bus, or other place. The Museum doesn't have a place to “check” cameras.
The Museum, does permit cellphones to be carried into the Museum, but if you try to take a photo with it, be prepared to be roughly and emphatically escorted out of the Museum after you delete any photos taken in the Museum.
It's really unfortunate that photography in the Museum is banned, even non-flash photography, as the Museum building itself is a wonderful photographic opportunity. Completed in 1902, the museum is typical of European museum architecture of the dawn of the 20th century, with a huge multi-story central hall filled with enormous pieces, galleries on each floor overlooking it, and long art filled main hallways, wrapping around each floor, leading to individual small gallery rooms.
I've learned, since coming home from Cairo, that the Musée d'Orsay in Paris has banned all photography. Like the Egyptian Museum, the Musée d'Orsay building itself is a wonderful photographic opportunity. The Musée is housed in the former Gare d'Orsay, an impressive Beaux-Arts railway station built between 1898 and 1900.
From Florida to Cairo, from France to Russia, too many museums are banning photography completely. Especially for the small, not very famous museums, in the long run, I believe the ban will hurt them.
Sometimes photography is banned with some sound reasoning behind it, and sometimes not. Let's consider the primary reasons museums have banned photography.
- Conservation: There is no doubt that light can damage delicate objects like paper, textiles, as well as pigments and inks. Of course, one can question whether the brief duration (a few milliseconds) of a compact flash, used by photographers today, will actually affect the exhibits. There is little doubt that the brightness of the peak intensity of the modern electronic flash and uncertainty about their ultraviolet (UV) emissions has frightened museum curators, rightly or wrongly, and has led to banning flash photography in some museums. Much of the problem for museum curators is estimating the amount of flash photography, and their intensity based on their power, and proximity to the exhibits, so the curators have decided to be conservative. (Personally, I have no problem with the banning of flash photography in museums as I find it highly disruptive to view the exhibits.)
- Copyright: This is probably the major reason for outright photography bans in museums, and it's the most difficult problem to solve. In the 21st century, however, I personally look at this problem as an excuse, and I'm a photographer who guards my copyrights carefully. Sometimes I think museums feel copyright issues are so complicated to sort out, that they throw up their hands and ban photography all together without trying to permit it. Museums could, of course, just ask copyright holders to permit public photography, and it's my belief, most would agree.
When all is said and done, the Internet, digital photography, and 21st century communication has changed copyright use and its enforcement forever. Protecting copyrights by banning visitor photography isn't going to help much.
- Fear: I think this one definitely comes into play often. Museum directors and artists fear that if visitors can take photographs of the exhibitions, fewer visitors will come to the museum, and will instead merely view the exhibit from visitors' online galleries, and visitors will enlarge and print their photos of paintings, and such, to put on the walls of their homes and offices, thus reducing income for the museum and artist. Personally, I think their fear is irrational.
Attempts to bring it back museum and artist business models as they were in the mid-20th century will never happen. Travelers and visitors taking photos of paintings, sculptures and other objects in museums will not cause artists or museums to loose income. Quite the contrary. Visitors will still buy books and properly produced prints and postcards of the items they really like, and the extra publicity generated by sharing their photos on the Internet will, if anything, enhance the careers of the artists, and add foot traffic and income for the museum.
- Disruptive memento photography: I've got to admit, banning photography over this makes some sense to me. The Musée d'Orsay states this is why they banned photography. They want to be sure even those without cameras and cellphones can enjoy the museum.
Museum visitors snapping and flashing away (with their cameras) can seriously diminish the experience of other visitors. Too often museum visitors today act as if they are the only ones in the museum and they seemingly take forever to get one shot, up close, arms extended, elbows out, blocking others from even a glimpse at the work of art. No one should have the right to ruin the experience of others at museums to get their photo showing “I was there.”
To see more of the Musée d'Orsay than the two photos accompanying the article, please visit my Musée d'Orsay gallery.