Monday, November 28, 2011

Museums banning photography is becoming commonplace

Musée d'Orsay, the main hall as taken from the pair of towers at the rear of the hallDuring the past month, I traveled in the Middle East, having wonderful stays in Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.

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.
  • Musée d'Orsay, The Salle des Fêtes, which was the former ballroom of the old Hôtel d'Orsay, which was part of the original railway station, the Gare d'Orsay, which when renovated became the Musée d'Orsay in 1986Fear: 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.”
It's time for museums to enter the 21st century and create photography rules which permit visitors to fully enjoy the museum, whether they make photographs or not. If the major museums of the world like the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, the Uffizi, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the National Gallery of Art have figured out how to permit photography on their premises, there's really no excuse for other museums not to do the same.

To see more of the Musée d'Orsay than the two photos accompanying the article, please visit my Musée d'Orsay gallery.


Red Chilli Photography said...

this is just sad

Ned S. Levi said...

I agree Red Chilli.

Over the next few months I intend to talk with some museum administrators in the Northeast part of the US which allow photography generally, and seek out their opinions concerning the problems of photography in their museums, and what they've done, if anything, about it.

Hopefully I get some good ideas from them, publish an article or two, then seek out administrators from museums which have banned photography and see what they think.

It will take a while to get that done in between my other work, but we'll see.

liverpool apartments said...

sad story:(

Agitater said...

Hooray for the bans. Seriously. I go to the museums to enjoy the exhibitions, to contemplate what is on display, to enjoy the audio guides, the commentary of docents and the atmosphere. Noisy gawkers, flash-happy snapshooters, enthusiast photographers taking up space not viewing an exhibition but rather trying to capture shots for later viewing at home or for 'sharing' with their friends, all give me a swift pain. Just because photography can be done easily and unobtrusively in a gallery or museum has never, perforce, meant that photography is conducted that way. Want a photo that badly? Go to the gift shop, buy the book, and thereby support the gallery or museum! Can't afford the book? TOO BAD. Your impecunious circumstance does not automatically garner for you the right to simply snap away at whatever catches your fancy.

Ned S. Levi said...

Howard I understand your point of view, however, I don't share much of it.

I too am tired of "Disruptive memento photography" as stated in my article, however, I recognize that banning photography all together is a knee jerk reaction taken with little thought. It's the easy way out, not the thoughtful way. Many museums have rules and enforcement which minimize the amount of distraction we get from these thoughtless people.

In fact, obnoxious, disruptive "photographers" are but one of the new electronic means for museum visitors to be boorish and disruptive. Cellphone usage has become a huge problem with far too many making and receiving calls while walking through museums.

In fact, some museums have even unintendedly invited disruptive cellphone use.

The Brooklyn Museum, like many museums are now doing, has created downloadable gallery guides for their permanent collection exhibitions. These guides feature excerpts from interviews with Museum curators and staff, artists, outside experts, and members of the local community.

The guides can be downloaded to smartphones and used on them in the museum. Unfortunately, many are using the guides without earphones, so they disturb other visitors who are not looking at the particular work being described, or who just don't want to hear the guide.

It's time for museums, in my opinion, to embrace the 21th century, but in doing so, create rules and methods which enable such gadgets as digital cameras and cellphones to become "welcome" devices in the museums, instead of the pariahs they have become in the hands of disinterested, selfish and uncaring visitors.

It can be accomplished. Many museums are well on the road to doing so.

Anonymous said...

I was a part-time guard at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Like the much larger Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it allowed photography of just about everything except special exhibits. What's a special exhibit? Any display containing items the museum didn't own. In most cases the actual owner(s) of the pieces in question didn't want them photographed and made a ban on photography part of the legal agreement to show them. Not the museum's decision at all. To keep things from becoming confusing -- which piece can you shoot, which piece not -- these museums shut down the exhibits to any photography at all.

Some museums, like the Harvard Art Museums, place a sticker on the wall beside a painting they don't own, which means you can't shoot it. But you can shoot the one next to it. Taking that shot from a certain angle or with a wide-angle lens easily gets you around the ban, so I don't know how effective it is from the museums' point of view.

At the Peabody Essex Museum, a huge show of 17th-century Dutch masterpieces (including works by Rembrandt and Hals) was under the general ban of photography in special exhibits. The owners of the collection, a husband and wife, said they didn't mind people taking pictures of it but the museum said no. They worried that allowing photography in that show would confuse people about not taking pictures in others (including concurrent exhibits). I heard the owners weren't happy about that decision.

White Petal said...

It's a shame, and the recent events in London will only make matters worse!

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