Perspectives: Photography in the Art Museum

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

You walk into a gallery at a museum and all the visitors have their phones in their hands. What is your reaction? Are you annoyed, or do you join them in snapping photos and sharing them online? With the rise of smartphones, photography in museums has become ubiquitous, but that doesn’t make it any less contentious. Most museums have acknowledged that stopping all their guests from taking a selfie in front of a famous work or ugly baby Jesus (see below) is futile; replacing outright bans on photography with bans on only flash photography (with further policies in place for professional photos) is the norm, but some holdouts remain.

A Dutch painting of the Virgin Mary and holding up a standing, nude baby Jesus. In the background, a man in black robes and straw hat peers in through the window holding a book. On the table, a glass of wine, knife, and cut fruit.
The winner of the Ugly Baby Jesus from the author’s last trip to New York. Workshop of Joos van Cleve, Dutch, ca. 1485–1540/41. The Holy Family. Oil on oak panel, possibly 1527–33. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Alyssa Dumire at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What is the number one rule at any museum? When we ask visiting school groups that question, the main answer we get is “don’t touch the art”, which is our main rule on tours and for all visitors. Our visitor guidelines are in place, first and foremost, for the protection of the art: food and drink, backpacks, any art implement aside from pencils, and flash photography are not allowed for that reason. Nearly any space you enter has certain rules by necessity, but no one likes being told they can’t do something without knowing the reason. That said, there are reasons to restrict photography, and educating visitors on the “whys” of these guidelines is vital to our mission. The better visitors understand the reason for a rule, the more likely they are to follow it. Let’s take a look at why these rules exist, as well as the reasons some museums have moved away from them.

First, let’s examine reasons why photography might be limited or banned in museums.

Although FWMoA usually only restricts flash photography, a current exhibition, Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau, does not allow any photographs. Many museums regularly follow a similar model: photography is allowed in permanent collection galleries but not in special exhibition spaces. Guidelines also tend to vary according to the type of museum. Historic houses or art museums that were once private collections, hoping to retain the feel of a private residence, are likely to strictly restrict photography. New York’s Frick Collection, once the home of Henry Clay Frick, only allows photos in the lobby. Restricting photography in more historic spaces helps preserve the feeling that visitors are stepping back in time when they enter.

The lobby of the Frick Collection includes a fountain, plants, and a reflective pool.
The lobby of the Frick Collection in New York, the only space where photography is permitted. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

Copyright issues present another barrier. Generally, although a museum owns an artwork, they likely do not own the rights to reproduce the image–that often belongs to the artist or their estate/foundation. Copyrights are complicated legal issues, and they can be avoided altogether by completely restricting the ability to photograph and share artwork images. It’s also impossible to control what visitors do with any photos they take; they might reproduce and sell them for their own profit, removing a potential source of much-needed income for museums who sell posters of treasured works in their gift shops.

Maybe the most-cited and most important consideration is the protection of the artwork. Works of art, especially works on paper, are prone to fading and other damage from bright lights. It’s the reason why exhibitions of prints and drawings are illuminated by dimmer lights and displayed for shorter runs before the works are put back to “rest” in a dark drawer. (When you visit FWMoA, note how much darker the Print & Drawing Study Center is from the rest of the Museum). It’s also why, even in museums that allow photography, you should always turn your camera’s flash off. Do you know how to do that? Many might not, so it can be easier to enforce and safer for the art to completely disallow photography. Arguments in favor of restricting camera use for the sake of protecting the artwork also cite the fact that potential thieves might record information about building security through photos. In addition, photography equipment like tripods and selfie sticks is bulky and potentially dangerous to the art. Every museum has a responsibility to protect the objects they display; enforcing a no photography rule is a “better-safe-than-sorry” approach to limiting these potential hazards.

The painting shows a young George Washington holding an axe while his father asks for it back. His father holds the bent cherry tree. The background shows a red house and fields of trees. A man stands in front of the scene, in front of a drawn curtain, pointing at the scene.
This painting of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree is in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum, however, it was photographed at the Whitney Museum of American Art where photography was allowed. When it was previously displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago, photography of the particular work was not allowed. Grant Wood, American, 1891-1942. Parson Weems’ Fable. Oil on canvas, 1939. Public Domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 75 years or fewer.

Similarly, people taking pictures in the museum tend to be at least a little distracted. It’s easy to become totally consumed by a device in your hand, to the point where you might not realize that you’re blocking or interrupting others’ viewing. Even without additional equipment like a tripod, photographers can be a hazard to the objects, which can sometimes be very nondescript (I have definitely almost stepped on a low-lying sculpture before, and I wasn’t even on my phone!). This distraction represents a barrier not just to safety and courtesy, but to your own museum experience: museums are places to see objects in-person–the real things–and if you’re viewing them through a screen, your engagement is limited.

And now, reasons to relax photography restrictions:

When we discuss museum rules with school tour groups, responses also sometimes include things like “no running,” “no talking,” and even the topic at hand: “no taking pictures.” Taken together, these prohibitory rules paint a dismal picture of a very un-fun environment, especially for a child. While not all factual (we very much want you to talk about the art, just at a reasonable volume), these ideas are telling about the perception of museums as unwelcoming places. In researching this post, I came across a travel blogger who went so far as to proclaim that they would never again visit any museum that bans photography, and I understand that perspective. Restricting the behavior of our guests in ways that go beyond the safety of collections and visitors only furthers the public perception of museums as stuffy, non-inclusive spaces. I’m an avid museum-goer and such strict policies won’t deter me from one visit if there’s something I really want to see, but I likely will not return. 

A gallery shot of Judy Chicago's Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party is a once-in-a-lifetime work, so the author had to photograph it to remember the experience. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

For those who have rarely, or maybe never, entered a museum, unnecessary rules send a message of exclusion. Negative attitude affinities, the feeling that a space isn’t “for people like me,” are one of the biggest barriers to visitation for would-be museum visitors. Sharing experiences through social media (much of which is photo-heavy) is important to a lot of people, especially younger generations, and millennials make up a large portion of inactive museum visitors. Visually recording and sharing our lives online is second nature to many (if you don’t post about it, did it even happen?); it is projected that people around the world will take a cumulative 1.4 trillion photos in 2021. Rules banning photography when it has become such an important part of how we process our experiences are not just exclusionary, but, with such large numbers, difficult to enforce.

Why do we take pictures in the first place? Beyond sharing on social media, photos are often more personal. Long before Facebook or Instagram, we took photos on family vacations and to mark life events, just to put in an album (a physical one) or a frame on the wall. Now, photos are maybe not as precious–we don’t have to worry about running out of film–but are still sometimes taken for the same reason: to memorialize something important to us. Did I take a picture of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or sneak out my camera in the Sistine Chapel (where photography is banned)? Absolutely! Who knows when, or if, I would ever get to see them again? 

Photos might play a different role for those visiting museums to study a work closely. Before we carried cameras in our pockets, sketching was the only way for artistically-inclined visitors to document what they saw in a museum, and it continues to be among the best ways to learn from the artworks on view. Times and technology have changed, and now, snapping a quick photo of a particular detail can take the place of sketching. The ability to zoom can also help keep visitors from getting too close to the work when they want to really see those details, an instance where allowing photography actually helps keep the artwork more safe.

I am old enough that my formative museum experiences as a teenager were pre-smartphone, but those are still vivid memories. Do I wish I had photos I could access at any time to remember them even better? Sure! Would those visits have been as impactful with a device in my hand? That I’m not so sure about. While I often snap a quick picture of an artwork to help jog my memory later, I also think there is validity to the argument that viewing art with a phone in hand, no matter how pure your intentions, is prone to all manner of distractions. That, however, is my own preference. It is not up to museums to tell their visitors how to experience the art on their walls (beyond their responsibility to protect it)–we’re just glad you’re experiencing it at all!  Smartphones and social media have changed the way we interact with the world and each other, and museums have to roll with these changes or risk going the way of the dinosaurs that many preschoolers think we all collect. 

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