This is the third in a short series of posts which I wanted to write in the first half of this year but did not have the time to put together. In this post I wanted to talk about issues of public photography in museums, both in permanent collections and special exhibitions.
Over the last few months I have visited several museums and special exhibitions in Los Angeles, the UK, and Florence and I noticed that there were often some restrictions on visitors taking photographs. Normally this was in special exhibitions, especially those where objects had been lent from other institutions. One example of this was the Michelangelo and Sebastiano exhibition at the National Gallery in London. This was an exceptional exhibition that collected real and facsimile pieces of art from all over Europe including some never before seen pieces for the UK lent from the Vatican. The fact that no photography was allowed bothered me.
I understand that museums need to balance broad access to culturally important objects, ideas, and art, with intellectual property and other issues surrounding ownership. This both protects the artist or copyright holder (if there is still copyright on a piece) and helps to ensure that information about context and accepted interpretation is communicated effectively. However I think that the balance often goes too far. If the issue is interpretation then having a strong digital element to an exhibition - perhaps even so far as a small catalogue with interpretation texts would help. If copyright is an issue I find it very difficult to be persuaded that a snapshot taken by a visitor to an exhibition could in any way replace the experience of the piece of art itself or be of a high enough quality to damage revenue streams from exhibition merchandise. I think the fact that in most core collections galleries these restrictions are not there, or are at least relaxed supports this.
I find it amazing that there seems to be a denial that we live in a visually dominated culture. The natural progression from that thought is that visual communication of culture, especially democratised by visitors showing their family art and artefacts that they have seen in a museum alongside verbal descriptions of how much they were affected by the piece is one of the best ways to drive interest and even perhaps visitor numbers.
This can be done well; in the recent Art of Alchemy exhibition at the Getty photography was allowed and a significant number of the objects on display were on loan from other institutions from all over the world. For me this made the exhibition better, I was able to take snapshots of the most interesting exhibits to help inform my own further reading and to share with similarly interested people who were unable to get to LA or who needed more information before deciding to go to see the exhibit in person.
There is of course one issue that I have not mentioned; the conservation needs of the objects, documents, and art. In some rare cases there may be objects that are too fragile for any photography - this was the case at the Opus Angelicum exhibition at the V&A that I saw. In other cases - most in fact - a "no flash" policy would be enough as the gallery lighting choices would protect the art and objects.
I think that it is clear that where possible - and in my opinion that should be almost always - photography should be allowed and even encouraged to broaden and democratise access to art, archaeology and culture.