Archive for museums

No photography allowed!!!

Posted in art with tags , , on January 23, 2010 by artodisiac

I had an embarrassing moment when I visited musee d’orsay for the first time when I was in my early teens. I was stuck in front of the Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent Van Gogh. I remember having a lesson on him prior that year so my amazement was only natural. I was trying to take a picture with my funny compact analog camera, without the flash of course, to show in my art class in the following semester when I was caught by the guard. It was really embarrasing being shouted at in the middle of the hall and not having a clue what he was saying. I happen to learn in that very moment that taking photographs were forbidden and I was also clueless about the reason of  it. I am talking about early 90s, when digital technologies were not widespread at all. Since I could not get the rationale behind it that time, I totally ignored it and tried to fool the guards and took the pictures secretly as a perfectly normal turkish visitor:) sorry for that, but I was only 13. And in my ideal museum, taking photographs of masterpieces to share with my friends were quiet normal. Now I am aware of copywright issues. In fact taking a photo in a museum doesn’t violate copyright of an object, but it violates the owner’s right to restrict access if he or she has legally demanded that right. Of course the museums have to protect that right but is it the only reason of the restriction? And if the owner of an art work (whether in museum or not) has no such restriction, can it still be used as a derivative work?  The same question revolving in my head had also been asked in the final jury of my photography class this morning: as photographers, can we use photographs taken by other people in our own creative works? Well, why not? As one of the leading German photographers, Thomas Ruff, did for example by using the pornographic photographs sent to his spam mail without his consent. Though he was criticized for that by some, I think he has quite a reasonable point.

One question triggering another.. This is my regular mood these days since my mind is occupied with my thesis question of how an ideal photography museum should be. Therefore before further departing from my main point, I want to write about an interesting blog dealing with what I have been giving some thought on these days.

No photography allowed

Nina Simon, the blogger behind Museum 2.0 took a thorough look at why at the moment a large number of art and history museums continue to maintain highly restrictive photo policies, and how this does not really make sense..

She asks why museums 1.0 tend to stick to the ‘no photography’ policy, finding 5 main arguments – Intellectual Property, Conservation, Revenue Streams, Aesthetics of Experience and Security – for this approach to (no) photography by visitors:

  1. Intellectual Property: Museums must respect diverse intellectual property agreements with donors and lenders, and in institutions where some objects are photographable and others not, it’s often easier to use the most restrictive agreements as the basis for institutional policies.
  2. Conservation: Objects may be damaged by flash photography. Some conservators argue that if non-flash photography is permitted, light levels in the galleries may be increased to accommodate visitors’ cameras, which indirectly damage artifacts.
  3. Revenue Streams: Museums want to maintain control of sales of “officially sanctioned” images of objects via catalogues and postcards. If people can take their own photos, they won’t buy them in the gift shop.
  4. Aesthetics of Experience: Photo-taking is distracting for other visitors. Looking at artwork through a lens means you are having a less rich experience. Visitors may make inappropriate gestures in photos with museum content, thus distorting institutional values and intent.
  5. Security: Photographers might take photos with intent to do harm; for example, with plans to rob the museum or stalk another visitor.

Nina Simon does not quite agree with these arguments: “I respect the first and second arguments. I understand the third, though I think it is misguided. And I think the fourth and fifth are bizarre and ungenerous to visitors.” Ungenerous to visitors? Yes, as frequently those visitors pay a quite substantial fee to access the museum and see part of their, we assume hard-earned, tax money flow to the museum’s operating costs. Simon continues: “To me, an open photo policy is a cornerstone of any institution that sees itself as a visitor-centered platform for participatory engagement.” :

She in her turn lists five good reasons why museums should have totally open photo policies:

1. As long as it does not promote unsafe conditions for artifacts or people or illegal behavior, museums should prioritize providing opportunities for visitors to engage in ways that are familiar and comfortable to them.

If your argument is based on visitor comfort and distraction, it should be backed up by visitor research, not personal impressions. Moreover, would staff members be comparably disturbed by visitors sketching in the galleries?

2. Restrictive policies erode staff/visitor relations and overall museum mission statements around inclusion.

The majority of cellphones now have cameras embedded in them, which means that many visitors are walking through your doors with camera in hand. Visitors get upset when they are told to put their cameras away, and it is becoming increasingly hard for guards to control the taking of photographs and their spread on the Web. Telling visitors that they can’t take photos in museums reinforces the sense that the museum is an external authority that owns and controls its objects rather than a shared public resource. How can visitors be “co-owners” of museums if they can’t own an image from their experience?

3. Photo-taking allows visitors to memorialize and make meaning from museum experiences.

There have been several studies that show that creating a personal record of an experience and reviewing it later increases learning and retention of content. When visitors flip through photos from their trip, they are more likely to recall their interest in a given artifact or exhibit than without visual aids. And it’s not just about recall. There are thriving groups of Flickr users who share photos of themselves imitating art.

4. Visitors use personal photos differently from store-bought ones.

The majority of visitors use their cameras to casually record their personal and social experiences, not to take authoritative images of artifacts. And even if visitors do take authoritative (noncommercial) shots, they are unlikely to reduce sales. A great shot of your institution, shared on Flickr, serves as a free piece of marketing that may generate ticket sales. How do you measure the potential lost income from a photographer not buying a postcard against the online impressions his photo makes on others? In the related world of online image licensing, some museums have done studies of the affect of open digital photo distribution on their revenue from image licensing and have seen flat or positive effects from the actions, not negative ones.

5. When people share their photos of your museum, they promote and spread your content to new audiences in authentic ways.

In 2008, a team led by MIT media researcher Henry Jenkins published a white paper entitled, “If it Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead,” which argues that media artifacts have greatest impact when consumers are able to pass on, reuse, adapt, and remix them. There are two parts to this. First, every time a photo is shared, it extends the reach of your objects and exhibit stories. But perhaps more importantly, Jenkins argues that the creative adaptation of cultural objects through photos and other spreading tools supports communities’ “processes of meaning making, as people use tools at their disposal to explain the world around them.”

Nina Simon does point out that the intellectual property arguments in particular are very complex and should be taken seriously, and goes as far as to suggest the value of allowing visitors to take photograph is that high, that museums should think twice about taking on temporary exhibitions or loans that would endanger the ability to allow visitors to take photos across the institution. Her blogpost has sparked quite a bit of discussion, with one comment from Shelly – tech whiz at ‘revolutionary’ Brooklyn Museum of course – that’s definitely worth quoting here: Changing our policy three years ago to allow for non-commercial visitor photography was one of the best things we’ve done at Brooklyn. We do continue to have some restrictions in temporary installations depending on the lender agreements or artist wishes, but on the whole photography is allowed here and it is central to a visitor-freindly philosophy.

It wasn’t easy – we’ve had to actively think about it and work language into lender and artist agreements. Sometimes there are no objections to these clauses and we can allow it or other times we have to restrict, but ‘trying’ to allow it is one of the many processes we now go through any time we are bringing work into the building or working with artists. The theory is there’s no harm in asking the question…if lenders/artists say no we respect that and communicate the restriction to visitors in those instances. On the whole, we find visitors have been fairly respectful of the policies even when we can allow it in one part of the building, but perhaps not another.

It’s funny, of all the “technology” that I see going wrong in galleries these days, I most often see visitors really engaging with work more with their cameras than anything else. It’s one of the only things I see working.

With museums such as the Brooklyn Museum embracing ‘web 2.0’, more and more institutions joining the Flickr commons (and being nothing but positive about that), the Smithsonian Institution drafting up a complete ‘Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy’ (and making that public on the web), what’s still holding back the museum 1.0’s from allowing visitors to – at least – take a photograph of their experience? As Nina Simon has put it so well: “How can visitors be ‘co-owners’ of museums if they can’t own an image from their experience?”