Selfie scaremongering

Rebecca Atkinson, 19.08.2014
So what if people want to take photographs in galleries?
You’d think the National Gallery had introduced strobe lighting or installed a sound system.

Over the weekend, many newspapers carried headlines that bemoaned the museum’s “surrender” to a modern epidemic – one that threatened to destroy the sanctuary of the galleries, respectable people’s reverence of the artworks on display, maybe even art history itself.

This was a reaction to the news that the National Gallery has introduced free Wi-Fi and relaxed restrictions on visitor photography.

“Fears National Gallery will be 'selfie central' as photo ban is relaxed,” reported the Evening Standard. “Camera phones at the National Gallery stoke fears that technology is leaving us incapable of deep engagement with anything,” said the Independent. In the Telegraph, Sarah Crompton mourned Impressionist landscapes and Renaissance crucifixions becoming background wallpaper for group shots of visitors and their mates.

There is a line of thought that these types of articles are little more than clickbait. Regardless, there is a serious point here – not about attitudes to taking photographs in museums, but about expectations of how people should appreciate art or artefacts.

In the Telegraph, Crompton wrote “there is a distinct difference between learning about the art on the walls and recording it without giving it a moment’s thought”.

There is a difference, but I’m not convinced that people who take photographs in galleries are just recording what they see without also looking, just a little bit, even if it’s at a later date and on a screen.

My mum first took me to the National Gallery after I’d finished my A-levels. During our visit I diligently wrote down the artists and artworks I liked in my little notebook. I scoured the gift shop for postcards, not for the sake of spending but because I wanted to take home some of the beautiful things I’d seen, to look at in my own time and remember how they had made me feel.

If I’d had a mobile phone back then, of course I would have filled it with photographs – for a start, it’s a lot simpler than trying to write it all down and look at the same time.

Museums should celebrate every person that comes to visit and wants to take something away with them, even if it is a photo of them posing in front of a display case. Going to museums and galleries isn’t considered particularly cool, so the fact that some young people are actually willing to promote their visit by posting selfies on social media has got to be a win for museums.

The artworks I saw on my first visit to the National Gallery inspired me to apply to do a degree in art history. That won’t be the path for most people, but however they experience the gallery, and however many photographs they take, let’s hope it inspires a lifelong passion and appreciation for art.


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28.08.2014, 14:41
This really isn't a recent debate Walter Benjamin ( on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction - in- illuminations pgs 211 - 244) wrote about this in I think the 1920's?
What surprises me is that contemporary newspapers are writing the same criticisms that Benjamin expertly deals with almost a hundred years later.
It seems that pompous and let's be real here pseudo intellectual attitudes have not changed in the intervening century. I guess this attitude is reflected in the down grading and constant moaning at the academic integrity of film studies.
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
28.08.2014, 15:51
Slightly off-topic, but your comment made me think about a two-part documentary currently iPlayer about Romanov princesses (Tsar Nicholas II's four daughters) - it's amazing how many photographs the family took of themselves, and really shows that being "snap happy" really isn't a contemporary obsession!
27.08.2014, 16:56
I'm conflicted. I am a keen photographer, and often have to check my tripod in at the door, as although cameras may be allowed, tripods certainly aren't! I understand their reasons though.

Where museums do allow photography, I find the experience is often ruined by people jostling through to get in front of whatever it is you're looking at, so their friend can take a picture of them posing with it. They then move on pretty quickly, as more often than not there's no real interest in said piece outside of a photo-op, but in busy places there can be hordes of them. Repeat ad nauseum. After a while, it gets tiring trying to appreciate something without someone standing in front of it. They're absolutely allowed to do that, of course, but you have a conflict between those who want to study, contemplate or satisfy some curiosity, and those who are there to tick it off their to-do list. I love photographing objects, it's what I specialise in, but I try to do it without impinging on others enjoyment. I've been known to wait for an hour for crowds to clear so I can get a shot of something. Perhaps I'm simply jaded by a recent, frustrating, visit to the Louvre, but selfies can cause big problems at big-ticket exhibits. How do you resolve a conflict of interest like that?

Where museums DON'T allow photography, I find the trouble is they often don't have comprehensive catalogues or CDs of the collections available to the public, either online or in the shop. The Musee d'Orsay is a case in point here. Many's the time I have wanted to photograph something for future use, or to show someone I know would be interested, but I can't, and there's no catalogue of images available. If there were I would be happy to purchase them!

There's no real correct way to approach this, as both allowing and prohibiting photography bring their own problems. I dislike it when photography is not allowed and I dislike it when it is. Perhaps I'm just miserable! ;)
Nino Staffa
MA Member
26.08.2014, 11:19
At the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition at the Barbican which has just finished, visitors were allowed and encouraged to take photos as long as the flash function was switched off. Saw only one person taking a selfie with the vast majority taking photos as study aids. Very impressed with the exhibition as well as the management of visitors.
24.08.2014, 14:12
No on seems to mention that the reason photographs are prohibited in museums and art galleries: the camera flash on old items ages it by 5 -10 years per flash depending on the marterial and age of an item. If everyone took flash images over the past century, the object of their desire could be faded and ruined for future visitors, then you would have to use reproductions of these items to put on public view at a staggering cost over time.
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
26.08.2014, 11:55
Hi Kathy - most museums don't allow flash photography, and in many cases it's perfectly possible to take a photograph of an artwork without using a flash.

However, there is debate about to what extent flash photography actually causes damage to items and how this could be offset - I've written about this in a previous article for MJ (link below).

David Fleming
MA Member
Director, National Museums Liverpool
22.08.2014, 16:08
The National Gallery, like many galleries, belongs to the public. Why should journalists think they are the arbiters of how the public ought to behave in a certain way in a public gallery, and how art should be appreciated? There are lots of ways of appreciating art, and it doesn't always have to be in a reverential way. It is not illegal to take photos of objects or of yourself, at least not in this country, and these newspaper
comments are nothing other than snobbery. Well done the National Gallery
for helping break down elitism!
Oliver Green
MA Member
19.09.2014, 12:59
David, I agree with you completely, but there is still no consistency about this, especially in art galleries and national museums. The National Gallery may have caved in at last, but I was surprised to find that that the newly refurbished IWM London does not allow photography anywhere in its galleries beyond the central atrium. Do you allow photography everywhere in National Museums Liverpool?
The most visitor friendly approach I've seen recently is a prominent picture sign at the entrance to Chatsworth House (privately owned, not public property) saying simply 'photography welcome'. Where would you find that in a public museum?
Lauren Ryall-Stockton
MA Member
Curator, Thackray Medical Museum
21.08.2014, 16:16
Surely it's better to encourage photography in museum galleries, and then to ask visitors to tag the museum through these images on social media, getting the museum profile better known as opposed to trying to restrict creativity.
20.08.2014, 13:42
Having just completed some research on family experience in museums using photography, some of the parents commented that their children had a greater engagement with the objects becuase they were looking more closely for things to photograph.
Rachel Cockett
MA Member
Director of Development, Birmingham Museums Trust
20.08.2014, 08:44
This article is better than many. Especially the last bit where the writer spoke to a photo-taking visitor about her experience >

Carry-on Instagramming!

Sarah Kirkham
MA Member
Cataloguing Assistant, Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum
19.08.2014, 13:55
I couldn't agree more with this!! When visitors take photographs in Museums and Galleries it means the collection is being it should be!
Simon Brown
MA Member
19.08.2014, 12:28
I'm in full agreement with this- photography bans are an unecessary barrier for visitors now, the reasons given for bans are archaic.

At least fellow visitors aren't protesting about it... yet?