Tag Archives: photography

How To View Critics Telling You How to View Art in a Museum

The blind fingerless art critic by Flickr user Shareheads CC-BY 2.0

The blind fingerless art critic
by Flickr user Shareheads
CC-BY 2.0

I have a confession to make: art critics baffle me. Especially when they venture to make grand pronouncements about the right way to go about experiencing art in museums. So when I saw the title of Philip Kennicott’s piece in the Washington Post, titled “How to view art: Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much” I will confess that I died a little bit inside. “Sigh. Another ‘you people are doing it all wrong’ piece.” Just what the world needs, another art critic holding forth on the sad state of museums and museumgoing. But, though there is plenty of sneering, there’s also a lot worthy of discussion. And debate. Kennicott’s post didn’t stand alone too long before Jillian Steinhauer posted a reply at Hyperallergic, and Jen Olencziak a rebuttal at Huffington Post. So, let’s take a dive in and see if we can sift some jewels from the bile, shall we?

Kennicott’s piece benefits most from his long experience at looking at art in museums. When he talks about specific techniques and strategies he’s learned that work for him, he’s golden. All too often, though, he falls prey to the critic’s kryptonite; thinking that because he can come up with a plausible explanation based on purely on anecdotal experience and write it cleverly, it must be both true and universal. So, here are some reactions to his five tips on how to view art in a museum.

1. Take time

Untitled by Flickr user Byron Barrett CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Untitled
by Flickr user Byron Barrett
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

“The biggest challenge when visiting an art museum is to disengage from our distracted selves.”

Getting visitors to focus on the present is a goal I’m totally in support of, though I’d rephrase Kennicott’s phrasing. I’m prone to these kinds of negative formulations, and it’s been a lifetime’s work to embrace positive ones. It may seem like splitting semantic hairs, but I think it’s important. Rather than disengaging from a negative (busyness and distraction), I’d rather encourage engagement with the here and now as the goal. It’s a lot easier to be against something than to be for something, but being for something is in the end more worthwhile.

<snark>My inner cynic also thinks that being an art critic, Kennicott might be allergic to the word “engagement”, since it’s code for some for “everything I hate that our ‘stewards of culture’ do with audiences that doesn’t encourage silent, solitary, reverential contemplation.”</ snark>

“We are addicted to devices that remind us of the presence of time, cellphones and watches among them, but cameras too, because the camera has become a crutch to memory, and memory is our only defense against the loss of time.”

Here he’s conflating two very different problems; devices demanding attention, and cameras being crutches for remembering, and therefore bad. The device bit I agree with. By all means turn off your phone, or put it on vibrate. Unless you don’t want to. <snark>Or if you’re using it to look at Wikipedia to find information the museum doesn’t tell you, which Kennicott will encourage you to do in the next section. </snark> The camera/crutch formulation deserves a bit more examination. The “ technology is eroding our ability to use our minds” is an old trope. And I mean old, like 4th century BCE old. At least. According to Plato, Socrates warned against the written word as a shallow substitute for discourse:

“this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Plato, Phaedrus 276a

Sound familiar? You can draw a line from Kennicott back to Socrates and find versions of this concern expressed for any number of technologies that were certain to ruin humanity’s ability to function.

Photographing the Rosetta Stone by Flickr user Snapshooter46 CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photographing the Rosetta Stone
by Flickr user Snapshooter46
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

He goes on to say,

“The raging debate today about whether to allow the taking of pictures inside the museum usually hinges on whether the act of photographing is intrusive or disruptive to other visitors; more important, the act is fundamentally disruptive to the photographer’s experience of art, which is always fleeting.”

So, anything that isn’t looking at the art is “fundamentally disruptive”, according to Kennicott. Is it? Readers might recall an article published in Psychological Science earlier this year called “Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour” which was used by many to support the idea that photography was bad for the photographer’s recall. Linda Henkel’s experiment generated a lot of breathless press and finger wagging when it was announced that participants who were instructed to photograph an object and then asked to recall it the next day fared worse than visitors who were instructed to look at the object and recall it.

Buried in there were two important notes that went largely unreported. One was that visitors who photographed specific details of an object had better recall than visitors who just looked. The other was Henkel’s admission that the way the experiment was constructed had an important difference from the way people actually take photographs in museums. Henkel’s subjects were told which object to photograph, not to pick an object they liked. In other words, they were extrinsically motivated, not intrinsically motivated, which is a fundamental aspect of free choice learning. I’m pretty confident there aren’t many visitors running around taking pictures of things they don’t like in museums. This difference in motivation is fundamental.

Another, “your mileage may vary” sort of issue is that of mission. If a museum’s mission is exclusively to showcase the artistic production of others, then anything that gets in the way of that appreciation could legitimately be considered an impediment. But more and more museums have taken of the additional challenge of encouraging visitors to express (and hopefully increase) their own creativity. In this kind of museum, visitor photography can be an expression of that creative impulse to be encouraged and nurtured. There’s an interesting discussion for museum directors and boards to have. Are you trying to help your visitors become more informed connoisseurs, or give them more experience of the creative process? Is it one or the other? Are the two modalities in a dialectical relationship, or can you encourage both?

Kennicott buries one zinger I particularly resonated with at the very end of this section; the negative impact of admission fees. He calls them “pernicious” because “They make visitors mentally ‘meter’ the experience, straining to get the most out of it, and thus re-inscribe it in the workaday world where time is money, and money is everything.” At moments like this, I appreciate his command of the language. And I agree completely. I’m sure most of us have seen the hurrying tourists, desperately trying to see all the highlights listed in the guide, so that they can get their “money’s worth” out of their trip. Not something we as museum professionals want to encourage, is it?

So, by all means take time, and use that time to be present in the moment, in that space. This is actually good advice for life in general, not museum going, but that’s another subject altogether.

2. Seek silence

Contemporary viewer! by Flickr user Jrm Llvr CC-BY 2.0

Contemporary viewer!
by Flickr user Jrm Llvr
CC-BY 2.0

 

“Always avoid noise, because noise isn’t just distracting, it makes us hate other people.”

One reason I have difficulty with a lot of criticism is that I wind up feeling like I know more about the critic than I ever wanted to, because so much criticism wraps personal quirks in the garb of universal truths. Noise can be annoying, sometimes. As a neuroscientist pointed out to me yesterday, the way we experience visual inputs and auditory inputs is very different. If you see something you don’t want to see, you can avert your gaze, or close your eyes. Humans have no similar way to filter out auditory inputs. Even blocking your ears is only minimally effective (and makes you look kinda silly), so a valid criticism of museums could be how poorly they design the experience for sound control. This is all, of course, assuming we’re talking only about visual arts.

Big, echoey spaces with hard walls and floors look sweet, but they make even small levels of noise problematic. We’re on the verge of opening a major video installation PEM commissioned. The amount of work we’ve done modifying acoustically “bright” galleries work for an installation that requires you to be able to hear spoken words is pretty major.

 “Too many museums have become exceptionally noisy, and in some cases that’s by design. When it comes to science and history museums, noise is often equated with visitor engagement, a sign that people are enjoying the experience.”

Where to begin with this one? I’m pretty confident that there are very few museum architects and experience designers who intentionally create noisy spaces. I would not be surprised if the number were in fact zero. An outcome of their decisions might be noisy spaces, but that’s different than intentionally doing it. This is another favorite tactic of critics, inferring intent where none exists. <snark> Maybe that’s another one of the deceptions (see #3 below) practiced on the public by museums. </snark> It’s sloppy thinking and writing.

I’ll also hazard a guess that the number of museum professionals who go into a space and say “It’s noisy, people must be engaged” is also quite small. Kennicott, like most critics, avoids mention of the real problem Nina Simon mentioned in this post on crowding. He laments the “vast and inevitably tumultuous throngs” that go to big museums to see famous art, but leaves it there.

art critics by Flickr user mesh CC-BY 2.0

art critics
by Flickr user mesh
CC-BY 2.0

“But any picture that attracts hordes of people has long since died, a victim of its own renown, its aura dissipated, its meaning lost in heaps of platitudes and cant. Say a prayer for its soul and move on.”

Umm… Yeah, OK. So art must be unpopular to some extent in order to retain its “aura”?

Nobody better tell the Louvre.

3. Study up

art critic by Flickr user NCinDC CC-BY-ND 2.0

art critic
by Flickr user NCinDC
CC-BY-ND 2.0

 

“One of the most deceptive promises made by our stewards of culture over the past half century is: You don’t need to know anything to enjoy art.”

A theme throughout this piece, and a lot of criticism posits an alternate reality where museums willfully and systemically deceive and injure the visiting public by “pandering” “surrendering” and “succumbing” to malignant forces in the larger culture. The reasons vary, though incompetence, and venality often appear as root causes. In their unbridled lust to get bodies through the doors, museums say and do anything to be popular. Like awkward teenagers, desperate to fit in and be liked, despite their unfashionableness, they make deceptive promises that ultimately do a profound disservice to the visiting public and to the art that museums allegedly steward for future generations. Note the plural. What we’re discussing here is but one of many deceptive promises. I have to wonder if Kennicott has ever shared any of his theories with a real live museum staff person.

“Our response to art is directly proportional to our knowledge of it.”

I agree with this statement, but in a way that I think undermines Kennicott’s central assertion. I have previously written at length about a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Read them here, here, and here, if you want more information. It’s a great place to visit if you’re at the bottom of the world. One of the conceit’s of the museum is that there are no printed labels. None. Zero. All the interpretation is carried in an iPod you are given when you enter. In the midst of a profoundly transformative visit where I was forced to look at the art, not the interpretation, I came across a smallish painting that looked like a poorly copied Picasso. I registered my dislike of the object and, on a whim, looked up it’s information only to find that it was in fact a Picasso. I had the realization that had there been a tiny tombstone label identifying the work as such, I would have unable to dislike that object as much because of the associations I already carry around about the canon of Western art. Just seeing

Picasso, Pablo
Spanish
1881-1973

would’ve colored my emotional response to the work in front of me, and Picasso’s stature in the canon would’ve influenced my feelings about that painting.

There is a place for showing, and a place for telling, and there can be an order in which they happen that allows visitors to have both the direct experience and the received wisdom, without either oppressing the other.

The pendulum, for decades lodged at one extreme, has swung towards the opposite pole, and I can understand Kennicott’s displeasure, but it’s the displeasure of the entitled, seeing others’ needs and comfort placed ahead of his own for a change.

“art is the opposite of popular entertainment, which becomes more insipid with greater familiarity.”

<snark> My sons will doubtless agree with this. Their appreciation of Pokemon never waned. No matter how many times they saw Jessie and James get flung into the sky, it was magic each time. Ditto for Thomas the Tank Engine. </snark>

“Even 10 minutes on Wikipedia can help orient you and fundamentally transform the experience.”

Sounds reasonable to me. I think Wikipedia offers a great challenge to museums. A visitor can access content about just about anything on a mobile device these days. The fact that so many do access content like Wikipedia in museums should tell experience designers something. Their content is either lacking, or not the information visitors are looking for. So, what to do? I can think of a number of strategies for addressing the problem, all of which would result in experiences that do not feature objects with tiny tombstone labels near (but not too near) them.

“If the guide spends all his or her time asking questions rather than explaining art and imparting knowledge, do not waste your time. These faux-Socratic dialogues are premised on the fallacy that all opinions about art are equally valid and that learning from authority is somehow oppressive.”

I get the feeling Kennicott’s not a fan of Visual Thinking Strategies, and that’s OK. Declaring them “faux-Socratic” and fallacies, is not. Unless he has evidence and research to back up the claim, it’s just another example of the “I came. I saw. I invented a narrative that suits my worldview.”

4. Engage memory

Art Strikes Back by Flickr user Sam Burns CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Art Strikes Back
by Flickr user Sam Burns
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Unfortunately, unlike most things we study and debate, art is difficult to summarize and describe.”

Part of me would love to know what those easy to summarize and describe topics are. Most of my experience with experts in any field is that the more they know, the harder it is for them to summarize and describe what they do.

 

“Some museum educators, who know these things, will tell you this kind of detail doesn’t matter; they are lying. Always try to remember the name of and at least one work by an artist whom you didn’t know before walking into the museum.”

Back to the conspiracy theory and the museums actively disseminating falsehoods. Sigh… Actually, if the educators believe what they’re saying, they’re not lying. They’re expressing an opinion that conflicts with Kennicott’s. But in his mind, that is obviously the same thing.

5. Accept contradiction

We are all "YES/NO" (BY MORTEN TRAAVIK) by Flickr user Tjook CC-BY-ND 2.0

We are all “YES/NO” (BY MORTEN TRAAVIK)
by Flickr user Tjook
CC-BY-ND 2.0

“Art must have some utopian ambition, must seek to make the world better, must engage with injustice and misery; art has no other mission than to express visual ideas in its own self-sufficient language. As one art lover supposedly said to another: Monet, Manet, both are correct. “Susan Sontag once argued “against interpretation” and in favor of a more immediate, more sensual, more purely subjective response to art; but others argue, just as validly, that art is part of culture and embodies a wide range of cultural meanings and that our job is to ferret them out. Again, both are correct.”

Except he’s already made clear that agreeing with Sontag is both wrong and bad. Kennicott’s willing to give lip service to accepting the kind of contradiction, but nothing substantive.

And to tie it all in a nice neat bow, he ends with:

“Some practical advice: If you feel better about yourself when you leave a museum, you’re probably doing it all wrong.”

All those years of museum going on my part were wasted, apparently. Oh well…

Next up: A look at some of the responses to the Kennicott piece.

The bright side of visitor photography, now and later

After the handwringing in my last post, I thought I’d instead get aspirational, and look towards the bright side of life when it comes to museums, visitors and photography. If you still need/want more seflies, I’d suggest you look at the Wellcome Collection blog. Alli Burness does an excellent job of contextualizing selfies in a post called A to Z of the Human Condition: I is for Indivduality, that tries to shove some theoretical underpinnings beneath the mass of conflicting opinions. I already reflagged it, but if you missed it, go back and read. For those interested in more reasoned approaches to looking at the act of visitor photography, I’d recommend you read it, and check out the references, especially Goffman and Crossley. I’d add Susan Stewart to the mix as well.

So to get off the seflie kick, I thought I’d highlight other kinds of visitor photography present and potential, and look at ways visitors could use cameras in museums that might generally be held to be valuable and further visitor learning. One is current, one is potential, and one is just an idea I’ve been kicking around. I’d love to know what you think of them.

#emptymet, or the museum as canvas and subject

Photo by Instagram user @jimmy_chin

Photo by Instagram user @jimmy_chin

If you are at all interested in museums and social media then you’ve probably witnessed Instagram’s phenomenal rise in popularity in the past couple of years. Instagram has in the last year passed that inflection point from niche platform to juggernaut, and the number of museums getting on and getting active on Instagram bears witness to that. Seeing what kinds of pictures visitors are taking in your museum and being able to engage them via Instagram is a great social media opportunity. Lots of museums have also used the platform as a way to share images from their collections as a way to raise awareness and build an audience.

All well and good, but the model is still pretty old-school and broadcast. A different engagement strategy, and one, like #svegliamuseo, which originated outside of museums is the phenomenon that encourages visitors to use the museum itself as the canvas for their creative expression.

The Ellen selfie in progess, via Mashable

The Ellen selfie in progess, via Mashable

Simple social photo sharing is increasingly popular with many age groups and is overtaking text-based sharing in popularity, as evidenced by the dawn of the Age of the Selfie. We know people love to take pictures in museums, and that causes problems in big museums with big attendance. Dave Krugman, a New York Instragrammer (@davekrugman) had another idea. Why not encourage good photographers to take great pictures and share them via Instagram? Thus was born #emptymet.

Krugman convinced the Metropolitan Museum of Art to reach out to prominent Instagrammers (influencers in social media speak) and invite them to come and shoot at the Met some time when the museum was empty, so they could have unfettered access to the galleries and objects. All the pictures they took of the museum would be hashtagged #emptymet. And so, one day this past Spring, seven IGers wandered around the Met for ninety minutes before opening, and a phenomenon was born. This article in the New York Times provides all the details you could want.

Dave Krugman at the Met, photo by Instagram user @danielkriger

Dave Krugman at the Met, photo by Instagram user @danielkriger

The images they posted to their legions of followers (think hundreds of thousands) spread the museum’s image far and wide in a way paid advertising could never do. Look at the pictures from #emptymet and you’ll immediately see that they’re not the usual mugging in front of the objects. They’re good, or great or absolutely gorgeous, professional-quality images of the institution taken from interesting perspectives. Even the selfies (which are rare) are well composed and appealing to look at. For the cost of letting in seven Instragrammers before opening, the Met got a thousand images seen by hundred of thousands of followers of these photographers. And those people got a clear message that the Met is a beautiful place full of interesting sights. Granted, it’s a privileged view that the general public by and large won’t be able to partake of, but it’s still a kind of access that museum visitors are always hungry for – the behind the curtain view.

The model is spreading rapidly. #emptymfa just happened in Boston, and #emptypem has been in the works for some time. Look for it in January.

Label Whisperer, or rethinking the tombstone

Visitor reading the artwork's label, Galeria degli Uffizi
Visitor reading the artwork’s label, Galeria degli Uffizi
CC BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Conxa Rodà

I realize that the Cooper Hewitt’s Pen is getting all the attention these days and probably will for the foreseeable future, but an example of the kind of groundbreaking thinking Cooper Hewitt Labs does is neatly embodied in a project they unveiled earlier in the year, called the Label Whisperer. They started from the premise that often visitors take pictures of labels to remember information about an object. What if they could transform that simple act into a way to query Cooper Hewitt’s collections management system and deliver all the information associated with that object? So they built a system that does just that. When I first read it, I smacked my head and said, “Wow!”, and went back and reread it to get through the technical bits. It is very technical, and also very worth reading even if you’re a non-technical sort, because of the breadth of vision it possesses.

A mockup of a Label Whisperer-friendly object ID

A mockup of a Label Whisperer-friendly object ID

What is it?

Simply put, the Label Whisperer, was a collection of software bits that they wrote and glued together to allow a visitor to take a picture of an object label and get back the collections record for that object. Click, submit, and read the result. From a web browser. Without downloading a QR code reader, or installing a .3 Gigabyte app. This is genius stuff that goes from encompassing physical label design, to deploying optical character recognition (OCR) on photos of labels looking for accession numbers, back-end magic to conjure up the object record associated with that number, and then delivering a web page with that accession number’s record. I like the way it starts from an observable visitor behavior, and then devises a way to both leverage that activity, and deepen it. It’s done fast, done with existing products where possible, and the results are made available on GitHub for others to build on. That’s how you innovate and bring the whole field along with you.

Not only is it a great example of systems thinking, but it also lays to rest one of my pet peeves, the amount of physical label space used on accession numbers, given the percentage of museum visitors who will ever care. With the Label Whisperer, the accession number actually gets to fulfill it’s purpose, for a public audience!

Be still my ex-registrar’s heart!

From snapshots to scaffolds

At the Documentation workshop I went to earlier this year, there was a ton of talk about ways to help parents and caregivers scaffold their children’s learning. Documentation is a pillar of the Reggio Emilia model of teaching, and something I’ve been interested in for years. But finding applications for Reggio-inspired approached to my daily work is sometimes hard to do, especially when designing for multigenerational audiences. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, if you want more.

A little bit on documentation

Documentation is a key element in the Reggio approach. It serves many purposes, most of all as a way to study how children learn. Documentation is about what children are doing and learning. The product of that documentation becomes the material for learner and teacher to discuss what the learner is learning and how. For the learner, it becomes a way to reflect on their learning and crystalize it, and for the teacher, it becomes a way to gauge how their  instruction is being received, so they tailor it to suit the learner’s needs. Documentation becomes the way that learning is demonstrated and discussed.

Now hold that thought in mind, and shift gears for a second to think about some common tropes about families in museums. Oftentimes, parents will take children to a museum ostensibly for the children’s benefit, not their own edification. They will also tend to document their family activities, particularly the exploits of their children, especially if they’re being cute. What if that activity were tweaked slightly to focus on the learning taking place? The cuteness would most likely remain, the memorialization of the event would still be present, but if the photographs were documents of a learning experience could we construct some kind of experience that parents and caregivers could use to situate those photos within that would facilitate discussion?Is this some kind of app, or a simple webpage with instructions about how to act more like a Reggio educator? I don’t know, but it *might* be possible.

And if you still need more:

How Not to Be a Jerk With Your Stupid Smartphone
Evan Selinger, The Atlantic

Selinger does a nice job of discussing the disconnect between etiquette and new technology. Given our still-analogue mindsets about photography, it might be time to revise our rules for visitor photography in museums.

Alone in the Virtual Museum
Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker

Schwartz takes a long tour through virtual interaction with museums and pokes lots of holes in old canards about technology and museums along the way.

Here’s What Happens When You Let the Internet Curate an Art Museum
Graeme McMillan, Wired

The answer is, “You get an exhibition with an audience that’s already interested in it.” The Frye Museum is on their third (yes, third) crowdsourced exhibition, and the place hasn’t imploded or turned into a free-for-all.

Are Works Of Art Relics? 
Alva Noë, NPR

Just to be contrarian, I’ll throw in this piece that proposes the thing we need to question is not photography, but the way we think of museum objects.  It’s based around work by art historian Alexander Nagel, but also drags in Blake Gopnik to problematize the traditional veneration of the object. Go nuts.

Selfie conscious

Vatican Museums, Rome
Vatican Museums, Rome
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user Fabian Mohr

Introduction
Visitors and their cameras. I thought I’d finished with this topic awhile ago. Visitor photography had been the third part of my Tilting at Windmills series, along with those other betes noir “immersion” and “participation”. I also wrote a follow up post of links on visitor photography for those really interested. The debate continues unabated, and as full of opinion masquerading as fact as it ever was. It’s grown to such epic proportions that MuseumsEtc is publishing a volume on museums and visitor photography. So, once more into the breach…

The National Gallery case

National Gallery, London.
National Gallery, London
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user staticantics

The ostensible cause of the latest outburst was the National Gallery in London’s decision to allow visitor photography in August.  One of the last “no photos!” bastions in Europe, the Gallery announced with no fanfare free Wi-Fi throughout the building, and tucked in with that announcement was a statement on their new photography policy.

Here’s what they said, as reported in the Telegraph:

“The introduction of free Wi-Fi throughout the public areas of the National Gallery is one of a number of steps we are taking to improve the welcome we provide.

“Wi-Fi enables our visitors to access additional information about the Collection and our exhibitions whilst actually here in the Gallery, and also to interact with us more via social media.

“As the use of Wi-Fi will significantly increase the use of tablets and mobile devices within the Gallery, it will become increasingly difficult for our Gallery Assistants to be able to distinguish between devices being used for engagement with the Collection, or those being used for photography.

“It is for that reason we have decided to change our policy on photography within the main collection galleries and allow it by members of the public for personal, non-commercial purposes -provided that they respect the wishes of visitors and do not hinder the pleasure of others by obstructing their views of the paintings. This is very much in line with policies in other UK museums and galleries.

“The use of flash and tripods will be prohibited, as will photography and filming in temporary exhibitions.

“Commercial photography remains subject to existing arrangements.”

Commence fireworks!

Showa Kinen Park Fireworks Festival ( Explore in Sep 6, 2014 )
Showa Kinen Park Fireworks Festival
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user yasa_

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of handwringing by journalists and bloggers who declared things like, “Camera phones at the National Gallery stoke fears that technology is leaving us incapable of deep engagement with anything”, and “Selfie-portrait of the artist: National Gallery surrenders to the internet”, and “Fears National Gallery will be ‘selfie central’ as photo ban is relaxed” And that’s just the mainstream media. You can imagine how the arts bloggers reacted. Eesh!

Within weeks, the chairman of the Arts Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette went on record supporting the idea of “selfie bans” for an hour a day, so people could get some relief from the hordes of picture snappers. And his was a fairly moderate opinion. The more absolutists were quite certain that doom was at hand.

Crowd Control 3
Crowd Control 3
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Son of Groucho

Sarah Crompton, writing in the Telegraph, describes the typical scene that those opposed to photography paint; the swarm of unheeding photographers, ignoring the real to capture the facsimile. Walter Benjamin’s warning made manifest. “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it… In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Crompton’s experience is similar,

“The last time I was in MOMA in New York, I fought my way up to the floor where all the masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and the Abstract Expressionists hang – and then fought my way back out again. The space was full not just of viewers but of photographers; it was impossible to stop, think and look at a painting amid the jostling crowds.”

In the face of that kind of scrum, can any meaningful interaction occur? Apparently not. She concludes,

“By allowing photography, galleries are betraying all those who want to contemplate rather than glance. Surrounded by the snappers, they may come to think that this is the acceptable way to consume art, a kind of constant grazing without any real meal.

That’s not a means of making art more popular or accessible. It is the surest path to depriving it of all purpose and meaning.”

Judith Dobrzynski, in an uncharacteristically moderate tone, agrees that a ban is needed. One hour’s a bit too short for her liking, though…

Virtually no major outlet reported the National Gallery’s decision as a win for visitors, or a positive outcome in any sense. Even in the field, there was little mention made of it. And it’s easy to see why. Other people taking pictures, especially selfies, is easy to mock. Rather than explain this at all, you should just go look at Josh Gondelman’s piece in the New Yorker, “Works from the Los Angeles Museum of Photographic Self-Portraiture”. Pretty genius, huh? You’re welcome.

Two thoughts about the National Gallery

So, why so much vitriol, and what could the Gallery have done differently? For the first question, Nina Simon’s already addressed it, so I’ll focus on the second. But, first, Nina.

Deal with the real problem
Nina tackles the National Gallery issue in a post, entitled, “Blame the Crowd, Not the Camera: Challenges to a New Open Photo Policy at the National Gallery” which unpacks the whole thing so neatly and completely that I won’t waste many more electrons on it. In the same way that “immersion” and “participation” get used as straw men for deeper issues, “selfies” have become the stand in for the real issue at the major art museums where this problem is most often highlighted – overcrowding.

Crowded Mona Lisa
Crowded Mona Lisa
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Iris

Read any of the writers advocating photography bans, and you’ll find them all mentioning crowding as part of the experience that ruins it. I agree that photography exacerbates it and makes more apparent how unappealing crowding is, but I think that visitor photography gets the blame for a problem that’s much bigger and harder to tackle.  The experienced arts consumers may have given up on crowding as an unfixable problem, but I think it’s worth problematizing, rather than just taking it for granted. I dislike going to MoMA, or the Louvre, not because of the amateur photographers, but because they are like Tokyo subway cars, with art. How one deals with overcrowding is a totally different question than how one deals with cameras, and a solution to that bigger problem, I think, would probably resolve the smaller one. The responses to her post are as well worth reading as the post itself, so devote some time to it.

Don’t make a lemon out of lemonade
Looking over the whole affair, I think the National Gallery made a classic public relations blunder, and turned what was an unalloyed accomplishment to be proud of (introducing free Wi-Fi throughout the building) into a major media fiasco for one reason. They didn’t ever come out and say they wanted visitors to use their cameras. They essentially said “It’s too hard to monitor, so we’re not going to.” And that doesn’t reflect well on them, despite the obvious truth of it. And they reaped the whirlwind for it…

It *is* hard to tell what people are doing with their devices. Is that person taking a picture, or are they far-sighted and holding the phone at arm’s length so they can read their wretchedly small screen? Are they telling all their friends what a blast they’re having at the museum, or just searching for a new song to listen to because they’re bored? They all look pretty much the same, and anyone who thinks museums’ front line staff (who tend to be the least well-paid hourly workers) should make these kinds of fine judgements dozens or hundreds of times per shift all the while keeping an eye on the objects, fundamentally doesn’t get it.

Realistically, I think institutions have to clearly allow, or disallow visitors to use their devices, and whichever way they decide, they need to own that decision, and have it reflect the core values of the institution.

I’m totally down with the National Gallery’s decision to allow visitors to use their devices, because I think  providing free Wi-Fi was a good thing. Making it as easy as possible for visitors to access information about the museum and its scholarship should be a major priority for all museums. One way you do that is by knocking down as many barriers to access as you can. One of those barriers, particularly in art museums, is the amount of interpretation provided. I think my next Tumblr may have to be “Art museum visitors looking at Wikipedia because the label didn’t tell them anything they wanted to know.” The Gallery produces lots of information about their collection, and should be commended for making it easy for visitors to access it in a way that is visitor-driven. But in doing that, they should’ve come up with a reason to either encourage or discourage photography. Allowing it was a half measure, and putting that half measure in writing was a bad idea.

The Frick Example

Frick Dining Room HDR
Frick Dining Room HDR
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Gorbould

It needn’t be that way. The Frick Collection in New York, had long been a no go zone for photographers. Like the National Gallery, they quietly reversed their photo policy in April, and a month later, reinstated a photography ban, saying this to Hyperallergic,

“After a brief trial allowing photography throughout the permanent collection galleries, it has become apparent we need to limit use of cameras to the Garden Court. The Frick Collection is virtually unique and especially valued for its lack of protective barriers, vitrines, and stanchions around works of fine and decorative art, displayed in a domestic setting. This refinement of our photography policy has been determined necessary to maintain the safety of our exceptional collections.”

And the hue and cry about this flip flop? Non-existant. The Frick totally owns their photography ban. It’s essential to the experience of seeing the objects in such a unique, unmuseum-y setting. They get full marks for being experimental enough to try to revise their policy. It shows they’re paying attention to what the outside world is like. And their reversal shows that they’re paying attention to the visitor experience and are willing to change based on evidence.

Mind your manners, not the technology

This evolving relationship with visitor photography and whether it’s good or bad has a lot to do manners and perceived lack thereof. The museums mentioned above both put explicit suggestions in their photo policies. The Frick’s used to read in part, “When taking photographs, please be courteous to other museum visitors by not blocking their views of artworks or impeding their movement through the galleries.” The National Gallery’s asked visitors not hinder the pleasure of others with their photography. But as Jillian Steinhauer wrote in Hyperallergic, when the Frick’s photography ban was dropped, “Pleas like these haven’t yet proven very effective, but maybe as photography in museums becomes less and less of an anomaly, we can shift our energy to figuring out how to do it right.”

Part of this dilemma also has to do with how we’ve conditioned ourselves to treat photography, no doubt based on older, analogue models of the process, when walking in front of a photographer meant possibly ruining one of a finite number of exposures on a roll of film that cost real money to buy and develop. Regan Forrest pointed me at an interesting dissertation that examined the visitor dynamics of photography in museums.

“It is the reflex action of trying to remove one’s self from, or trying to avoid the space between photographer and object. People duck and scuttle away, walk in reverse, stop and lean backwards or make an obvious decision to adjust their previously chosen path to circumnavigate the photographer and his or her line of vision to the object being photographed. Noticeably, the same behaviour does not occur if the viewer is not holding a camera in the process of taking a photograph. The viewer standing back from an artwork merely looking at it, is not afforded the same extreme actions of diversion as when a camera is involved.  (Sager, J. F. (2008). The Contemporary Visual Art Audience: Space, Time and a Sideways Glance University of Western Sydney. pp174-175)

Our learned response to photographers is to give them wide berth, whether they ask for (or deserve) it. And we don’t seem to privilege looking at objects the same way. If you’ve had someone come stand directly in front of you to look at the object you’re looking at, you know the truth of this. And this where I think there’s really interesting room for engagement with our audiences.

Perhaps one of the best outcomes of all this angst will be some hard discussions around the visitor experience in museums and what factors contribute or detract from a good one. What should the current etiquette for museum-going be? What are the new rules of the road for having a rewarding experience engaging with our heritage? I’ll be looking at place like the Brooklyn Museum for inspiration.

Since this focused so much on the downsides of visitor photography, I’ll spend the next post looking at some positive examples of visitor photography in museums.

More photography links

Class selfie at NC Art Museum by Twitter user @grade3atJG

Class selfie at NC Art Museum by Twitter user @grade3atJG

I need to move on from the photography in museums topic, but I keep turning up more and more. I’ve started reading “The Reflexive Photographer” from MusseumsEtc, so we’ll see what light that sheds. In the meantime, here are a bunch of other links I’ve been sitting on that’ll let you plumb the depths of selfiedom some more. And don’t forget that January 22nd is #museumselfie day!

More Reading:

Lindsay Holmes
The Huffington Post
Why You Just Can’t Help But Selfie
A remarkably balanced look at the positives and negatives.

Dougal Shaw
BBC
#BBCtrending: Psychologists put the ‘selfie’ on the couch
A “He said. She said.” with two psychologists explaining the phenomenon. Short.

Richard Morgan
The Wall Street Journal
Art Exhibits for the Selfie Set
Even WSJ can’t resist. Name checks Rain Room, Aten Reign, Infinity Mirror Room, and other shows that beg to be photographed.

Jason Feifer
Fast Company
Google makes you smarter, Facebook makes you happier, selfies make you a better person
Basically spends a long time tearing into Sherry Turkle’s latest worry, the selfie. He’s pretty thorough, verging on “doth protest a bit too much.” Worth it.

Panel Discussion
National Portrait Gallery
The Curated Ego: What Makes a Good Selfie?
I’d love to hear how this talk went.

And, to ram home how powerful the lure of the selfie is…

Astronaut on ISS stoppnig to take a selfie. Courtesy of NASA

Astronaut on ISS stopping to take a selfie. Courtesy of NASA

 

 

Tilting at Windmills, Part Three

This is the third and final part of a series of posts on issues in museums that I thought warranted a bit of unpacking. In the first post, I looked at “immersion” and at “experience” and “participation” in the second. I wanted to understand more about visitor picture taking in museums and this is the result. There’s a lot of rhetoric expended on condemning or extolling the practice, but not as much trying to get at why people take out the camera and click in a museum.

In this super-long post, which I beg your forgiveness for not making shorter or breaking into pieces, I want to explore the positions of the pro and anti visitor photography lobbies, make some observations and then look at the underlying motivations. In the end, I’ll propose that digital souvenirs are just the latest way people in museums memorialize the event, and that the social act of sharing images is an act of affiliation and affection that should be encouraged.

Part One: Visitors taking pictures in museums: curse or the reverse?

image by Flickr user Sergey Meniailenko
CC-BY-2.0

Let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, I’ve been to the Louvre and seen the mobs with their phones out, clicking away while this modest little panel painting sits behind it’s acrylic shield, railing, and stanchions, looking a bit lost. Yes, it makes me nuts, as it does almost all of the people who’ve written about how bad photography is. It’s Exhibit A in every formulation of the anti-photography case. However using the most well-known painting in the world as a case study for why photography should be banned is a bit problematic. The rules are just different when you’re Mona Lisa.

So in this age of ubiquitous digital cameras, what should museums say to visitors when it comes to talking pictures? Ban it? Encourage it? Finesse it? A steady chorus of voices suggest that banning photography is the answer.

Damn those people with their phones!


Self-portrait with portrait of Gauguin by Emile Bernard, c. 1888 by Flickt user Kelly Reeves
CC-BY-ND 2.0

“These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa “ written by Jonathan Jones for The Guardian is typical of educated people’s problems with photographers in museums. Flashes ruin the experience, crowds make it impossible to actually experience the painting. And the people who feel obliged to behave this way? For Jones, they’re “a crowd of idiots behaving grotesquely.” It’s tacky, and you shouldn’t want to part of that group whom sensible people despise.

Travel blogger The Everywhereist wrote a post called, “Ten reasons why you shouldn’t take photos in museums” that are an interesting mix of snobbery, concern, and lack of understanding of how museums work. The largest group of reasons have to do with cultural norms and not obeying them. Being the dope with their camera out is tacky.

Cameras turn museums into tourist traps, instead of places of reflection.  Picture taking causes congestion. All of these, if viewed through the lens of creating a flow experience, can be seen to be factors that would interfere with feeling of immersion someone who seeks a passive viewing experience craves. Several have to do with the supposed reasons people take snapshots in museums and why that’s isn’t appropriate.  People who take pictures won’t actually see the art. She asserts that the photos will be pointless, assuming that the point is to get an accurate high-quality representation of the work. The last few are actually amusing, considering she illustrates her post with photographs she admits taking in museums.  Photographers steal desperately needed money from the museum because if photography weren’t allowed, all these people would go to the gift shop and buy a postcard of the images they were interested in. The Met’s postcard section must be the size of an Amazon warehouse to hold all those postcards of everything on display, huh?

Further, photographers hurt artists, who might otherwise get a cut of the proceeds. And of course, flash photography hurts the paintings. More on this later. What I like about this post is the way it dispenses with the kind of highbrow rhetoric that often gets deployed in these situations.

In short, photography is not the problem. Other people taking pictures is the problem.

Mark Dubovoy, writing for the photography blog  The Luminous Landscape, wonders “Are Museums Destroying Art?” when allowing visitors to bombard the Mona Lisa with flashes. He goes into greater depth about the evils of flash photgraphy, but the meat of his piece comes later. He feels that museums that allow photography are destroying art by eliminating the appreciation of the original objects.  According to Dubovoy, “the vast majority of people inside these museums are after the trophy shot with their face in front of a museum piece.  They do not look at the originals, they do not care.  They do not contemplate them.  They are not interested in understanding them or experiencing the message.  They do not cherish them.” That’s pretty clear.

People who take pictures are bad, and don’t deserve to spoil the experience of the those who really care about art.

The most extreme formulation of this position is in a nice piece Eric Gibson recently published in The New Criterion called  “The overexposed museum”. He sums up most of the arguments against letting visitors use cameras, and indulges in some awesome hyperbole, to boot. After setting up the Mona Lisa scenario again, he claims that the “museum that allows the indiscriminate use of smartphones and tablets in its galleries is one that has lost control of its collections. The first casualty is the art experience itself.” Wow. It gets better, though. According to Gibson, letting people photograph can’t even coexist with other ways of looking. “The new culture of museum photography banishes the art experience. It transforms the work of art from something to pause before, explore, admire, and reflect upon, into a “sight,” like the Eiffel Tower or the White House. A fascinating, complex, multi-faceted product of the creative imagination becomes just a piece of scenery”. I won’t get into why architecture doesn’t count as art.

Gibson goes on to speculate that by reducing artworks to “sights”, museums that allow this to happen are cheapening themselves and betraying their reason for existence in the name of “engagement”, which in some quarters seems to be a dirty word. After waxing rhapsodic about the Orangerie, which not only doesn’t allow photography, but has signs telling you to be quiet, Gibson proposes that a museum’s (by which he means art museum. You other museums can go take a hike.) primary mission is“[c]reating an environment where the visitor is invited to stop, look, and take something away from the experience”.  Like many commentators opposed to photography, Gibson equates cameras with not looking at the art. And like writers of opinion pieces the world over, he has a knack for speculating about other people’s motivations and assuming he’s correct. “If these institutions are going to fail on such a fundamental level—as they are now doing in permitting, and even encouraging, the indiscriminate use of smartphones and tablets in their galleries—one is left to ask: What are museums for?” 

Photography = ruin.

Most of the arguments against taking pictures of museums objects boil down to:

  • It disrupts the experience of others
  • It cheapens the entire art experience
  • It takes away from interacting with the art in the appropriate way
  • It damages the paintings (though I think this gets trotted out mainly as evidence of how uncaring “those people” are)

Hooray for pictures!

Selfie in front of Selfie Statue
by Flickr user Matt Carman
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Others feel differently about photography. Art critic Deborah Solomon, when she’s not getting in trouble with Norman Rockwell’s family, thinks that photography ain’t such a bad thing.  Her New York Times opinion piece, “Hey ‘Starry Night,’ Say ‘Cheese!’” is an excellent counterpoint to Gibson, and offers a more nuanced appraisal of visitor photographers. Rather than pretend that everyone who takes a picture is the same, Solomon distinguishes between the annoying “click and move on” visitor, the gallery cloggers, and the rest of us. After name-checking Benjamin, she reckons that the inevitability of visitor picture taking renders museum bans on picture-taking virtually unenforceable. More than that, she thinks picture taking enhances the experience of looking at art.
For Solomon, even the most casual photographer is engaging, the basic mission of visual art: to celebrate the act of looking. Looking through a lens forces you to take note of composition, light and shadow and all the other artistic considerations needed to make a picture come out. The camera is a means to learn how to look. For support, she quotes photographer Dorothea Lange, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” So taking pictures is actually giving visitors practice thinking like an artist. And for the non-obnoxious photographers, photographs function as art postcards used to in the last century, when museum stores actually carried large quantities of them. So, these digital souvenirs are actually helping visitors appreciate art.

To further bolster her case about the inevitability of picture taking and the futility of trying to control it, she cites museums’ effort to ease restrictive photo policies. Quoting Max Anderson, she notes the rising trend among museums to add language to their exhibition contracts allowing photography, and adding permission to their outgoing loans and contracts. Her final paragraph pretty much says it all,

I say hooray. When we photograph, e-mail, tweet and Instagram paintings, we capitalize on technological innovation to expand familiarity with an ancient form. So, too, we increase the visual literacy of this country. Much can be gained. Nothing can be lost. A photograph of a painting can no more destroy a masterpiece than it can create one.

Photography = hooray!

Carolina Miranda asked recently in ARTNews “Why Can’t We Take Pictures in Art Museums?”, and compiled an really interesting assemblage of responses from museums that are attempting to be more responsive in their policies. She comes up with a slightly different set of reasons than most other open-photography advocates. In these days of social media, museums are sharing more and more content, a lot of which is imagery. The message sent out by a museum that wants you to like their Facebook page full of images, but doesn’t want you taking the same kinds of pictures, is confusing, to say the least to visitors. Enforcing no photography policies is taking up more and more time of gallery staff and guards who actually have a more important mission, safeguarding the objects on display. And asking these typically not well-paid hourly workers to make fine distinctions like “Is that person taking a picture, or looking something up on line, or texting?” is unreasonable.

The other issue Miranda unmasks is probably the biggest; the knotty, hard to explain issue of copyright. It’s something art museums generally avoid talking about, much to our detriment. A museum visitor might reasonably expect that a museum displaying an object had the right to let them photograph it or not. The reality, is far more complicated than that, but museum generally avoid getting into the details with our audiences. Living artists have legitimate claims to their intellectual property that art museums must safeguard. However, common sense would seem to indicate that the overwhelming majority of photographs taken by museum visitors are completely noncommercial. Copyright laws, which largely date from the pre-digital era when access to scarce resources was the norm, have a hard time accommodating the reality of digital abundance, and even the copyright lawyer quoted in her article say visitor photographs could be considered infringing and potentially violate copyright. When the experts don’t know, how is the public supposed to?

Miranda notes in passing the huge shift that the Internet has wrought in culture, namely that we increasingly communicate in images. Where in years past a visitor might have sketched an object, or written about it in a diary, today “[t]he first step toward recreating a work of art, for most people, is to photograph it, which, ultimately, isn’t all that different from the time-honored tradition of sketching.”

Visitor photography = living up the mission to share culture.

Last, but not least, the prescient Nina Simon tackled some of the same points years ago in a Museum 2.0 blog post “Museum Photo Policies Should Be as Open as Possible”. It’s worth reading in it’s entirety for a much more succinct recap of the issue. I especially recommend the Henry Jenkins article on spreadable media and Paula Bray’s paper on open image licensing at the Powerhouse Museum. For Nina, reasons for museums to permit photography are five:

  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.
  2. Restrictive policies erode staff/visitor relations and overall museum mission statements around inclusion.
  3. Photo-taking allows visitors to memorialize and make meaning from museum experiences.
  4. Visitors use personal photos differently from store-bought ones.  not negative ones
  5. When people share their photos of your museum, they promote and spread your content to new audiences in authentic ways.

Encouraging visitor photography is one way to walk the walk of your museum’s mission.

Most of the arguments for taking pictures of museums objects boil down to:

  • You can’t stop it anyway, so if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
  • It encourages looking at the art
  • It promotes your institution
  • Access is part of your mission

Part Two: So what to make of these competing contentions?

It disrupts the experience of others.

Of all the reasons given, this one has the most merit and is an ongoing problem, in certain instances, like big traveling shows, at the largest art museums, and with a select subset of high-profile objects. The unspoken contract between art museum and art museum visitor was that the museum would provide an environment to display art in a particular way to encourage focused concentration on a single object at a time, and that the visitor would quietly and reverentially gaze at objects. Adding photography to that mix breaks that contract. It’s not quiet, it often provokes social behaviors, and flashes exacerbate the condition. Part One of the this series has really made me check my own sense of privilege as a professional and examine why it’s OK for some people to dictate how everyone has to “do” a museum. The fact that I’m philosophically aligned with one faction doesn’t make it right. The people who come to museums for a quiet, passive, contemplative (dare I say spiritual?) encounter with the products of human creativity have just as much right to their kind of experience as the people who come in noisy groups looking to kill an afternoon in the presence of the unique and rare.

The solution seems to me to be to establish a new contract, and actually state it, instead of hoping that visitors will infer intent. I’d love to see museums generate explicit policies that state what the museum encourage, allows, forbids, and why.

MFA policies in neon “Please” by Jeppe Hein
by Flickr user wms1916
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

I love the way this piece near the entrance in the MFA set up visitor expectations in a way that is at once playful and establishes the kinds of behaviors the museum encourages.

It cheapens the entire art experience
I used to have no patience with this contention since it so often came wrapped in such barely disguised condescension that I’d have to fight down my gag reflex just to finish reading. I think this is an offshoot of the point above, and the misguided assumption of some commentators that there is one right way to “do” a museum, and that’s their way – quietly and without anybody else getting in their way, please.
I have no solution for this, other than limiting access to spaces. Or maybe a test of worthiness to enter a given museum.

It takes away from interacting with the art in the appropriate way
Underlying this contention is the assumption that if only people weren’t looking at their cameras, they’d spend more time looking at the art, and I don’t buy it. Solomon was right when she segmented the photographing audience. Their are some people who might use the time they weren’t taking pictures looking at the objects. They are just as likely to fly through the museum at the same speed, and not look any more deeply.

The solution I think is to spend more effort exploring ways of approaching art, so that more people can have more intellectual access to our objects. That’s the educator in me sneaking out, and I realize that this “solution” immediately runs afoul of the anti-interpretation folks who grudgingly put up with minute, invisible labels, but long for museums completely devoid of labels.

It damages the objects
The reality is a little different than what you’ve been told. Steve Meltzer wrote an interesting piece at Gizmodo, Does Flash Photography Really Damage Art? The Persistence of a Myth, that examines the oft-repeated claims about flash photography. Give it a read.  If you want a more in-depth study, try Martin Evans’ “Amateur Photographers in Art Galleries: Assessing the harm done by flash photography.” 

The solution is simple. Ask people not to use flashes.

You can’t stop it anyway, so if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
I’ve always disliked this contention, because it’s such a defeatist way of approaching our work. There are museums like the Orangerie, which completely bans photography. It can be done. Photos will still be taken, they’ll just be surreptitious and you’ll spend a lot of effort on policing the peopel you depend on for your existence.

The solution seems to be to have a good reason for your photo policy and state it.

It encourages looking at the art
This is another one the I have trouble with. I think photographing objects has the potential to encourage looking at the art, but it’s dependent on the person and the context. It is no more a guarantee of greater engagement than it is a sign of lesser engagement.

The solution? Come up with programs on photographing in the museum and see how visitors react. Do they engage more deeply? Let me know what you find out, OK?

It promotes your institution
Yup.

Access is part of your mission
Yup.

Photographers in “Oh, Snap!” with their photos
Image by Flickr user mercurialn
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

What about making it part of the museum’s practice?

One interesting response to visitor photography has been museums’ attempts to harness this urge for mutual benefit. Museums have dipped their toes in the waters of encouraging visitors to photograph the museum and make homes for these images, lending a bit of the institutional imprimatur to amateur images. Examples are numerous, from the Brooklyn Museum’s Click!, to the Carnegie Museum’s Oh Snap!, CCCB’s Branguli exhibition, and many more (might be a good blog post for someone to round up all the visitor photography shows.) The Melbourne Museum’s Melbourne Story is a good example. In their Visitors’ Photo Album, you can see visitor photographs that have been uploaded to Flickr where you can join the Melbourne Stories group and add your own pictures to the collection.

Another interesting sidelight of this is using visitors in museums as inspiration. This interest in taking pictures of people in museums actually inspires the German photographer Thomas Struth. His exhibition “Museum Photographs” got a lovely write-up in artnet.com by Phyllis Tuchman. In her interview with Struth, he homes in on many of the issues at play here,

“When a work of art becomes fetishized,” the affable, articulate artist points out, “it dies.” Struth feels the paintings in his museum photographs regain aspects of their original vitality when seen anew in the context he renders so seamlessly.

Part Three: Why do people take pictures in museums

Since so many of the arguments against photography posit it as an inappropriate thing to do during a museum visit, I think it’s worth poking at what is appropraite and why. The obligatory quotes from German philosophers follow, so you know I’m serious.

The conception of the proper mode of visiting an art museum goes back to the early 20th century and the concern that “modern” audiences weren’t doing it right goes back probably as far.  Walter Benjamin’s oft-quoted “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical  Reproduction” claims that, “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it. He enters into this work of art the way legend tells of the Chinese painter when he viewed his finished painting. In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” 

Long before smartphones and the Internet, this concern about how you were supposed to approach art in a museum was a live issue and intimately intertwined with the strangeness of the museum context itself. The physical buildings may be purpose-built, but the fact that museums are filled with objects that have been divorced from their original contexts and assembled according to new criteria provokes a host of conflicting responses. Heidegger points out this inherent dissociation in, “The Origin of the Work of Art”  where he says, “However high their quality and power of impression, however good their state of preservation, however certain their interpretation, placing [museum objects] in a collection has withdrawn them from their own world. But even when we make an effort to cancel or avoid such displacement of works— when, for instance, we visit the temple in Paestum at its own site or the Bamberg cathedral on its own square—the world of the work that stands there has perished.”

For Adorno, the whole museum endeavor is fraught. In the “Valéry Proust Museum” he claims that the word “museum-like”, “describes objects to which the observer no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying. … Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art.” This dissociation is as present today as it was then.

The struggle to establish relevance and connection is one museum educators wrestle with daily.  On the one hand, the manufactured context of the art museum provides a unique setting. There is nowhere else in our daily lives where we can go to have the same kind of experience. On the other hand, this artificial construct, what Adorno calls “the authoritarian gesture”, chafes. The shushing guard, the “No ______” signs, the admission fee, and the interpretation that may (or more often may not) be written for a lay audience, all conspire to create an environment where the power balannce is clearly all in the museum’s favor. And as I blogged about a few months ago, this power relationship is central to the real issue behind photographers. Who has the right to express their creativity in the galleries, and who should keep quiet and adopt an appropriately reverential (and deferential) pose?

Photos as affiliation and as digital souvenirs

Selfie at the Top of the Rock
by Flickr user mollybob
CC-BY 2.0

So why do people take pictures in museums? As I said earlier, I think the photo-skeptics make several false assumptions when they talk about the motivations of visitors who take pictures. I don’t think most people who take photographs of objects in museums do so in order to document that object in the way that a professional tries to document an object with as much fidelity as possible in order to make a permanent record of that object. Were that the case, then the obvious answer would be for visitors to go to the museum’s website and hope that the object of their curiosity was part of that tiny minority of objects that most museums have photographed in suitably high resolution.
In a world of social media, museum photograph, even selfies, now serve as a form of affiliation. By posting their pictures, visitors are associating themselves with the museums they were in, just by sharing their photos. And I think this is underutilized and under-appreciated by us. They proclaim “I was here!” and they’re not doing that at the cinema, or supermarket. 
Visitor photographs are also souvenirs, and souvenirs aren’t meant as high-fidelity recordings. As Susan Stewart writes in her fascinating book “On Longing”, “souvenirs function to generate narrative.” The point of the crummy, poorly-lit picture of your friends in front of the object in the museum to serve as a springboard for you to tell stories about that object, museum, day, people, etc… Stewart posits (and I agree with her) that “(t)he photograph as souvenir is a logical extension of the pressed flower, the preservation of an instant in time through a reduction of physical dimensions and a corresponding increase insignificance supplied by means of narrative.”
So… you made it to the end! I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I swear I’ll be more succinct next post. This has gestated for a couple of months and continued to accrete references like a snowball rolling down a hill.