Friday night I went to a concert on campus. It was standing-room only and my ears are still ringing, though whether from the rib-rattling bass lines or the hundreds of people singing along with the band, I’m not sure.
Concerts are interesting spaces that draw together people with perhaps absolutely nothing else in common except music taste. Different personalities and walks of life are united by the performers on stage, who themselves know nothing personal about the fans before them. It’s like a family gathering, except it’s made up solely of really distant relatives whose names you can’t remember for the life of you. Nevertheless, there’s a sense of camaraderie that fills the room.
At least, until this happens:
Now suddenly, instead of watching your favorite band on stage, you’re watching your favorite band on stage on someone’s palm-sized smart phone screen. Sometimes if you’re really lucky, you’re watching the band on someone’s phone on someone else’s phone, because inevitably there are more people using their phones in front of the person in front of you, who captures the preceding phones on his or her phone. It’s like gig Inception.
As much as friendly camaraderie might rule the concert, it’s difficult not to feel the least bit impatient about a phone in your line of sight. The same frustration crops up in other public arenas as well, museums not being the least of these.
In a blog post titled “Museum Photo Policies Should Be As Open As Possible“, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History Executive Director Nina Simon implores museums to consider why they have the photography policies they do, and to ask themselves if the policies are visitor-focused. She cites five reasons why museums may restrict photography in certain galleries (or museum-wide), one of which is “aesthetics of experience”; some visitors may find other visitors taking photographs of objects or art distracting, or they may feel it undermines the true value of the piece.
Simon contends that by allowing visitors to take pictures within the museum, the museum is empowering its audience to “memorialize” its experiences, as well as interact with the museum on different terms. Additionally, public museums hold objects and art in trust for its audience, making their visitors co-owners of their collections. If museums restrict what the public can or cannot photograph, then that co-ownership is undermined, perhaps unfairly.
Of course, there are inappropriate times to take pictures in galleries, especially if photography would cause harm to a piece of art or an object. But protective and licensing contingencies aside, is there a legitimate reason why visitors should not be allowed to take photographs in the museum? Are the preferences of a few justification to restrict the actions of all? Museums promote enculturation; we are taught to behave in certain ways when we walk through the doors, and we adhere to those social norms without much thought. Is this another “lesson” that the museum must teach us? Personally, I agree with Simon on this point: photography in museums not only allows visitors to document their experiences in ways meaningful to them, but it can help promote the museum through social media. Naturally not everyone will interact with the same object in the same way, but restricting how people can interact with the museum isn’t benefiting anyone, and it may actually harm the museum’s reputation by making it seem elitist.
I’m interested to hear others’ takes on the subject. This is an ongoing debate, and it won’t be approached the same way in every museum. When you visit museums, do you photograph what you see? Why? Do you think photography in museums is permissible, or is it a distraction that should be replaced by some other form of experiential interaction?