Monday, 8 April 2013

Say "click"!

When I visited the Museum of Vienna a few weeks ago, what mostly caught my attention was Unter 10, a temporary exhibition of objects from the museum collection that measured under 10 centimetres. I thought it was an original subject for a city museum exhibition. When I arrived at the exhibition entrance, I was very pleased to read the well-written introductory text, to contemplate the excellent graphic design and also a visually impressive panel with rows of hanging magnifying glasses, waiting to be picked up by visitors in order to explore the miniatures exhibition.

I asked two guards near the entrance if I could take a photo of the panels. They looked at each other not really knowing what to answer. The younger one said “I guess so, why not. But again... I am new around here.” The other guard went inside to ask a colleague of his and came back with the verdict: ‘no’. Visitors could not take photos of the exhibition, but, if I wished, I could buy the catalogue... I explained that I didn´t want photos of objects, I just wanted a photo of the entrance panels for my classes. They seemed to feel sorry, but... ‘no’. The next day I wrote to the museum director. I explained what had happened, I said it was a pity the museum wouldn´t allow visitors to take photos and I asked if they could send me a photo of the entrance panels from the museum archive to use for my classes. Not even that, a question of copyright... (?)

It´s a great thing to be able to take photos in museums. In my particular case, because  I am always looking for (good and bad) examples to illustrate my classes. I suppose that many more people take photos for professional reasons (and no, bying the catalogue is not an answer to our needs...). In most museums I visited in the last years, photography was allowed and it was a big relief. I immediately felt more at ease. In some cases, though, when I explained I wanted the photos for my classes, I first had to sign a paper that I wouldn´t use them for commercials purposes. In other cases, museum staff couldn´t make up their minds, asked me to wait until they could talk to someone else and by the time I was leaving the museum thay hadn´t had an answer for me yet...

But I also like to see other visitors taking photos in museums: of a famous work of art, of a favourite work of art, of an exhibit that particularly drew their attention or touched them in a special way or raised their curiosity or will be a reminder of their experience (and no, buying postcards is not the same thing...).

When discussing photography in museum, It´s Time We Met immediately comes to mind: the brilliant initiative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where photos taken by visitors in the museum enter a competition and are then selected for the museum´s promotional materials. What a great way to engage visitors, to share their enthusiasm, to promote the museum itself (at no cost...). Here in Portugal, our colleague Inês Fialho Brandão also organized a competition on Flickr in 2010, called Museus de Portas Abertas (Museums with Open Doors) for the Municipal Museums of Cascais. Following the success of the initiative, the Municipality decided to lift the ban on museum photography. They don´t seem to have regretted it... At the same time, the Powerhouse Museum shows to be quite understanding with the visitors´ needs to take photos, for personal or professional reasons, and actually encourages them to share them with the museum... (see here) It´s a matter of attitude.

Some museums around the world adapted quickly to the new realities created by digital technology and social media in the way people of all ages experience museum visits. Others are now in the process of adapting, feeling the need to keep up and engage in new ways with their visitors. Other museums stubbornly go against the tide and in some cases, if we ask ‘why’, the museum guards are not able to explain anymore. It seems it´s because it has always been like this and nobody has told them otherwise. One of the funniest moments for me lately was at the National Museum of Ukrainian Art, where at the entrance of each room there was a clear sign (the usual icon of the camera) that photography was not allowed. So, a young visitor was taking photos of every painting with his cell phone and the guards looked at him but didn´t interfere... Does this mean, cameras no way, cell phones OK? I din´t dare to take my camera out...

The case that has intrigued me the most in what concerns photography in museums is that of France. On the one hand, because professionals in the field had actually to address the Ministry of Culture and propose a working group to reflect on this issue (read here and here). I was surprised that there was a need for all that... On the other hand, the rather fundamentalist attitude of Musée d´Orsay – which since 2010 prohibits photography both of objects and the museum building itself - probably explains why things had to be discussed at the highest level. The prohibition at the Musée d´Orsay is officially justified by the fact that guards were finding it hard to control the use of flash, because visitors taking photos were slowing down the pace of everyone else and because there was a danger for the art works. To all this, the President of the Museum, Guy Cogeval, added another – highly questionable – reason: the fact that visitors taking photos would not actually look at the works of art and would not allow others to do so either. “My God”, one may read in a interview published in an exhibition catalogue, “we are going back to a time of barbarity.” (read here).

Photo taken 'unlawfully' by the author at the Musée d´Orsay. Couldn´t resist...

Photography in museums may actually pose some practical problems, but many museums (and even the visitors themselves) seem to have found ways to solve them. It may also raise issues of copyright in what concerns contemporary art - although it´s quite funny to see sometimes that one work of art may not be photographed in one museum, but may be in another... But the fact is that allowing photos has brought a number of benefits both for the museum-visitor relationship and, eventually, for the promotion of the museum itself, through the advertising channel that has always worked best: word-of-mouth. I definitely don´t see an act of barbarity in it. I see people who wish to register an experience (hopefully, a good one), to share it with others. The way one lives this experience may have nothing to do with what the curator had idealised, but that has always been the case in museums, hasn´t it?


Visiteurs Photographes au Musée
, edited by Serge Chaumier, Anne Krebs et Mélanie Roustan, was published in February and brings together a number of very interesting essays grouped in three parts: I. Interdire / autoriser. Le juridique au centre de la controverse?; II. Du côté des visiteurs. Pratiques photographiques et usages des photographies; III. La photographie comme instrument des politiques des publics. Read the presentation of the book by Mélanie Roustan here.

Further readings

Orsay Commons, an interview with Julien Dorra (also in portuguese in Reprograme, p.130)

1 comment:

Ines Fialho Brandao said...


Thank you for the shout-out! I have pasted some information regarding the initiative below.

I jsut wanted to underline that the change in policy could not have happened without the support of the manager of each museum, and of the Head of Division of Municipal Museums, Carla Varela Fernandes, my supervisor at the time.

Inês Fialho Brandão

Museums with Open Doors! was a photographic competition held by the Municipal Museums of Cascais, between May and June 2010. Inspired in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's It's Time We Met!, it encouraged visitors to capture "open doors" moments within seven museums of Cascais - Counts of Castro Guimaraes Library-Museum; King D. Carlos Sea Museum; Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum; Santa Maria House; Portuguese Music Museum; Oitavos Fort; and Alcabideche windmill.

Until then, photography within these buildings was forbidden, and this policy was temporarily suspended to allow for the competition to take place. In my opinion, the results were mixed. On one hand only a small percentage of the more than 100 images received illustrated the use of museums by the public, opting instead to focus on specific objects - perhaps a reflection of visitors eagerness to take advantage of what at the time was a temporary suspension of this policy.

On the other hand, this initiative demonstrated that objects did not suffer from non-flash photography within the museums, and that visitor photography was in fact a means of museum promotion and visitor community building. As such, what started as a temporary initiative became a permanent policy, thus promoting greater and better access to the museum spaces and contents of the museums of Cascais.