Monday 5 January 2015

To take 'no' for an answer

The Acropolis Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
When I was last at the Acropolis Museum and while taking some photos in the sculptures gallery, I was approached by a guard who kindly informed me that I couldn´t take photos in that room and also quickly informed me of the  areas where I could take photos. No explanation was given to me as to why that distinction was made. When a bit later I took a photo of a label (not an exhibit, a label), another guard saw me and made sure to inform her colleagues that I should be watched. She also followed my every step...

All this being very uncomfortable for me – and, I am sure, for the guards too -, I took the opportunity of questioning an archaeologist who was in the room in order to answer visitors’ questions. She explained to me that some of the statues preserve their original colours, that flash could be harmful, and that, as it’s not possible for the guards to control the use of flash, the museum thought better to totally prohibit photography. I thought that I took her by surprise when I asked why the museum doesn’t actually assume its educational role and explain to visitors why flash mustn’t be used, instead of totally prohibiting photography in certain rooms (most digital cameras don’t need flash) and creating such an ambiguous policy regarding photography in the museum.

It was not something I invented at that moment. It occurred to me that, a couple of years ago, in the Workt by Hand exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum – composed of extremely fragile quilts, made in the last two centuries - the museum had chosen not to show the objects behind glass or surrounded by rope and at a distance. So, when entering the room, the visitor was asked to 

Brooklyn Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Some people might be thinking that this is a different culture, a more respectful one, but it is not the case. The Brooklyn Museum opens its doors to all sorts of visitors, with and without the habit of visiting museums, with and without specific knowledge regarding the objects and their preservation. It assumes its educational role, though, and doesn´t simply expect visitors to take ‘no’ for an answer, just because the museum said so, without further explanation.

Little after my visit to the Acropolis Museum, I read an article in the Guardian about the fundamental role of ushers in theatres, especially regarding disruptive audiences. In the article, we are given the example of Stratford East Theatre, where ushers and front-of-house staff are trained to deal with such situations. And more: at a theatre which has “a particularly high number of first-time theatregoers, who sometimes need to be helped to understand what effect their behaviour is having, not just on other audience members but also on ushers and cast members”, the management chooses to invite them back “for backstage and front-of-house tours and maybe even to meet staff and casts, so that they can understand more about how a theatre works and how their behaviour impacts others”.

I believe it is part of the educational role of cultural institutions to help people better understand the details of the work that is being undertaken, but also their own role – the spectators’ and visitors’ role – so that it may be carried out in appropriate conditions for everyone involved. I believe it can be much more effective than simply saying ‘no’ to a certain behaviour or asking people to leave and it can also make them feel co-owners of and co-responsible for that work.

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Glenn Ingersoll said...

25 years ago I took a flash photo of a Michelangelo sculpture in the Louvre. A young guard rushed over to scold me and I immediately said I wouldn't do any such thing again. I would not have used the flash on a painting as I knew the pigments needed to be protected from light -- but unpainted stone?

I'm so glad the iPad I just took on my latest trip takes better photos without flash even in low light than I ever got with my old mechanical cameras. On the trip, however, there were places, including the museum in Phnom Penh, where no photography was allowed. When I asked the guide why he said it was so the museum could retain monopoly on the images. If you wanted a picture, in other words, you had to buy it from them. Maybe you could buy a license to take your own photos? I didn't ask.

Maria Vlachou said...

Thanks you for this, Glenn. Museums are not very clear some times about why they say "no" or they simply perpetuate practices that make no longer sense today. Other times, yes, they believe that by prohibiting photography they might sell more postacards (as for a visitor this was the same thing). Quite often also the guards themselves do not know why they must say "no" to visitors, so, when asked, they simply make up an answer. All this is neither professional nor honest on behalf od those museums. The truth is museums have the copyright of the photos they take but not of the objects themselves (the majority are in the public domain).