I’ve been thinking a lot about personal photography and museums recently. As a civilian photographer it’s become a habit to ask, as soon as I enter a museum, ‘what’s your photography policy?’ And while I’m frequently pleasantly surprised to find that the policy is ‘please take photographs’, I’m also often surprised to have to sign a contract or wear a special sticker to be able to take photographs in a (usually publicly-funded museum). It’s sometimes baffling, and a little frustrating.
At the same time, in my professional life I run more than a few Flickr pools, where I actively solicit photographs taken in or around my museum.This is a bog-standard activity for most museums these days, and for museum staff who prize ‘social’ (which is usually to say: online community-based) interactions with their audiences, photography can be very important.
In order to try to unpick this apparent contradiction, I recently disseminated a short survey to museum professionals in an attempt to understand the current status of public photography in museums. I particularly wanted to find out what the factors determining permission to take photographs are, and whether they were in flux. The sample wasn’t particularly large or scientific , but I think I got a large enough set of responses (52) to get a sense of some interesting answers. I asked four questions: results and short commentary follow; there’s a longer interpretation at the end.
As a civilian photographer, I found the results encouraging — it looks like the pendulum is swinging towards greater permission for photography. As a museum professional, I found it slightly less encouraging: I think there are some barriers to greater photographic freedom that I have less power over and will be harder to dismantle.
1. Is photography permitted in permanent exhibitions in your gallery?
Over half the museums responding indicated that photography was permitted, and that their understanding of ‘personal’ use included posting photos to social websites. Reasons for complication included loan objects in permanent collections, and official ambivalence:
“allowed for non-commercial purposes”
“officially it’s prohibited but staff are allowed to turn a blind eye”
2. Is photography permitted in temporary exhibitions in your gallery?
Temporary exhibitions present a very different picture. Prohibition and complication together form the majority of cases, with less than a quarter of museums freely permitting personal/social photography.
The reason for complication? Overwhelmingly, restrictions are external to the institution itself:
“depends on the owner(s) of the displayed objects”
“photographic restriction from the lender”;
“depends on the temporary exhibition and the policy of the lender of individual objects or whole exhibitions”
“depends on the restrictions required by borrowers”
“depends on any restrictions placed by artists, funders or lenders”
“some touring exhibitions don’t allow photography”.
The significant difference between permanent and temporary exhibitions suggests that this isn’t a conservation issue but one of intellectual property rights. Particularly where a temporary exhibition involves loans from multiple sources or commercial galleries and contemporary artists, public photography seems tricky to broker. It probably isn’t at the top of most exhibition organisers’ priority lists either.
But is this a static state of affairs? I also asked:
3. Has your photography policy changed in the last three years?
The results suggest that the situation is in flux, and that museums and galleries are moving towards a more photographically permissive environment.
Lastly, I asked for general comments.
4. Is there anything else about photography in your gallery or museum that you’d like to add?
These fall into a number of categories.
Straightforward issues of access:
“Especially for paper objects it’s a wonderful non-damaging way for people to take copies away with them.”
“For loans from other institutions we need to change the policy”
A suggestion, opposed to the general utopian current of capturing and sharing, that photography might be a mildly antisocial activity:
“A lot of visitors do not even ask if photography is permitted, but assume that they have a right to photograph any thing that they wish. Are there any suggested formula for a notice explaining the restrictions especially if other visitors are captured in the shots”
The disproportionate use of institutional resources in policing any policy.
“It may be all well and good to have a policy but policing it, especially if restrictive, is another matter entirely! Resource intense”
An awareness of the online ‘social’ environment.
“We have several Flickr pools into which we invite images, some of which are of the venue/gallery”
“Very hard to stop now with the spread of smartphones.”
A recognition of the distinct natures of photography and museums (my personal favourite)
“photography posted online or in print is neither a substitute for the museum experience, nor threat to attendance”
What might all this mean? Photography is rapidly evolving as a digital and social artform. ‘Personal’ photographs aren’t kept in lonely handfuls in albums any more waiting for their annual viewing to relatives; they’re published, labelled, tagged and discussed, part of an ongoing flow of conversation involving text and images. Perhaps you could say that ‘interpersonal photography’ has replaced ‘personal’ photography.
Photography in museums can therefore also be a complex thing. When you’re taking a photograph, you could be doing any one of a number of things, not just ‘capturing’ but also interpreting. You might be:
- Making a ‘copy’ of the artwork/object you’re looking at for later contemplation
- Capturing a moment: the moment of the visit; or a temporary exhibition
- Sharing the experience of visiting a museum with friends, communities of interest, and strangers
- Interpreting a work or object that you’re looking at: using a photograph to understand what you’ve seen
The results of the survey seem to me to reinforce an almost cruel irony. The museum objects which you are allowed to photograph are often those least in need of personal capture and interpretation (they’re always there, many images of them already exist, they have been catalogued and interpreted) whereas the things that might benefit most from personal photography are those to which there is least access.
It’s quite easy to take pictures of objects at the V&A, for example: individual objects which are on permanent display and have already been photographed many times before. By contrast, Michelangelo Pistoletto’s temporary exhibition at the Serpentine is large, complex, immersive and will soon disappear, but photography is strictly forbidden. You just have to look at the selection of photos on Flickr taken in Mike Nelson’s Coral Reef installation to see the layers of meaning and interpretation that mass social photography can bring to a rich, allusive work of contemporary art.
The ubiquity of multipurpose mobile devices makes things more difficult. It’s going to be hard for museums to be plastering their objects and displays with QR codes at the same time as attempting to restrict the use of the only device that can make sense of a QR code (a digital camera).
Outside in the real world, street photography is booming, but pervasive digital imaging has also become cause for conflict. In some places photography is seen as an essentially suspect activity, framed by an ‘anti-terror’ agenda. The response from amateur photographers has been to organise pressure groups, and also to inform themselves of their rights, sometimes in the form of a ‘bust card’ that contains a lawyerly summary of photographers’ rights which can be used in negotiation with representatives of authority. Interestingly, this particular bust card includes a passage that could easily be taken to refer to most public exhibitions, whether permanent or temporary.
It is not an infringement of copyright to take photographs of buildings, sculptures and works of artistic craftsmanship that are permanently situated in a public place or in premises that are open to the public.
So while the results of the survey seem to demonstrate that museums understand that the issue is ‘rights’ in the intellectual property inside the museum; whether this is compatible with the ‘rights’ of the public to capture and interpret their world, including its cultural heritage, through photography is less certain.
I’d be very interested to hear of others’ experiences and viewpoints, both from photographers and museum professionals. Post in the comments below, or talk to me on twitter.
 I disseminated the survey through my personal networks of professional contacts on Facebook, Twitter, Google +, The Museums Computer Group JISCMail list, and the Museum 3 community. The small sample was balanced, including both big and small museums, art galleries and social history museums.
 I’ve been inspired by this exercise to try and make a much clearer and more welcoming statement about photography for my own institution. (Now everybody else just has to do the same thing & make them machine-readable using a universally-agreed XML standard.)