In Defense of Museum Photography


This report made the museum-people-on-the-Internet rounds several weeks ago, and I am finally putting down my camera long enough to write a response. The study validates everyone who’s ever said that museum photography is a bad thing – not because the flash damages objects, or because of legal copyright issues – but because it is the antithesis of all aspects of the correct and proper way to experience museums. The prevailing explanation is that photographing an object gets in the way of actually engaging with the object.

The experiment found that visitors who photographed objects in a museum remembered less about the objects than visitors who were told only to observe the objects. These results would indeed be damning for museum photography – if the sole purpose of museums were to memorize what objects look like.

I don’t doubt the results, at least not based on my understanding of my own cognitive functioning. If I am not able to photograph something, and I know I’ll want to remember it later, of course I’ll observe it more closely – it’s my only chance to do so. But I would rather take a photo, because my memory is imperfect, and a picture is something I can closely observe again and again.

The study included some caveats; for example, visitors who zoomed in on parts of an object with the camera actually had enhanced memories of the objects. Maybe photography can be a way of interacting with museum displays after all?

As a very shutter-happy person, I take photos in any museum that will let me. I tend to take a lot of shots, for a lot of reasons:

Documentary/stock photos: These images just show what is there, what things look like. They are basic shots of buildings, exhibits, or objects. They make up my own stock of photos that I can use in my blog, since I never steal stock photos from the Internet and paste them here. The photos might be the ones people say look like postcards, which my photography professor used to say is an insult.

My family, being very obliging at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

My family, being very obliging at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Snapshots of people: These photos correspond with the facilitator museum identity. If I am visiting a museum with family or friends, I might take candid shots or, if I am feeling bold, ask them to pose. I take these photos for the social memories, just as I take pictures of people with their birthday cakes.

When I asked friends why they might take photographs in a museum, a few mentioned taking photos of family members. They wish to share the memories later, both with people who were part of the museum outing and people who couldn’t be there.

These photos of people in museums are often photos of people engaging with the museum in some way.  And some might end up being good photos of people, not mere snapshots.

Photos of things I want to remember or research later: These photos are usually images of text. Maybe the museum is crowded, or my companions are telling me to hurry up. Accordingly, I capture the wall text so I can read it later when I have more time. Or perhaps the text includes something fascinating that I’ll want to Google when I get home so I can learn even more. (I was, until very recently, smartphone-less, and while the smartphone is great for quickly looking something up, I prefer to be sitting at my computer for in-depth research). Or maybe I want the exact wording of the exhibit script, so I can quote it here.

Artsy Photos: These are the photos that make proud as a photographer – and of course, all the failed attempts. I am referring to images that don’t just show what (or who) is there, but which also involve my own creative contribution. They tend to be photos of parts, angles, light, shadows, reflections, juxtapositions. And they usually involve engaging with museum objects.

*

I’ll be the first to admit that, yes, I sometimes do use photography as a substitute for processing what’s in front of me. I might be thinking, I’m a bit distracted now (and/or I’ve already been reading and absorbing information here for an hour and my brain can’t hold much more), so I’ll take a picture that I can examine later.

But photography is also one of many tools visitors can use to learn more, not less. Visitors can learn by conversing, mentally evaluating, taking notes, sketching, playing the games and pushing the buttons in the exhibition, reading, listening, scanning the QR card, looking carefully… and photographing. Nina Simon has argued in favor of making museum photography policies “as open as possible,” and the recent #MuseumSelfie day encouraged people to photograph themselves with museum pieces.

Museum photography will not be for everyone, but a camera does not inherently contaminate the museum experience.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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4 Responses to In Defense of Museum Photography

  1. robertlfs says:

    In line with your documentary category, a good number of my photos in museums I use in teaching to provide general examples and what works and what does not work.

  2. glad i’m not the only one taking pictures of label copy!

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