Selfie Culture Has Some Art Museums Caving on Strict No-Photo Policies

Museum behaviour has always been synonymous with restriction: Don’t raise your voice, don’t wear backpacks, and certainly don’t touch the art. One rule, though—don’t take photographs—has been entirely done away with by some museums, and is under reconsideration by dozens of others.

There are obvious benefits to allowing non-commercial photography. Given free rein, every visitor with an Instagram account becomes a potential publicist for the museum. But there are downsides, too. Conservation is the biggest: The jury’s still out as to whether cell phone flashes cause fading, and if a visitor is focused on taking a self portrait, there’s a higher likelihood of banging into the art. “We have plaster casts on ledges,” says Tom Ryley, communications officer of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. “If you’re taking a photograph, you might back into them by mistake.”

Not coincidentally, there’s a growing stack of literature about the pernicious effect of mixing museums and social media. Too many people, the critique goes, are photographing art with their smartphones and then walking away. The art itself is merely glanced at, if at all.

Selfie Culture Meets Actual Culture

Various commentators have noted that this is a byproduct of selfie culture; art effectively has become a scrim for self-portraits. “Museums,” writes the critic Rob Horning in Even Magazine, “are no longer spaces in which to experience art, but rather spaces in which to perform the self having art experiences.”

Anyone with a social media account can see that this is true: Even if people aren’t posing with art in museums, they’re certainly posting it. (Earlier this year, the Russian ministry of Culture’s official twitter account sent out a tweet promoting “MuseumSelfieDay.”)

And anyone who’s actually been to a museum in the last few years knows that many visitors (of all age groups and nationalities) seem compelled to interact with art by using their screens as an intermediary.

“Personally, what I’ve noticed is that people spend more time taking pictures than looking at pieces of art,” says Benoit Parayre, the director of communications at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. “They take a picture, and don’t even stop in front of the paintings and discover it.”

The question, then, is how museums are responding to this trend, if at all. Virtually all institutions ban flash photography, and all banned selfie sticks almost as soon as they were invented. But individual administrations have since taken very different approaches to the selfie phenomenon. The choice, museum representatives say, isn’t simply a question of boosting attendance or restricting it. Photography policy has become a defining standpoint on what museums can, should, and will represent to their visitors.

“From a museum perspective, it is wonderful that people are memorializing their experiences,” says Kenneth Weine, the chief communications officer at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “As a marketer, it’s very important to us that this channel is available, because we at the Met want to be accessible to the widest audience possible.”

No Photography, Period

A surprising number of museums have an outright ban on photography. The Prado in Madrid, which has 79 works by Velazquez, 42 El Grecos, and 43 Titians, doesn’t allow photos or filming during museum hours, according to a press representative at the museum.

The Soane’s Museum is even more draconian: Visitors to the 19th century mansion are given clear plastic bags in which to carry any personal items, and an (extremely) polite attendant requests that they turn off their phones.

The museum’s website states: “Photography is not permitted as this maintains the unique, magical atmosphere inside.” The policy, Ryley says, has always been in place. “We have a time-capsule quality to the museum,” he says. “It was meant to be preserved exactly as Soane left it, so that kind of historic atmosphere is more ably preserved by preventing phones and photography.”

Logistically, “It’s quite a deceptively small museum,” he explains. “Given how narrow some of the doorways are, and how packed the museum is with objects, in terms of visitor flow, photography would be quite disruptive.”

Some Photography in Some Places

There’s barely photography allowed in the Frick Collection in New York. The only area where it’s permitted, says Heidi Rosenau, the Frick’s communication director, is in the museum’s interior Garden Court. “In an effort to maintain a residential feel, we forgo the customary abundance of ropes/barriers/vitrines that can make other museums feel institutional,” she says. “We tried a more open photo policy, but noticed how often visitors were spotted nearly backing into objects. Hence the shift of photography to the Garden Court.”

Similarly, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam allows photography only in its entrance hall and at dedicated “selfie walls.” The logic, the museum’s website states, is to “avoid causing nuisance to other visitors.”

The Tate Gallery in London allows photography in its main galleries, which house its permanent collection. On the other hand, photography in its temporary exhibitions, where works have been loaned to the museum by private collectors and other museums, “is never permitted at any time,” according the museum’s policies.

Go for It

Dozens of major museums, though, have embraced visitors’ posting images of themselves and the art to social media. “The most important principle of course, with us, begins with protecting the art and the visitors,” says Weine, of the Met. Beyond that, he continues, “we get great joy seeing visitors projecting [their time at the Met] out on Instagram and other channels—it’s very encouraging.”

At San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, “our policy is that we encourage non-flash, non-commercial photography,” says Jennifer Northrop, the museum’s chief marketing officer. “I wouldn’t say that we’re terribly aggressive about it, but we definitely encourage it.” The museum, she says, uses software to capture user-generated content on social media, in order to repost users’ images “with their permission,” she adds.

Many people have started to use the museums as backdrops for their engagement photographs, while some amateur clothing designers have started a trend of “creating clothing that’s reminiscent of a particular work of art, and then coming and posing with it,” Northrop says.

Parayre at the Pompidou is slightly less enthusiastic, though equally permissive. “It’s very simple with us,” he says. “You can take any photo of anything you like, if you use it for your own purposes,” he says. “The only restriction is selfie sticks, because so many bad things happen with those.” (The stick, it turns out, is occasionally wielded as a bat.) Parayre would love it, he says, if visitors took a bit more time with the actual art, “to actually speak about the piece of art and explain to people that they should enjoy it, and discover it, and open your heart to it,” he says. “Then you can take a picture.”

Banning photography, he continues, is a losing battle. “Then they would hide and do it anyway,” he says. “Because it’s even more fun to take a picture when it’s forbidden.”

But … Should You?

Given the nature of my job (and love of art), I go to a lot of museums in a lot of places. The experience, from Shanghai to Rio to Los Angeles to New York, is always the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s a press preview, a private reception, or a regular weekday: People stand in front of art and stick out their phone.

I used to find the practice benign. Recently, I’ve begun to find it problematic. Not just because it’s a nuisance, but because it changes the physical process of looking at art. When everyone around me is trying to take a photo of whatever it is I’m looking at, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that I’m actively blocking their shot. You can’t enjoy a painting if you know someone just wants you out of the way. Or at least, I can’t.

I agree that there’s a time and place to photograph art—I do it sometimes, too—but I’d happily trade the right to take an occasional museum photo for a total ban on them altogether.

But I’m aware that I’m in the minority, and I’m also aware that my way of engaging with the art is no better or worse than anyone else.

“One could say the same thing about a gorgeous hike in the Catskills,” says Weine. “Should you have your phone out and capture it? Or should you just enjoy walking in the woods? I would embrace different individual choices for different individuals.”