While the majority of experience-based museums like children's and science museums have unrestricted noncommercial photography policies, many collections-based art and history museums continue to maintain highly restrictive photo policies. As I understand it, there are five main arguments for restrictive policies:
- Intellectual Property: Museums must respect diverse intellectual property agreements with donors and lenders, and in institutions where some objects are photographable and others not, it's often easier to use the most restrictive agreements as the basis for institutional policies.
- Conservation: Objects may be damaged by flash photography. Some conservators argue that if non-flash photography is permitted, light levels in the galleries may be increased to accommodate visitors' cameras, which indirectly damage artifacts.
- Revenue Streams: Museums want to maintain control of sales of "officially sanctioned" images of objects via catalogues and postcards. If people can take their own photos, they won't buy them in the gift shop.
- Aesthetics of Experience: Photo-taking is distracting for other visitors. Looking at artwork through a lens means you are having a less rich experience. Visitors may make inappropriate gestures in photos with museum content, thus distorting institutional values and intent.
- Security: Photographers might take photos with intent to do harm; for example, with plans to rob the museum or stalk another visitor.
To me, an open photo policy is a cornerstone of any institution that sees itself as a visitor-centered platform for participatory engagement. Here are five reasons I think museums should have totally open photo policies:
- As long as it does not promote unsafe conditions for artifacts or people or illegal behavior, museums should prioritize providing opportunities for visitors to engage in ways that are familiar and comfortable to them. Yes, some people (especially vocal museum staff!) hate the sight of people taking photos in museums. But what about visitors? If your argument is based on visitor comfort and distraction, it should be backed up by visitor research, not personal impressions. Would staff members who hate photography be comparably disturbed by visitors sketching in the galleries? Sketching takes up more space and is more distracting than photo-taking (and pencils could be used to damage objects!), and yet many museum professionals look benevolently upon that activity as a positive meaning-making visitor experience. This is prejudicial treatment. I know that many people are uncomfortable with the growing culture of self-documentation, but no one should let their own aesthetic preferences dictate others' behavior without good reason.
- Restrictive policies erode staff/visitor relations and overall museum mission statements around inclusion. The majority of cellphones now have cameras embedded in them, which means that many visitors are walking through your doors with camera in hand. Visitors get upset when they are told to put their cameras away, and it is becoming increasingly hard for guards (and, down the road, marketing staff) to control the taking of photographs and their spread on the Web. Telling visitors that they can't take photos in museums reinforces the sense that the museum is an external authority that owns and controls its objects rather than a shared public resource. How can visitors be "co-owners" of museums if they can't own an image from their experience?
- Photo-taking allows visitors to memorialize and make meaning from museum experiences. There have been several studies that show that creating a personal record of an experience and reviewing it later increases learning and retention of content. When visitors flip through photos from their trip, they are more likely to recall their interest in a given artifact or exhibit than without visual aids. And it's not just about recall. There are thriving groups of Flickr users who share photos of themselves imitating art. When my mom, sister and I visited the de Young sculpture garden, we spent about an hour posing alongside the sculptures, which forced us to spend a lot of time carefully observing the art and directing each other into position (see above photo). We spent significantly more time with the art to create these photos than we would have had we just been strolling through.
- Visitors use personal photos differently from store-bought ones. The majority of visitors use their cameras to casually record their personal and social experiences, not to take authoritative images of artifacts. A visitor who wants a picture of "mom with the giant penis statue" wants something that the museum is not selling. Visitors who want "the best shot ever of the penis statue" are still likely to buy in the store. And even if visitors do take authoritative (noncommercial) shots, they are unlikely to reduce sales. A great shot of your institution, shared on Flickr, serves as a free piece of marketing that may generate ticket sales. How do you measure the potential lost income from a photographer not buying a postcard against the online impressions his photo makes on others? In the related world of online image licensing, some museums have done studies of the affect of open digital photo distribution on their revenue from image licensing and have seen flat or positive effects from the actions, not negative ones (see this in-depth paper from the Powerhouse Museum).
- When people share their photos of your museum, they promote and spread your content to new audiences in authentic ways. In 2008, a team led by MIT media researcher Henry Jenkins published a white paper entitled, "If it Doesn't Spread, It's Dead," which argues that media artifacts have greatest impact when consumers are able to pass on, reuse, adapt, and remix them. There are two parts to this. First, every time a photo is shared, it extends the reach of your objects and exhibit stories. But perhaps more importantly, Jenkins argues that the creative adaptation of cultural objects through photos and other spreading tools supports communities' "processes of meaning making, as people use tools at their disposal to explain the world around them."
"So what is spreadable media good for?
- To generate active commitment from the audience,
- To empower them and make them an integral part of your product's success,
- To benefit from online word-of-mouth
- To reach niche, highly interconnected audiences,
- but most of all, to communicate with audiences where they already are, and in a way that they value.
Of course, museums shouldn't let marketing desires, popular opinion, or cultural forces drive all decisions. The intellectual property arguments in particular are very complex and should be taken seriously. But visitors and visitor research deserve voices in the discussion about whether photo policies are open or closed. The cultural and educational value of spreadability deserves weight in decision-making. From my perspective, this value is so high that I'd recommend museums think twice about taking on temporary exhibitions or loans that would endanger the ability to allow visitors to take photos across the institution.
Those who have the most to lose are those companies which:
- have well established brand messages
- have messages that are predictably delivered through broadcast channels
- who are concerned about a loss of control over their intellectual property
- who have reason to fear backlash from their consumers.
Even here, remaining outside of the spreadable model altogether may cut them off from younger and more digitally connected consumers who spend less time consuming traditional broadcast content or who are increasingly suspicious of top-down advertising campaigns."
And one final thought on this topic: I've been surprised to learn that some museums have restrictive photo policies and aren't sure why. I've heard stories of museum staff at two large institutions trying to figure out who "owns" the policy--conservation, marketing, curatorial, etc.--so that it might be revised. If you don't know why you restrict photography in your institution, please think about both the benefits AND the drawbacks of allowing photography before you perpetuate the policy.