Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Blame the Crowd, Not the Camera: Challenges to a New Open Photo Policy at the National Gallery

Reader, I was wrong.

Five years ago, I wrote a post arguing that museum photo policies should be as open as possible. I believe that the ability to take photographs (no flash) in a museum greatly increases many people's abilities to personalize, memorialize, and enjoy the experience. I still feel that way. Mostly. But this past week, a string of stories from London have changed my perspective.

Several come from an aptly-named blog: Grumpy Art Historian. Blogger Michael Savage and I rarely see eye-to-eye, and that's why I love reading his posts. Last week, he wrote a series of posts about the British National Gallery's reversal of their photo policy. For the first time, the National Gallery is permitting non-flash photography.

The result appears to be a total mess. Lots of flashes. Mobs of ipads. Dangerous leaning and touching. A swarm of cameras everywhere. The paintings have become beleaguered celebrities, pursued by mobs of novice paparazzi.

Reading Michael's posts carefully, it seems that the cameras are not the ultimate culprits. Cameras weaponize an already unwieldy mob of people. They are the sidearms of packed-in novelty seekers. A scene like the one shown above is not just a mess because of the bevy of phones and cameras. It's a mess because of the crowd.

A packed crowd in a museum turns a free-choice viewing environment into a programmed event. You are stuck with the people around you, in front of you, shoving up behind you. Suddenly, a visual distraction like a camera--innocuous in an uncrowded space--becomes as bad as someone talking in the movie theater. You can't not see their camera. You are all in the same space.

Why is this gallery so crowded? Because it's famous. Michael notes that other parts of the National Gallery are still relatively quiet and manageable. But the star paintings--the Van Gogh sunflowers, the Botticelli virgins--are mobbed.

The cult of celebrity is strongest in fields where the general public knows little. How many opera singers can you name? How many painters? How many museums? The biggest museums get the most traffic--and primarily therein to the big name artworks in their collections. There are plenty of galleries in the Louvre that are empty. The one with the Mona Lisa will never be one of them.

Museums have exacerbated this cult of celebrity through an emphasis on blockbuster exhibitions and traveling shows that "package" the greatest hits into must-see moments. We push the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the art. And then the crowds show up. They were told they must not miss it. They had better capture the moment however they can! And so the crowds shuffle through, cameras dutifully in hand. The art gets captured like a lame animal in a game park, instead of the wild thing it is.

Thinking about all of this, I remembered Don Delillo's beautiful bit in White Noise about the most photographed barn in America. Two of the characters in the novel go out to see this barn, and to see all the people taking pictures of it. One of them, Murray, says,
"No one sees the barn... Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see.  The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
The barn, like Van Gogh's sunflowers, is a tamed thing. With every click, it becomes less a barn and more a likeness of a barn. It is sacrificed to the continuous capture of its likeness.

I'm OK with this happening to a barn in a novel. I'm not sure I'm OK with it happening to art and cultural artifacts.

Is there an alternative?

Michael Savage might say: turn back the photo policy. Get rid of the cameras. But I think the cameras are a distraction. The real thing we have to get rid of is the crowding.

I'm heading out next week on vacation, camping in the high Sierras. To do this, I have to get a wilderness permit. To do that, I either had to plan way in advance (I didn't) or I have to get up at 5am to stand in line for three hours to get a permit (I will).

There are wilderness permits for the same reasons there are restrictions on visitors to museums: to protect the artifacts (nature) and to ensure the safety and positive experiences of the participants.

The permitting system doesn't apply to the whole park - just the parts that are most vulnerable. The permitting system is not primarily based on money; anyone can get a permit for a reasonable rate. It is based on the idea that there is a maximum capacity for safe and positive wilderness experiences, and that there are rules and systems that have to be put in place to ensure that capacity is not exceeded.

There is a maximum capacity for safe and positive experiences with art in museums. The right capacity absorbs diversity in learning styles. Some people can sketch in museums. Some people can take photos. Some people can talk. Some people can look. Any of these actions can be catalysts for deep and meaningful engagement. And they can all do all of these things peaceably if there is enough breathing room among them.

I think of the best museums as generous places. They welcome different people spending different amounts of time doing different things to connect with the work on display. If they are popular museums, they support people visiting at many hours of the day to be able to have a good experience despite the demand.

Crowded places become parsimonious places. They are transactional by necessity. Every deviance from our own preferred mode of engagement becomes more visible and frustrating. Diversity breeds name-calling instead of understanding.

Let's find a way to build generosity back into the operation of the largest museums in the world. Let Van Gogh be Van Gogh. Let the people experience the sunflowers in their own way, with their own bit of space and time. We need to build systems that let visitors, and art, bloom.
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