How many times did you see a no-photo sign in a museum or a similar place? In the recent years, it’s getting rare. This is an ethical guide to taking pictures in museums.
Taking pictures in museums may be problematic or harmful, but the truth is that most museums should allow their visitors to take pictures, under certain rules. Let me explain.
A brief history of the digital culture
In the spring of 2008, I once went from Zagreb to Vienna for a day trip. For most of us, it was still a pre-smartphone era. I was on Facebook already, but many of my friends and colleagues were not (yet). Sharing locations or instant moments online was a kind of sci-fi. Instagram didn’t exist. WhatsApp neither. Snapchat – what is this supposed to be??
I had a cute LG phone with a sliding keyboard (anyone remembers these models?) and a decent camera. Pictures taken at that time were nothing special, but… they served us to remember moments and places.
I went to Vienna primarily to visit an exhibition of treasures of ancient Egypt. It was one of those star exhibitions, widely promoted, well-visited, and on high budgets. It was also an exhibition full of wonderful piece of art.
I obviously wanted to take a picture with my phone, and I didn’t even check the photo policy. While adjusting my phone in front of the tiny statue located behind the glass, I was approached by a security telling me “keine photo” (no photo) with a cold voice, and no intention to be nice to me.
The Age of Selfies
Nine years later, we are living in the age of selfies. No place in the world can escape the overpicturing, oversharing, and overthinking as well. Museums are getting more and more popular.
In 2008, most of lesser known museums and galleries barely had visitors, usually due to lack of budgets for marketing or public relations and old-fashioned policies that attracted only frequent museum-goers. Nowadays most museums receive their own, sometimes very specific audiences. In many cases, such change is a lucky outcome of the social media oversharing culture.
There are also some darker consequences of our digital culture. Last year I was visiting a museum in Lisbon, it was a normal Sunday afternoon, the museum was not overcrowded, but it had a nice number of curious visitors flowing from room to room.
Suddenly we could hear a noise. Something fell down. The staff started running and I noticed what happened. In the room I was about to enter, someone rushed a medieval wooden statue, apparently trying to take a picture (or a selfie? I don’t know). Even though the staff managed to close the room within a few minutes to prevent visitors from entering until they clear up the situation, some people managed to take pictures of the statue on the floor, broken in two pieces (luckily it was wood and not ceramic!).
I have recently seen a number of news about people threatening precious items in museums because of a selfie. I know it’s not as bad as the case when they put their own life under threat for a selfie, but still… a destroyed medieval item is worth a “sad” or “angry” reaction on Facebook for most. For me, and other culture travelers, it’s always bad news.
Why is no-photo policy outdated?
Now, let’s go to my opinion about the topic. Banning photos from museums is pointless. While I know many people who not into photographing anything, who barely share 1 post on social media in a month, other will share everything they lived, experienced, and loved. The point is: these people are the gold mine of promotion for arts, culture, museums…
Sharing is caring. That phrase has been repeated over and over. The best advertisement for a museum is happy, amused, inspired visitors who recommend to their friends or followers to visit the same museum. Not by telling them to visit, but by showing their happy selfies, and fun moments they had in that museum.
How to take pictures in museums?
DO respect the policies.
Even though I disagree with such policies, I must say that there are places where such a policy makes sense. A museum in Croatia that has only one physical object (a Greek athlete!) has a simple policy – no photographing in the statue’s room, but visitors are free to take pictures in the rest of the museum. A bunch of beautifully designed rooms, staircases, and mirrors invite for a picture!
There was a similar policy in a private home in Portugal, where the owners reside, but it’s also opened to visitors as a museum. No pictures inside the home. Fair enough, it’s a private home. Can the lavish interiors be a kind of surprise?
The most important: don’t let your flash accidentally turn on! It’s not such a problem anymore, as it was in the age of compact camaras.
DON’T argue with securities or try to take pictures when “they are not looking”.
Don’t try to bring your professional camera or tripod into a museum. It may count as a professional shooting and you may need an authorization.
DO observe first.
Put your visit in the first place. Don’t start taking pictures immediately. Don’t do it as soon as you get into the entrance hall. Focus on what you want to discover, learn, enjoy. If a museum has its own app, don’t hesitate to download it. I really enjoyed the Solomon Guggenheim Museum app.
DON’T walk with your phone always in the hand.
Making a snap, a live video, an Instagram Story? That’s perfect. However, apart from this, don’t bother with preparing posts for social media. Keep your mind concentrated on the visit, and avoid getting too distracted from your phone.
DO notice the exhibition patterns
Before starting your visit to the exhibition area, try understanding the museum’s concept. Is it a classical museum with a sequence of rooms? Is it a home, a palace, castle or something like that? Is it a recently created museum with some kind of interactive concepts?
Above all, be careful where you stand for taking pictures. Don’t put anything in danger. Avoid losing the balance and rushing into an artwork, installation, or fence.
DON’T use walls, benches, or doors to stabilize your camera or phone.
In the parks and outdoors it’s okay. But when visiting a museum, respect the building and space. Don’t touch anything that is not designated for touching, even non-exhibition objects.
DO be considerate of other visitors
If the museum is very crowded it can be difficult to take good pictures. Someone will always be in front of your camera, and most people will not be that “nice” to stop for a second while you are taking a picture.
Know your boundaries and don’t try to take pictures of difficult places. While visiting the Castelvecchio Museum in Verona, I had hard times taking pictures of the place. I still took a few good shots and I valued quality over quantity.
DON’T get angry, upset, or nervous…
…because of the museum being crowded and being impossible to take a perfect shot.
DO plan your shots before you start taking pictures.
Here I can give a general advice how to visit a museum – learn about the museum you are visiting. Plan what matters to you. Do you need to remember the exhibition design, the beautiful architecture, or you want to have a picture of a particular artwork?
Prepare for taking pictures of specific moments. You will notice more things that will surprise you, and you will want to take more pictures, it’s normal. But having an initial plan is always a good idea.
DON’T get overwhelmed with the huge amount of interesting things in the museum.
Don’t try to photograph every single artwork. Don’t even try to photograph a 5% of things.
DO take selfies by the end of your visit only (or in the beginning)
All the previous point can be summarized as “be considerate”. The selfie thing requires another level of consideration. Taking pictures / selfies in front of an artwork or an object you like, especially if it’s a group selfie, means that other visitors will be prevented from seeing the object until you finish your photo session.
Try seeing the whole museums or the sections you planned, then come back to a place you liked and take a selfie there. Alternatively, take a selfie upon arrival, before you start seeing the exhibition area.
DON’T use selfie sticks inside the museum.
Moderate the use of action cameras too. Think if the museum area is suitable for that.
That’s clear. Sharing is caring. Spread the word about the museum. If you liked it a lot, say to your friends and followers why did you like it.
DON’T Forget to use the #FunMuseums hashtag and feature the museum’s social media channels.