I’ve written previously about the inconsistent directions given to art gallery and museum visitors regarding permission to take photos of works of art and artefacts. I love visiting galleries and museums and on my first visit to a new city they are often the first thing I want to see.

As an experienced and ethical visitor, I take the time to check the venue’s photography policy on their website before I visit. I then look for further information in their visitor information brochures. As these two sources either fail to explain the policy or contradict each other, I then approach a member of staff, such as at the information desk, to ask them so I do not embarrass myself by being reprimanded in the gallery.

The reasons for permission or denial of it seem unrelated to practical considerations. The obvious reason for refusing to allow photography is that repeated exposure to flash light could damage works, particularly relatively delicate drawings and paintings.

Years of exposure to sunlight fades cars and carpets. I wonder if, in museum conditions, years of exposure to flash photography could fade an artefact, such as this 1973 F1 car driven by Jackie Stewart, which is in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh?

stewartf1 art rage and visiting galleries

I don’t dispute that some works could be damaged by flash photography. I would like to see some evidence though. The exhibition of drawings, for example, is usually limited to a maximum of three months as accumulated exposure to light can fade delicate works on paper. Extra light obviously means extra fading and damage.

The Louvre in Paris allows millions of people a year to snap away at the Mona Lisa, with flash, albeit behind glass that probably reflects most of the light, and I cannot see how they would allow that if it was thought to be a threat to the painting.

As a visitor, it makes no sense to me that I can photograph a pre-Raphaelite oil painting c1850 in the Walker or Lady Lever galleries in Liverpool but not a similar painting just because it is in a gallery in London.

In extremely busy galleries and museums, such as the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery (which ban photography) and the British Museum (which mostly allows it, although it doesn’t seem to say anything on its website) in central London, banning photography makes sense in terms of minimising people milling about trying to get a good photos and causing a nuisance to each other.

Some people seem to spend more time and attention taking a photo than looking at what they’re photographing. In this context, rules based on the average congestion of the venue are logical, even if this is not obvious to the average visitor.

Furthermore, delicate and non-delicate artefacts may be displayed side by side, and policing a policy allowing photography of some artefacts but not others would be impossible, as would expecting audiences to have the ethical insight to abide by it.

At the impressive and newly renovated National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, photography is allowed but permission is required to use a tripod (as this would be an obstacle that has congestion and health and safety implications). It makes perfect sense. It would help though, if they explained that in their print and online marketing materials. I made a point of asking as I could find nothing about it on their new website.

The second reason for refusing photography seems primarily aimed at attempting to protect merchandise and souvenir sales, particularly of postcards. I think this is fundamentally misguided. Light reflection and hanging angles make it almost impossible for a gallery visitor to get a quality photo of a painting. Professional photos of artworks are made in ideal studio conditions, with perfect lighting and protective glass removed from works. I think amateur photography has a negligible impact on postcard sales.

I am not taking a photo of the art in order to make my own postcard style image of it – I am doing so in order to further research it at a later date, which is why I also photograph the plaque containing the information about the work (this exegesis is also a copyrighted work, but my use of the art and the plaque are allowed by fair dealings for the purpose of criticism and review).

The works I am often interested in are not the popular works in a gallery. They are usually not represented on the gallery’s website and postcards of them are not available in the gift shop. Being refused permission to photograph the work so I can further research it later is frustrating, and I have to resort to scribbling notes on paper.

The third reason is copyright. This appears to be most used in relation to special temporary exhibitions, which often also have greater commercial expectations placed on them. Fair use / dealings rules allow for the creation and publication of copies or representations for the purpose of criticism and review.

Copyright is poorly understood and badly managed, and it is impossible for a gallery visitor to explain to ignorant staff that they are upholding a rule based on an ignorant misunderstanding, or a deliberate (commercially motivated) misreading of the law (I have tried).

Furthermore, copyright laws were not written with digital reproduction tools in mind. Technically, laws state that making a copy of a work is a breach of copyright, even if this is merely an amateur photo that is never republished (although fair dealings seems to allow for this in terms of allowing for criticism and review).

Their real intent, however, is to inhibit the commercial exploitation of copyrighted content through the publication of unlicensed copies, which prevents owners (often originally their creators) from benefiting financially from their work.

A good example of the poor communication to visitors is evident from the galleries and museums in Liverpool, which are all managed by the same local authority and which share an integrated online presence.

At the Walker gallery, their website says:

Visitors are not permitted to photograph the artworks. General shots of the galleries are acceptable but must be for non-commercial use only. Neither flash nor tripods can be used.

This is nonsense. So if you step back a bit and put two paintings in the same photo, is that acceptable? With my 12mega-pixel compact digital camera I can easily get a good clear image of a painting from half the image area.

Their brochures contained no information from what I could see. I witnessed other visitors taking photos without being stopped by gallery staff, so I asked one of them what the policy was. He said it depended on who you asked! Ridiculous. He said all staff advised that photography was allowed but some said yes and some no to the use of flash. I assured him I would not use flash and he allowed me to proceed to take photos.

The Lady Lever gallery confuses the visitor in a different way on their website:

Non-commercial photography is permitted but neither flash nor tripods can be used. A consent form must be signed at the front desk.

Again I asked a member of staff and was told I could take photos without flash. I was not asked to complete a form. Their print brochure further explains that photographing individual works is not allowed for copyright reasons:

Photography is allowed but no flash or tripods please. Photography is not permitted of single works of art or in the special exhibitions galleries due to copyright.

According to UK law, copyright of artistic works like paintings and sculptures ends 70 years after the death of the artist. The Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais died in 1896. Copyright of his paintings therefore came into the public domain in 1966, long before current exhibition and marketing texts were created.

It is simply unacceptable for supposedly professional public institutions like the Lady Lever to lie to and mislead their visitors like this. The curatorial staff should know the law and should advise the marketing staff what to say in the visitor information in print and online. There is no excuse for this amateur ignorance.

The Tate has a clear online policy statement on photography, although they are equally wrong about reproduction, as it is allowed under fair dealings:

Photography in the main galleries is allowed for personal, non-commercial purposes only. The use of flash and tripods is prohibited. Unless permission has been granted by Tate, images cannot be reproduced in any format or media other than for private viewing[.]

At galleries like the Walker and Lady Lever, hardly busy in autumn weekdays when I visited, it was easy to take photos without inconveniencing other visitors. Although I am visiting these galleries and museums as any other member of the public, I am doing so with specific research aims in mind. I went to Liverpool, for example, specifically for its impressive holdings of pre-Raphaelite paintings and I was most impressed with what I was able to see.

art rage and visiting galleries

2 thoughts on “art rage and visiting galleries

  • 15 January 2012 at 4:45 pm

    I think you will find that the restrictions on photographing work have little to nothing to do with damaging work or causing a nuisance, Most likely that for an artist to have their work published they need to pay a photographer to capture an image of suitable quality. And is an attempt to control the number of images and quality of images of a piece of work. Poor photos can damage reputations as lots of people these days dont view work in person but rather online or in a publication. The art has to be as it appears exactly in real life.

    • 15 January 2012 at 4:55 pm

      This matters not to the dead superstars of the art world.


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