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Selfie culture has made art museums cave on strict 'no photo' policies

People take selfies with art and post them online, making them the museum's potential publicists. Some museums have no issue with this

A visitor taking a selfie in front of Vincent van Gogh's Self Portrait With Straw Hat (1887) at an exhibition in Arles in southern France. Critics say that too many people are photographing art with their phones and then walking away. The art itself is merely glanced at, if at all. 

New York

MUSEUM behaviour has always been synonymous with restriction: "Don't raise your voice", "Don't wear backpacks", and certainly, "Don't touch the art".

However, there is one rule, "Don't take photographs", which 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.

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But there are downsides, too. Conservation is the biggest, although the jury is still out as to whether cell phone flashes cause fading, and whether a visitor focused on taking a self portrait is likely to bang into the art.

Tom Ryley, communications officer of Sir John Soane's Museum in London, said: "We have plaster casts on ledges. 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. The critique goes that too many people are photographing art with their smartphones and then walking away. The art itself is merely glanced at, if at all.  Various commentators have called this a by-product of selfie culture; art effectively has become a scrim for self-portraits.

Critic Rob Horning wrote in Even Magazine that museums "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.

Anyone who has 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.

Benoit Parayre, the director of communications at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, said: "Personally, what I've noticed is that people spend more time taking pictures than looking at pieces of art. 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. 

Photography policy

Museum representatives say that the choice 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 memorialising their experiences," says Kenneth Weine, the chief communications officer at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"As marketers, we at the Met think it's very important that this channel is available because we want to be accessible to the widest audience possible."

A surprising number of museums have an outright ban on photography. The Prado in Madrid doesn't allow photos or filming during museum hours, said its press representative.

The Soane's Museum is even more draconian: Visitors to the 19th century mansion are given clear plastic bags in which to carry  their 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."

Mr Ryley said the policy has always been in place. "We have a time-capsule quality to the museum. 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."

He added that it is a small place, and given how narrow some of the doorways are and how packed the place is with objects, photography would be "quite disruptive for visitor flow".

Photography is barely allowed in the Frick Collection in New York. Heidi Rosenau, its communication director, said the only area where it is permitted 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. 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 museum's website states that this 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 not permitted.

Non-flash, non-commercial

Dozens of major museums, though, have embraced visitors' posting images of themselves and the art to social media.

"The most important principle with us, of course, begins with protecting the art and the visitors," said Mr Weine of the Met. Beyond that, he added, "we get great joy seeing visitors projecting (their time at the Met) out on Instagram and other channels - it's very encouraging."

Jennifer Northrop, the chief marketing officer at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, said: "Our policy is that we encourage non-flash, non-commercial photography. I wouldn't say that we're terribly aggressive about it, but we definitely encourage it."

The museum uses software to capture user-generated content on social media in order to repost users' images with their permission, she said.

Many people have started to use the museums as backdrops for their engagement photographs; 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, she added.

Mr Parayre at the Pompidou is slightly less enthusiastic, though equally permissive. "It's very simple with us. You can take any photo of anything you like, if you use it for your own purposes. The only restriction is selfie sticks, because so many bad things happen with those."

He said he would prefer visitors to take 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" - and then take a picture of it.

Banning photography is a losing battle, he said: "Then they would hide and do it anyway. Because it's even more fun to take a picture when it's forbidden."BLOOMBERG