On taking selfies in the National Gallery (ctd.)

August 17 2014

Image of On taking selfies in the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: Independent

Here's probably the best article on the whole photo thing yet, by Archie Bland at the Independent. It's not only well written, but he's got some useful further thoughts from others, including Susan Foister at the National Gallery:

"I spend a lot of time watching how people look at the art, and I don't think I've seen any great change in approach," says Dr Susan Foister, the gallery's director of public engagement.

"Yes, you always want people to be drawn in by a single work – but we have six million visitors a year, and probably there are six million ways of looking at the art. We think it's important to offer lots of ways in. The National Gallery has always been a public space. You have to consider that other people may not enjoy it the way you do."

Quite. Do read the whole piece, but here's his conclusion:

In the meantime, if you don't like cameras in museums, the solution is simple: don't take one. A punter with an iPhone is no more obtrusive than one with a sketchbook unless you have a chip on your shoulder.

Update - but Neil Jeffares tweets:

[...] constant shutter clicks; iPhones, iPads, large DSLRs; shoot pntg, then label, move on [...]

Which doesn't sound quite as encouraging.

Update II - but another reader writes:

It occurred to me today while visiting today – and not too disturbed by photographers – that there might be one really useful upshot of this development.  We won’t have to wait for the Gallery to upload images of cleaned works to its site.  And they can take years.

Update III - a reader adds:

The purpose of museum rules is to prevent harm and to accommodate the public and the institution.  It is now clear that photography unlike smoking is harmless and nearly unpreventable so the battle won further debate is moot.

But another disapproves:

I think that the National Galleries policy on photography is a bad mistake & the Gallery over night has gone from broad sheet to tabloid. Management probably had little idea about the numbers of visitors snapping away, in many cases for the sake of it with little appreciation of what they are taking. The signs next to paintings that may not be photographed are too small & ambiguous resulting in most people ignoring them & taking pictures anyway. This means that those owners who do not want their paintings photographed are having their wishes ignored. One lady came into a very popular room yesterday with a small camera mounted on a monopod. Resting the monopod on her tummy, with camera effectively sitting on top of a long stalk, she grinned from ear to ear before doing a ‘selfie' in front of a prohibited painting before staff could take action in the crowded room! Some visitors who wish to view the art works quietly & appreciate it are complaining that their experience is spoilt by throngs of people obsessed with snapping away & in some cases getting far too close to the paintings.

Update IV - another photo-approver writes:

Those who are objecting to photography in the NG seem to be confusing correlation with causation. Some people may take pictures in a gallery without looking at the subject but they do that at sports matches and concerts too (in spite of there usually being several cameramen present to document the thing in great detail). This type of consumption is a behaviour in society at large and is not restricted to nor encouraged by galleries allowing photography. 

Neither is it a new phenomenon of the Facebook generation (of which i'm one). Robert Hughes said a while ago (70s judging by his hair) that people no longer went to look at an artwork, they come to have seen it. This is presumably in part because they've already seen the famous works/buildings/sights before they arrive - nobody who sees the Mona Lisa is seeing it for the first time. 

Yes those people should look a bit closer and longer but there are many different ways of looking at art and many different reasons people take pictures. Sometimes you want to wander round slowly and sometimes you nip in when you have 10mins spare round Trafalgar Sq. Sometimes you want T20 and sometimes you want a test match.

Luke Syson said in an interview about designing the Leonardo exhibition that people often spend longer looking at the label than the picture, which suggests that there is more to the experience of art than just the image and people like to have context and be informed. Taking the odd snap for research, posterity, fun is presumably part of that too. 

Surely what matters is fostering a bit of politeness and courteous behaviour in public spaces, something galleries could encourage a little by employing some crowd management so the numbers remain enjoyably atmospheric without being unworkably rammed. This would be a much better use of the NG's time than preventing people from enhancing their visiting experience. Also from a PR point of view the NG has managed to look like they've been forced into this when it could have been a positive announcement about them embracing technology with wifi.

Update V - a US reader writes:

As a faithful reader of Art History news and The Grumpy Art Historian I have been following the debate regarding photography in the National Gallery.  In particular I have been interested in looking at the pictures of those taking pictures in the gallery. 

I have asked myself why the need to take the pictures.  While they may of course they may purchase a postcard or poster of a favorite painting, it occurred to me the draw to take the picture is it somehow becomes more personal experience when they do.

We learn through our senses and not being able to touch the art work the next best thing is to take the picture. 

In those few moments perhaps there is a connection between the viewer and the art.  Living in the USA I have had only a few opportunities to visit the National Gallery. To give myself the best experience I arrive when it opens for the day having a better chance of fewer people and time to really look. 

All this being said, I believe there is room for those who take pictures and those who don't.  We all "look" in our own way.

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