Museums and galleries rethink ‘no photography’ in the social media age

Photography used to be discouraged, if not banned, in most museums and galleries but with the surge in image driven social media, a rethink has been necessary, writes Andrew Hennigan

Museums and galleries traditionally discouraged or banned unauthorised photography, mostly because camera-wielding visitors often disturb other people and because camera flashes could damage delicate exhibits. However, since the late 2000s they have been faced with a difficult choice. Most people taking pictures today are using their smartphones and sharing their photos on Facebook and Instagram –providing free advertising that could help to bring in more visitors.

Some museums are addressing the problem by limiting photography for most visitors but creating exclusive access for social media influencers, an approach pioneered by the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2014. Most recently, on June 4, the museum organised a meet up of social influencers prior to the media preview of a new exhibition Storylines: Contemporary Art at the Guggenheim. Such meet ups are reserved for about 20 influential Instagrammers who are given crowd-free out-of-hours access.

Aside from that, the Guggenheim allows non-commercial photography without tripods or selfie-sticks on the ground floor and in selected exhibitions, like the current Storylines and Doris Salcedo exhibitions, but not everywhere.

“A major challenge that modern and contemporary art museums face is that artists and their estates may not want photography to detract from the art viewing experience,” says Laura Miller, director of marketing at the Guggenheim Museum. “Loans of modern and contemporary works often restrict photography due to artists’ rights.”

At the same time the Guggenheim Museum does actively encourage social media sharing in other ways, through the posting of hashtags – this helps the museum track social media activity of visitors and through their own free app, which allows some content to be shared. The app also functions as a personal museum guide and can be downloaded on site using the museum’s free Wifi.

At the British Museum in London social media interaction is encouraged by posting hashtags in the museum, as well as sharing their own images and by joining in conversations on certain channels. Recently the museum also added free Wifi access - a very effective way to encourage sharing since some visitors, especially tourists from other countries, might be reluctant to upload a photo using their phone data plan.  Like in many other museums, visitor photography is limited to public areas and for non-commercial use. In the popular temporary exhibitions more restrictions apply.

A different approach

But some museums take a different approach. At the National Wax Museum Plus in Dublin, Ireland visitor photography is actively encouraged. 

“We allow full photography as it adds to the visitor experience”, says marketing and operations manager Lisa Jameson. The museum also encourages visitors to post their photos on its social sites and share with friends and it holds a number of photograph competitions.

At the National Wax Museum Plus this policy of actively encouraging photography and providing photo opportunities is seen as a selling point. It’s even mentioned in advertising – an interesting reflection on the importance social media photos have for the public. The museum only restricts photography in the video room and in cases where there is a special set and professional photographer to monetise the experience.

But whatever museum policy dictates, enforcing photography bans when almost everyone has a smartphone in their pocket and many have a smartwatch on their wrist has become increasingly difficult. Short of requiring everyone to leave devices in a locker, this simply will not happen.  The experience of the Guggenheim museum during a James Turrell exhibition in the summer of 2013 is revealing.

“Despite a no-photography policy, user generated content featured images taken inside the Guggenheim museum and other museums featuring work by Turrell,” explains Miller, who adds that over 15000 photos tagged #Turrell and #JamesTurrell were posted by museum goers.

Miller also recognises the value of this sharing for the museum.

“In our experience allowing and encouraging museum visitors to capture and share images at the museum with their social networks can significantly amplify the audience for exhibitions and programmes,” she says.

Perhaps the future isn’t in ‘no photography’ signs but in educating the public to take their pictures without disturbing other visitors and to respect the wishes of artists who created the works.

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