Ways of Seeing: Cameras in Museums

Part I: Looking


Recently I read an article, The Renwick is suddenly Instagram famous. But what about the art? detailing the #RenwickGallery‘s “Photography Encouraged” policy and the plethora of pictures posted from inside the gallery. (Seriously, click that link and check out the Instagram tag- it’s beautiful and bountiful, currently at 61,000 posts) The article goes into the record-shattering attendance of the Renwick since reopening, niche crowds on Instagram, and the trends within photos taken there. It also questions what camera use, and especially social media posting, means for museums.

Yes, they’re coming to see the art — but more important, they are coming to photograph, and be photographed with, the art. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which they care about more.

… For many folks, “part of their purpose is they want to show other people what they’re doing,” Henkel says. If that’s what they want, “the photo is a trophy. Their experience is not a very rich experience then.”

Firstly, it can be worrying that visitors prioritize recording the art, or using it as a prop for the aesthetic of their web presence, over truly physically experiencing the art. Are they really appreciating the art itself? In one study posted in the journal Psychological Science, research concluded that museum visitors had worse memory for details when they took pictures of objects. They explain this as the “photo-taking impairment effect” which essentially is reminiscent of how we, for example,  Google some fact before putting real effort into recalling it. We rely on the tech for our memories.

People are also bothered by the notion of taking selfies in museums. Various articles assert the narcissism of millennials, trappings of performative social media, or simple annoyance. One recent piece noted of a new Yayoi Kusama exhibit, If you take a selfie at this Hirshhorn show, you’re part of the problem.

But who are you to judge how someone else is experiencing art? Some cite congestion, obnoxious posing, and disrespecting or not experiencing the art as reasons not to take photos. But really, short of the throngs of tourists in front of say, the Mona Lisa, generally someone else’s photography habit shouldn’t impose on your visit. Who are you to judge if someone wants to spend their allotted time within an iconic and incredible Infinity Room taking a sweet selfie to remember it, or yes, to look cool? Who are you to stop friends from snapping photos of themselves stylishly standing with a fine art backdrop?

Again from the Renwick article:

Far from finding the picture-taking disruptive, [Bell] says, “I think that for different visitors, they’ll find their own ways to engage most intimately with the exhibition. For some people, that will be to not take photographs, and for some people, that will be to take photographs. I don’t think that we should judge.”

Museum professionals should be thrilled that new demographics are entering the space, that people are spreading excitement online, and that there are new ways to experience the museum drew those who may have felt less interested or not qualified to visit before. We should be happy to make museums a more welcoming, encouraging, place to visit.

That said, if a museum wants to restrict photography to save art from deterioration, protect intellectual property, or simply wants to ensure a traditionally reflective environment, by all means they should. If so, perhaps  they can  encourage  sketching as a means of promoting experiencing art fully rather than superficially, as well as furthering development of skills. Personally, I would also say that museums with no photography policies may want to have some iconic piece outside- whether it’s the museum’s sign, a large sculpture, or contemporary art installation- that visitors can photograph in order to satiate their need to record the experience for posterity or profile worthy proof. It’s fun, and will still spread word of your institution on social media.


Part II: Looking at Looking

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The online exposure for the Renwick has introduced whole new crowds to contemporary art and drawn more visitors. Throughout this growing popularity, and museum photography in general recently, a trend has emerged online: posting photos not just of art, but of you looking at art. Check out Instagram accounts like artwatchers_united or girlsinmuseums… it’s everywhere.

So what does the trend suggest? Firstly, assertions that young people dislike museums and prefer discovering art through online channels rather than physical visits are not necessarily looking at the full picture. It is true that millennials spend a lot of time online and will find art this way- but people aren’t trying to move completely to the digital realm. This new trend of museums photos suggests that going to museums offers something unique; something makes a picture of a viewer more interesting than just the art object.

Essentially, we’re expanding experiencing museums to the digital realm. What I mean is this: the trend is romanticizing visiting or emphasizing entering the aesthetic space over simply looking at art, and Instagram accounts that show the art through the viewer insert us into that space along with them. I also think it actually shows an increased respect for works of art, because rather than just seeing the piece, there is a sense of veneration and interest from the subject.

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And this isn’t replacing going to the physical museum necessarily, but providing more insight into places people may not be able to go. For instance, seeing a photo of someone at the Orlando Museum of Art, might let me know about the new exhibit there, and I will go because I live near there. But seeing people in the Renwick Gallery, or the Broad Museum, or any other institution in a far off city, lets me know about and peek into exhibits I can’t visit.


So I say go to the museum if you can. Take photos of the art- and of the artist’s statements to refer to later. Take selfies and pose with your friends. Be thoughtful and reflective. Be trendy and stylish. And… follow me on Instagram.