A Compromise for Museums Who Don't Allow Photography

Museums, listen up! It's time to get with the 21st century and take advantage of the free publicity that social media can give you.
David Rau, Director of Education at the Florence Griswold Museum, recently posted a question on a museums blog in which he asked for input as to how museums were handling bloggers that wanted to take pictures for their blog posts. He knows museums struggle with image use, copyright, etc. and notes:

Indeed, the Florence Griswold Museum has seen artwork from our museum appear on several blogs with great images that were gathered without our knowledge. And the kind of positive publicity these blogs garner from specialty groups, i.e. homeschoolers, families looking for kid friendly outings, etc., has proven to be invaluable.

As a former museum curator and educator, I get the dilemma.
Museums want control over their images and to show them with the proper respect, which doesn’t always happen if people are given free reign with their cameras. Amateur photographers might snap unflattering images and, perhaps worst of all, fail to provide proper credit along with the images.
Museums can’t allow photography of art they don’t own. It’s simple, really. They don’t own the copyright, so they don’t have the right give permissions.
Many museums allow non-flash photography within their permanent collection (art they own) galleries. I’m all for this! Museums claim that intense light of flashes can–over time–damage a work. Whether or not this is true, I don’t want to see flash photography allowed in museums. Flashes are disruptive and I’d like to preserve the contemplative spaces within the museum galleries.
Yet museums that ban photography altogether are living in the past. They’re missing out on tons of free publicity from avid fans! The power blogs are well documented. The power of word of mouth is equally well documented. When a blogger recommends something to his or her readers, guess what? They are more likely to take action than if they had seen an ad somewhere. Ergo, make it easy for people to talk about the art you have.

How museums can accommodate bloggers

If you’re a museum who is against allowing photographs of your the art in your galleries, there’s still something you can do to help us put in a good word for you.

Create an online media room just for bloggers.

Here’s what that would consist of:

  1. Low-resolution images of works that are on view and a super-easy way to find them. Obviously, large museums can’t post images of every work in a separate media room. Maybe some highlights? Or, if you have low-res images of works in your collections pages, just link to those and tell us how to use them in your guidelines (see #3).
  2. Credit lines for each work.
  3. Your (brief!) guidelines for using the images. Please: No legalese here. Just tell us what you want and we’ll do it. The more barriers you erect and the longer your guidelines, the less likely we are to promote you. (See “people don't read instructions” below.)
  4. Links to more details about each piece in case they would help us write a better blog post.

And here’s how you can handle it in the galleries.

Have business cards printed and make sure your museum guards have a stack of them. Instead of the guards telling people “I’m sorry, no photography allowed,” they can pull out a business card. Here’s a suggestion for text on that card:

I’m sorry we can’t allow photography in the museum galleries.

But because we want to help you share our art with others,
we’ve created a media room just for you!


Signs won't do. People don't read. More to the point, people don't read instructions, if you haven't learned by now. We need something we can take with us and look up easily when we get home.
Alternatively, you could take email addresses and email bloggers the link to your special media room. But you must do it ASAP. We're usually a step ahead of you. I vote for the business cards.

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18 thoughts on “A Compromise for Museums Who Don't Allow Photography”

  1. The ideas for how museums can accommodate bloggers are excellent. However, museums are going to need to print cards in many languages! Art museums are full of foreign visitors.

  2. Alyson Stanfield

    Good point, Lynne. But all they really need is the URL. And if they can make it around a foreign city (in the US) they can probably get the gist of the text on a card. Or perhaps the text I suggested could be simplified further.

  3. An even easier way to do this would be for museums to publish the images they’re okay with sharing to flickr… which would make it easy for bloggers to embed the image in the blog with the correct attribution/permissions in place.

  4. Alyson you are such an insightful reader of human nature! LOL
    “People don’t read. More to the point, people don’t read instructions”
    “Please: No legalese here. Just tell us what you want and we’ll do it. The more barriers you erect and the longer your guidelines, the less likely we are to promote you.”
    Both amazingly TRUE! insights. I love going to museums & I love sharing what I see there with my blog readers. Love it when I can take photos and video but would gladly use a “media room” if the museum provided one.
    It’s also absolutely true that you never go anywhere unless someone tells you about it. I am a hundred times more likely to go somewhere someone I know has recommended, be it a restaurant, store, bed & breakfast, museum or what have you, then to go based on an ad.
    Museums I hope you’re listening!!

  5. Hmm…I think these discussions need to address the issue that there are two distinct demographics, whose interests may be in conflict…Though I am a fan of the internet & blogging myself, from a creative standpoint, I can only say after all of these years that the internet has severely cramped both my selling revenue & the cachet of attending openings (many are now happy to just view the collection online)…The more available my or another artist’s work is on the world wide web, the less I am able to sell it for (or am willing to pay)…I am sad to say…CARFAC, also warns artists here of opportunities that pay nothing in return for the promise of free publicity…I think free access is good for consumers, but not necessarily for artists…A nominal fee for use of any image museum or otherwise, even a tiny one, would give me a little more self-respect & perhaps a small revenue to underfunded museums…?

  6. The gallery spaces of even the most modestly funded regional art museums are usually quite beautiful. In most cases they show off the art extremely well . I agree with Alyson that it’s in the museums’ interest to allow photography of their permanent collections. It will make people want to visit and have that “hands on” experience of the art for themselves. Haven’t most of you run into countless friends who’ve not been to an art museum in years, if ever? Museums need all the help they can get, especially in this enduring deep recession.
    I often visit East Coast art museums and like nothing better than to write a blog post about what I saw that I like best. In the last few months I’ve written four or five posts on visits to Museums along with photos I took of my favorite pieces. It is a pleasure to help toot the horn of art museums that are doing their job well. Artists everywhere benefit when new people start going to museums.
    A particular disappointment was a visit last summer to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art where I discovered their strict no photos policy. It is a fabulous museum that surprisingly few people visit. With their historic skylit galleries I could have done a wonderful piece on their collection. Hope they read Alyson’s post.

  7. Alyson Stanfield

    John: I hadn’t thought of Flickr. I’m not an advanced user of that site, but it sounds like it would be the best way to go.
    Jan: Thank you for pointing me to the original post from David. I failed to give you credit in my post, but you’re the one who sent me there.
    Sari: That’s an interesting thought. I understand the premise, but there are so many stories to the contrary. So many artists benefit from being promoted on the web–artists who wouldn’t have been able to buy advertising 15 years ago or get noticed at all. Today, they can sell directly to people. Which brings up a whole other problem: The pond has gotten a lot bigger. Lots of artists vying for the same eyeballs.
    As for paying for use of an image . . . I’d like to see what that looks like. It’s akin to paying to use a song in, say, a podcast. Does CARFAC have an idea of how this would work. I’m intrigued.
    Philip: You’re right re museums needing all the help they can get. When I worked in museums, we would have been thrilled to see others promoting the art in the galleries. And at least one of my former museum does allow photography in the permanent collection. Yes, the PAFA does need some good old PR. It’s a lovely place!

  8. As I was taking a photo, as part of documentation of the trip fro my degree, I was asked not to. I responded “The artist has been dead for 20 years, I’m sure he doesn’t mind!” to which the gentlemen walked away.
    However such zealous behaviour was the basis for my Uni project, in which I gave a number of reasons why certain people should have ‘No Admittance’ to the gallery!

  9. as a visitor to museums, to be honest i find people taking photos a distraction and at times unpleasant. i have to stop looking at what i am viewing and then worry about the photographer… am i in the way? what are they doing? i guess it sounds selfish, but it is like i am being forced to be aware of them when i want to be aware of the art i have gone to look at. i realize bloggers and journalist see this as an opportunity to help museums, and i agree in helping the museums be promoted like that. the media room is a good idea i think, or having a web kit for people. you know though, if i were in a bloggers shoes though, i would want a candid photo to make it more “real.” that’s just me putting myself in your shoes. do you think that is going to satisfy them, really?

  10. P.S.
    http://www.carfacontario.ca/~carfacon/resources here is a link to some advisory notes from Carfac Ontario about copyright & images…
    & just for fun, if you didn’t know, I’d rather be in the studio, is listed in Carfac’s Amazon bookstore & the link comes directly from their website…
    (The iCopyright link is in my previous post…really worth taking a look at for artists who want to put a linked watermark on internet images they might want to get money for…or even just the etiquette of people asking permission…)
    oh heck here is that link again- http://license.icopyright.net/creator/tag.act?tag=grovecanada

  11. Alyson – excellent post – I shall be sending you visitors!
    Apart from the media room, I’ve been expounding on all these topics direct to the museums and their press people. I’ve highlighted how the return for allowing people to photograph could be enormous. There’s no need whatsoever to charge bloggers so long as they only use low res images on their blog.
    It’s worth noting that an increasing number of museums are now participating in the scheme on Flickr where people images are being put online. A number of people are also participating with the Wikipedia scheme where ordinary people go in an photograph works in museums so that images can be put online with creative commons licences for anybody to use.
    There’s one issue which is relevant and that’s the loan exhibition. A number of places won’t allow photography when they’ve assembled a lot of paintings from private collections. I’m not happy but I sort of understand that one. I’d rather see the work in person even if I can’t photograph it then not at all,
    Incidentally, I’ve now got an information site about the Top 10 art galleries and museums in the world. It’s interesting how many of them (eg Louvre, Musee d’Orsay) have no problems with photography – so long as it’s not flash. What I did notice when i was going through the annual number of visitors was that a number of the American museums are very coy about their annual visitor numbers – and I wonder why that is? Maybe there aren’t enough people who know what’s inside?
    One of the very nice things about having written exhibition reviews for a long while now is that I now get invited to the press previews for major exhibitions and get to take photographs of the paintings myself. Then I end up writing blog posts and showing people work which isn’t on the internet anywhere else – like today which is all about Van Gogh and the orchards and blossom in Provence!

  12. I totally agree museums should become more savvy to the real world out there. The internet is the best museum there is IMO.
    I think flash is unbearable ANYWHERE and there’s almost no need for it with a decent digital camera unless at night or a fashion show.Everyone is using their cells anyway to shoot this and that anyway, so why not adjust and bend.

  13. Alyson Stanfield

    Deni: Yes, photography can get in the way. I’d like to think that the people taking the photographs are mindful of others, but I know it’s not always the case.
    Katherine: I think some museums might be embarrassed by their attendance numbers. I believe The Museum Directory publishes attendance and museums certainly have to list attendance on grant applications AND in their annual reports. Most museums are public trusts and I’m sure these figures are available somewhere.

  14. Alyson – I’m sure they shoudl. Trouble is they seem to have a problem with actually putting their Annual Reports on their wesites! 😉 That was when I started to ponder on the reasons why!
    I’ll take a look at the Museum Directory and see what that says. Thanks

  15. A truly forward-thinking museum would put QR codes (those checkerboard/bar code things) on their labels so someone with an iPhone or the like could scan it and instantly get a link to a page with info about the work, a lo-res version to use with a blog, and stuff like that. Still a bit too 21st century for most museums, though, I’m afraid.

  16. Pingback: Make It Easy for Others to Promote Your Art — Art Biz Blog

  17. There is another solution. There is a company that sells stickers that you place over your camera phone. If the sticker is removed, it changes color. So museums can issue stickers to visitors, and ask to see their phones upon their exit. If the sticker has changed color, then the museum knows they took the sticker off to take pictures.
    You can see them at http://picpatchlabel.com.

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