One reformation, three revelations and nine good ideas about cameras
In which a stuffy no-cameras-in-museums purist changes her mind
I used to hold two positions about photography in galleries and museums. I was against it for everyone else, and in favour of it for me. What’s the difference between them and me? I know how to turn off the flash on my camera.
To put it in the proverbial nutshell, some artifacts and works of art are especially vulnerable to light, and flash photography floods them with light. When I see a flash go off in a dimly-lit exhibition of 300-year-old drawings, I turn and stare and raise one disapproving eyebrow. I may tut. I hope the gallery guard scolds the perpetrators. They’re damaging our collective cultural heritage to get a crummy picture of their own flash bouncing back and maybe a reflection of themselves in the glass.
Furthermore, there’s nothing that makes me sadder than to see someone standing, back turned to a glorious work of art or a priceless historical artifact, saying, “Take my picture!” If you’re getting your picture taken in front of the thing you came to see, instead of looking at the thing you came to see, then—as we say on the Internet these days—you’re doing it wrong.
I can work myself into a self-righteous state over this, but here’s the thing. I’ve changed my mind. I think there’s a valuable place for visitor photography in galleries and museums. Here is how I was reformed, and here are my suggestions to exhibit designers.
Recently I visited a special exhibition of jellies at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. It’s hard to go wrong with jellyfish. It wasn’t a large exhibition but the tanks were lovely, the layout felt uncrowded and the traffic flowed sensibly.
I know from experience that moving subjects in a softly-lit space—especially translucent moving subjects!—are disappointing to photograph, so I didn’t even try. I was scribbling a few notes in my sketchbook when a woman in front of me casually pointed her phone at the tank, and clicked. I caught a glimpse of the screen and was astonished. It was a beautiful image. Her camera was nothing special and her technique was all-but-accidental but that impromptu snapshot made a good picture. I pulled my own camera from my purse and tried it myself. It was almost impossible to take a bad shot. Revelation #1: Someone made it easy to take good photographs of the jellies.
On the other side of the exhibit, a boy of about twelve walked toward a tank holding a camera of his own. He was visibly interested in what he was seeing and taking photographs seemed to sustain his attention rather than divide it. Revelation #2: Cameras are easy enough and immediate enough to give kids a self-sufficient, personalized way to engage with the exhibit.
One tank projected from the wall and I had a charming view, through the tank, of a preschooler pressing her hands and face against it to get a better look at the jellies. That’s the moment I changed my mind about photography in the museum. I distinctly remember thinking, “I hope her parents have a camera.” Revelation #3: It’s possible to take a picture of someone enjoying the exhibit instead of ignoring it.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed with ideas about how to bring visitor photography into the exhibit, to celebrate it, and to use it to advantage.
- Like the Shedd Aquarium jellies exhibit designers, can you make it easy for me to take good photographs?
- Can you make it easy for me to shut off my flash? My camera has a “museum mode.” What if docents had cheatsheets for all the popular devices?
- Can you make it easy for me to take fast photographs? For example, can you show me the best place to take a keepsake photo without blocking traffic?
- Can you make it easy for me to take cool photographs of me, my friends or family doing something in the exhibit instead of turning our backs on it?
- Can you make it easy for me to capture exhibit information with my camera or my smartphone?
- Can you make it easy for me to share my best photographs with museum and to give you permission to use them?
- Can you make it easy for a twelve-year-old to take great photographs and engage in some special way with the exhibit while she does? For instance, is there something in the exhibit she can only see if she zooms in?
- Can you create a good spot for video “stand-ups?” Once you’ve got that spot marked, you’re effectively auditioning ten-year-olds as explainers. How so? You can encourage families to stand a ten-year-old on the perfect spot and report on the exhibit. Invite them to share the footage. You’ll learn two things. You’ll learn that you’ve got some great kids visiting the museum and that maybe a few of them should be recruited as spokesfolks. You’ll also learn what visitors do and don’t understand about the exhibit!
- Can you host an after-hours ticketed event just for photographers and their friends? For this special occasion, let everyone use tripods. Make it Members Only if that’s a nice perk to offer. Open the café and the exhibit gift shop. Heck, open the bar and make it a date night. Set up a digital projector and let people stream their best shots directly to the wall while the event is still happening.
Thanks, Shedd Aquarium, for making it easy for me to take great pictures. You changed my mind about photography in galleries and museums.