“No photography”

26 November 2014

At a time when ubiquitous selfies are a major talking point in museums and most people have a smart phone in their pocket, one of the most irksome signs to see at exhibition is “no photography”. You might think there’s no harm in it if no one’s looking, but is that true? Russell Dornan explores the reasons you may not be able to get snap happy in an exhibition.

Our latest exhibition, an eagerly anticipated exploration of something many of us enjoy but rarely talk about openly, is one in which I expect people wish they could photograph many of the objects on display. The Institute of Sexology is filled with wonderfully photogenic material. Alas, your camera will not get the chance to direct its lens towards any of it; your eyes and memory will need to suffice as no photography is allowed.

As we teased the exhibition’s installation on Instagram, we were sure that’s all the images were: a tease.

Our permanent galleries permit photography and, although some of our temporary ones do, most of them don’t. Our “no photography” signs aren’t there to spoil your fun, though. The prescriptive approach is, as ever, of benefit to the objects and those who want to see them.

In this post I’ve asked colleagues from different departments to reflect on our “no photography” policy as well as the role photographs relating to exhibitions may play in their jobs.

Jane Holmes, Exhibition & Touring Manager

“When I was a child growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, photographs were taken on family outings, birthdays and special occasions and then stuck in albums. The internet and social media changed all that.

Today, more people document their lives and interests through selfies and websites like Pinterest than ever before. Photographing objects that we find pleasing or interesting seems a natural extension of this trend, but there are several reasons why galleries sometimes have to maintain a “no photography” policy.

Each object in an exhibition has a specific light or lux level, dictated by the material the object is made from. There are universal conservation guidelines that tell museums the different light levels for textile, paper and paintings. Light is particularly damaging to objects so it is important that we follow these conservation guidelines to ensure the object isn’t damaged for future generations. You may have noticed that some exhibitions are darker than others and this is why.

Whilst there have been many studies by both photographers and conservators regarding the effects of flash photography, none of these studies have been conclusive enough to change policy. It is the job of museums to protect objects for posterity. While the light in a flash may be very brief, museums need to take into account the number of visitors that may potentially take photographs and the accumulated effect. No matter how negligible that effect may be, it is still an unnecessary burden to place on the object.

Sometimes we borrow objects from other museums that make revenue from licensing image rights. As part of our agreement with them to borrow the object, they may specify that they do not want any photography.

Many private collectors do not like their artworks being photographed for security reasons as they may wish to lend anonymously. Some objects can also be interpreted in many different ways and the owners of the objects understandably like to set the context in which their object should be viewed by the public.”

Jo Finn, Communications Project Manager

“From a marketing perspective I’d love people to be able to take pictures and share them on social media. For some exhibitions, this isn’t possible and I respect the lenders’ wishes to not permit this.

As far as the Sexology exhibition is concerned, we all know that sex sells, but when you’re trying to sell sex it’s not as easy as you think! You’d imagine that the marketing campaign for such a juicy topic would be straightforward, but it has been one of the most challenging campaigns I’ve worked on.

There are some seriously strict (prudish?) advertising standard rules about images of a sexual nature; we opted early on to take a text-based route to avoid this battle. We’ve managed to sneak in a few images into the trailer, digital escalator panels and other top secret places, but by and large we’ve played it safe with a text only approach. It’s been interesting to see the images selected by the media and the lack of warnings in most of those publications.

In non-targeted channels, e.g. posters on the Underground where children will be exposed to our marketing, we stuck to the “Undress your Mind” campaign. In more adult locations we used some example sex survey questions (such as on postcards distributed at bars and clubs). It’s a question of considering the audience.

 Postcard flyers for the Sexology exhibition.

Postcard flyers for the Sexology exhibition.

It’s good to try to show some of the visual content of an exhibition so that visitors have an idea of what to expect, but we sometimes have to pay our object lenders to use images for marketing purposes. There are rules about how and where images can be used (e.g. in print/digital). At all times image captions and credits must be used; if the public take photos and share these socially, the lenders or artists won’t be credited.

We have a splendid image gallery on the website where prospective visitors can see a range of objects in the show. I’d encourage people to share this rather than trying to sneak a blurred phone picture when they visit.”

Stephen Britt, Visitor Experience Manager

“Facilitating further engagement and interaction with our exhibitions is a key role for the Visitor Experience team, so preventing photography is a shame, but a necessary evil. We try to convey the importance of this to our visitors.

Most people are very understanding, especially when we explain and let people know they can take pictures in our permanent galleries.

Every exchange has the potential to turn into an interesting conversation and approaching a visitor to enforce a rule can turn into a discussion about Freud’s porcupine tale or a debate on the use of the term “outsider art”. We also direct visitors to other resources as much as possible, such as images on our website. Wellcome Images feature thousands of pictures that can be reproduced from the website, with high-res images available for free (for the historical collection).

Some items are especially popular for photography and occasionally these can be made available outside the exhibition. The ‘20th Century Death’ infographic created by David McCandless for our ‘Death: A Self Portrait’ exhibition was made available on Information is Beautiful, for example.

Occasionally visitors get quite upset when asked not to take photographs, but some object very strongly when they see other visitors taking pictures. This was often the case in ‘Souzou’ where some of the artists may have been perceived as having less power to control the use of their work than other artists.

We can only stop photography when we see it, but this has to be balanced against a sensible level of staffing and the need for staff in the space to carry out other tasks, practical and otherwise, not least engaging with and assisting our visitors to get the most out of their visit.

An Idiosyncratic A-Z of the Human Condition’ took place in our new first floor gallery space over the summer and fortunately we were able to allow photography for nearly all the content in this exhibition. The exhibition was strongly interactive and visitor contributions were sought in a variety of ways, including selfies taken in the gallery itself.

When we have the luxury to do so, we will always allow non-professional photography as long as it doesn’t interfere with other visitors’ ability to enjoy an exhibition; however, the need to bring in precious objects from diverse sources in order to tell the stories we want to tell will mean we will continue to have a strict no photography rule in many special exhibitions.

Sexology sees the return of this restriction; one we see as a small price to pay to bring sometimes unique objects to the people of London and beyond.”

When you visit #foreignbodies make sure you take a few pictures. Tag and share them on here; we'd love to see them.

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Visitors

But what do the visitors think? When faced with the dreaded crossed out camera symbol, how do the general public react? I asked my followers on Twitter what they thought about the “no photography” rule. It turns out to be a subject people are passionate about; many interesting opinions were expressed and issues discussed. Here are just a few of their thoughts on the matter.

Not all reasons for not taking pictures come from the museum or the lender. Sometimes those attending don’t want to spoil it for others. It’s also a shame, and frustrating for visitors, when staff are asked to explain the photography ban but are unable to.

Some of the reasons for not being allowed to take pictures may only apply to some of the objects on display. However, trying to invigilate a gallery where some objects can be photographed and some cannot can be challenging. A blanket ban is often the only way.

It seems that as long as people understand the reasons for the policy, they are usually quite happy to honour it in most cases.

Museum photography seems particularly topical right now, with debates raging within and without the museum sector:

We’re excited by how photography in galleries allows our visitors to engage with Wellcome Collection in different ways and hope to do some interesting projects around this in the future. We’re also pleased to be able to show off fascinating objects from our collection and others from all over the world. Sometimes these two ideas simply don’t make good bedfellows.

Whatever you think about museums not allowing photography in certain exhibitions, hopefully this post has at least explained some of the potential reasons for it.

Russell is the Web Editor at Wellcome Collection.