Monday, February 8, 2010


The “no pictures” has to be the second most popular sign among museums, just behind “don’t touch”. On her very useful blog, Museum Two, Nina Simone lists five reasons why museums won’t allow you to take pictures in their exhibit rooms. First of all, there’s conservation. Yes, your camera flash will damage stuff in there. You don’t think so? Go on and leave a paper sheet under the sunlight for a day and see how it turns. Second reason is intellectual property. Museums don’t allways own the rights of the collections they host. Third comes security. Just as banks do, museums don’t want you to have a blueprint of their facilties so you won’t end up sneaking in at night to steal a Warhol. Finally, Nina mentions revenue streams and aesthetics of experiencie as the fourth and fifth reasons. The first and second reasons appear to be the only serious ones, and they could simply ask you to turn your flash off or mention which objects can or can not be photographed; but is clearly way more practical just to print a lot of “no pictures” signs and post them all over the place.

This rules come from long time ago. They come from radically different photographic times, when cameras actually had film in them. Just 12 years ago, taking a picture was a ritual, an event. Every shot mattered. Somebody not holding still or the flash not working when you clicked was a disaster.

Today things are not the same. Pretty much everybody carries a digital camera in their pockets, with full capacity to capture anything at any time and with almost endless oportunities to do so. Even my 4 year old daughter owns a
digital camera since she was 2. And this is the scenario faced by museums now. A society armed with cameras.

And so... why are museums struggling against pictures? Conservation might be the only valid reason, but museum’s staff members could esasily be trained on how to turn flashes off. Intelectual property... not so sure. Why would somebody take a picture in a museum? To make profit selling copies of a painting? To put a historical object in a catalogue? Such means would imply a very specific kind of photo shoot, the kind that uses tripoids and light sets. The kind that would be obviouslly detectable by guards and staff members.

Visitors don’t want a catalogue picture. Visitors don’t care about portraits. Visitors are not interested in stealing from the museum. They are not even interested in the boring postcards for sale at the front desk. All they want is a snapshot of themselves. All they want is to remember they were once part of something culturally meaningful and to have proof of it.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has taken a step further, not only allowing visitors to take pictures but encouraging them to do so. Even more, they ask them to share the pics and use them in their It’s Time We Met marketing campaign.

The result? A museum taken by people. A place with real interaction between objects and visitors.

Aside from keeping their visitors from building this meaningful experiences, museums not allowing pictures are also missing a huge marketing impact. And I’m not talking about stealing the Metropolitan’s campaign off, but about the power of social media. Most of this pictures will end up posted on Facebook, Twitter and the likes, showing everybody else what a great time a visitor had at a certain museum.

So, museums, you heard me... let us take pictures. Let us continue snapshooting our lives.

Guso Macedo

*This article's title was taken from an idea presented by Dr. Luis Gerardo Morales during his conference "Museum's Narration, Context and Learning" at INTERCOM 2009.