Derby Museum now allows photography following an augmented reality project with artist John Goto using Joseph Wright paintings overlaid porcelain figurines by the Crown Derby Factory

Should museums allow people to take photographs in galleries?

Rebecca Atkinson, 30.07.2012
Vote in our poll and have your say
While some museums, galleries and heritage sites have unrestricted photography policies for non-commercial uses, many others continue to restrict visitors from taking photos of objects and artworks, often citing conservation and copyright arguments.

But are restricted photography policies outdated in this age of social media and mobile-phone cameras? Or do museums have a responsibility to protect intellectual property agreements with donors and lenders by prohibiting all photography?


Should museums allow people to take photographs in galleries?

A feature in the December issue of Museums Journal will look at the issue of photography in galleries in more detail, with the results of this poll used to examine attitudes within the sector.

Readers can share their views on permitting photography in museums in the comment box below.


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Chris Wood
MA Member
Relief Visitor Services Assistant, Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life
24.08.2012, 12:08
It is heartening that so many of the comments here are positive to photography. The biggest difficulty really is policing the no-flash rule - when so many people's cameras default to flash and they think they're just taking a picture of their kids - even though they happen top be standing next to something light-sensitive.
However, there is still an ethical issue related to the use of pictures. Where photography is allowed for 'personal or academic' use, actual publication is taken as going beyond this - as 'commercial use', but most publication that is likely will be in places where no-one (particularly the author/photographer, but mostly the publisher too) actually earns very much, if anything, from the entire publication. This applies particularly to small-press magazines and books (including society journals) and academic journals. By prohibiting publication without permission (and payment of a fee that is prohibitive unless you're doing it for e.g. Dorling Kindersley), museums are actually claiming copyright on visitors' photographs. I would question whether that is an ethically sound position for public and public-funded museums to take!
Beyond that, it also means that pictures of museum exhibits are excluded from these small-press outlets, when their inclusion would actually encourage more people to visit to see the objects 'in the flesh' as well as enhancing the articles they feature alongside.
Jonathan Wallis
MA Member
assistant head of museums, Derby Museums & Art Gallery
21.08.2012, 16:00
Is the value that museums get from licencing the use of images of greater worth than they would gain from the free publicity of images of their collections and galleries plastered all over the web?
teera jantipa
artist academic, folklore museum
16.08.2012, 08:30
Take photography in museum "Play & Learn". (Plus attitudes)
Steve Garland
MA Member
14.08.2012, 10:44
Photography must be permitted; by all means make it clear that images are for personal use only and discourage flash (most cameras now work in very low light, and flashes spoil the experience for others too),
Taking pictures and video is part of the experience for many people. Banning it just reinforces stereotypes of out-of-touch museums. I have always found it odd if publicly-owned (and often publicly-purchased) items cannot be photographed as part of a visit.
Most people are not so shallow that they are happy to see a great painting or exhibit only as an image on their computer. For many, an on-line image may inspire a visit. And if you want to use QR codes to supplement labels...
The other side of this is it is impossible to police. Innocent visitors with cameras will be accosted, but can your staff really tell whether a visitor is texting a friend or taking a picture with their Nokia 808 (41Mp!) phone? Or shooting images with their high definition video spy-camera watch? (OK this is being a bit silly)
Such 'snaps', even from a good SLR, could never be used to create art prints or other commercial items. Producing professional-quality images for commercial use requires skill, time, careful lighting, good equipment and first-class digital processing.
Some exhibitions come with 'no photography' rules attached. If we wish to show these - we will have to comply - to the best of our abilities.
Rather that wasting resources trying to stop photography, better to concentrate on good customer care to manage photographers who annoy others by inconsiderate behaviour.

MA Member
09.08.2012, 21:47
I think it really depends on the collection. Some items are particularly susceptible to light levels and could be damaged by being regularly photographed.
Derek Trillo
MA Member
Student & photographer, University of Manchester
09.08.2012, 11:05
The real question to ask is where did these bans come from? Curators would rather take policy decisions on the basis of the (English) National Trust's well-publicized ban on photography, for security, copyright & conservation. All pure invention to increase sales at the last room in the property (the shop). Over the border the Scottish NT had no similar ban - if any of the criteria were valid then they would have implemented it too. Policy on photography varies within the same country, even the sinmilar institutions e.g. MOMA NY and MOMA SF.

See regarding flash and conservation issues. Flash is damaging to some dyed fabrics, very early photographs and any other really UV sensitive dyes - not paintings, sculpture, ceramics etc. The Mona Lisa must get flashed thousands of times a day!

I have photographed artefacts professionally in galleries and museums for 18 years with flash - I wouldn't use it if it were damaging. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I had to use alternative lighting. Artists love to ban photographing their work as it adds kudos. Is a dodgy amateur photo really a copy? Is a 2D photo ever a copy of a 3D object? Sales in shops of catalogues, postcards etc make copying easy via scanning if you really wanted to breach copyright.

'Professional equipment' has been wielded by staff for years without acceptable copies being produced for publication: That's how professional photographers make a living.

If you want to find out what the issues are around photography then don't copy others because they seem to know what they're doing; ask a photographer who works in this field (all should be members of AHFAP).
09.08.2012, 00:03
Restrictions should only apply if a required light source might harm the exhibit. Copy right laws need reviewing and should certainly not curtail any educational intent.
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
08.08.2012, 22:39
Let's be honest - photography is mainly a problem for art galleries and their curators who have to worry about copyright, light damage and people producing prints and other publications using photographs of the cream of their museums' collections.

If you are displaying collections from other fields such as social history, industrial history, natural history and archaeology, then these worries are rather less important because the valuable items are behind glass and the no flash rule is easy to police and deals with the light damage issue. Otherwise, if someone wants to come along and photograph our industrial history collections for example, then it's a case of be our guest and please acknowledge us if you put it on the web.

The 'no tripod' rule is rather petty: is it a case of 'it's ok to take a photo as long as it is blurred'? Perhaps photographers should sign an agreement at the entrance if you want to use one.

08.08.2012, 15:11
I recently visited a museum in Germany where a fellow visitor photographed every painting in the collection.

The act of photography didn't annoy me, but the noise made by his camera phone (the electronic shutter noise) drove me up the wall!

Photography of works isn't always necessary, but photos of the building, surroundings, exhibition, etc are often a really interesting way for people to capture their experience of the museum. Plus, good photographers often maintain a far better social media profile than small museums so it can help with publicity.

But please - turn off the shutter noise!
Katy Barrett
MA Member
08.08.2012, 14:39
I can see that some museums might wish to stop all photography in order to maintain an atmosphere, especially house museums, but in general we are surely behind the times to restrict photography, and limit our own exposure through this on social media sites.
Louise West
MA Member
08.08.2012, 14:30
There are many reasons for taking photographs, personally I need to for my University course, MA in art and design, where I have to document my research as well as using it for inspiration. Without photographs, I could not do this, and although I do not have any objection to buying images of what I am researching, the images need to be quite specific to be what I need. I think that taking photos also can enhance the experience by being able to look at it again later. I appreciate that some people are not considerate, but that doesnt just relate to photo taking. Also from a personal experience, with a disability, I cannot stand too long in one position to be able to study it as much as I would like to and so photographs are an essential part of the experience.
Graham Black
MA Member
Reader in Public History & Heritage Management, Nottingham Trent University
08.08.2012, 13:26
There are now 7.5billion photos uploaded on to Facebook every month. People want to record and share their good experiences. Museums must be a part of that.
MA Member
04.08.2012, 23:22
I work in a public museum that restricts the use of cameras in specific galleries as a result of copyright restrictions. I don't really see that there is any way to get around this, and do believe that it is important for museums and galleries to be seen to be honouring contractual agreements with artists in every possible way.
I understand that we live in an age where it has become a part of our everyday lives and culture to have the world at our fingertips, and information can be passed on by just the touch of a button, but what I'm witnessing more and more in museums is individuals walking up to a display, taking a photograph, and moving on, without actually looking at the work - the Egyptian rooms at the British Museum are a classic example. It's a shame for the individual, who would rather look at their photographs on the computer when they get home than original artefacts, and it's distracting for everyone else in the room.
The internet is the perfect resource for finding photographs of famous works; the museum should provide the opportunity to marvel at the real thing.
Steffan Ellis
Facilitator / guide, Tredegar House
04.08.2012, 10:47
I agree with the others below. No flash, no tripods etc. Otherwise, in a society where most visitors come with at least a camera phone and want an image of an enjoyable visit and experience, where is the logic in preventing them from doing so?
Elee Kirk
MA Member
04.08.2012, 10:37
My doctoral research uses young children's photographs of a museum to understand their perspective. Photography has become an important part of how people form memories and engage meaningfully in the world, particularly now that digital photograph is so ubiquitous. Taking photographs allows people to remember and share their experiences - exactly what museums want, right?

Of course, sometimes large groups of visitors with cameras can be a bit of a menace, but I think it's a small price to pay for museums becoming part of this way of remembering and sharing. Plus, as we all know, it's great advertising!

I think there should be an assumption that photography is allowed (even in art galleries, as they do in many other countries), unless there are very specific reasons to ban it for particular exhibitions.
Robert Scott
MA Member
02.08.2012, 17:10
As others have said, trying to stop people photographing objects is verging on pointless these days. The same goes for people posting images on social networks.

I think we need to examine what other sectors are doing though. If you take a look at the music sector many people are wringing their hands at filesharing, while others are accepting that they can’t do anything practical to stop it, and are instead using it as an opportunity to reach new audiences. It’s all about turning an apparent problem into another asset.

However I do agree with taking measures to ensure that ‘professional quality’ photography is regulated. I recall working in one museum with a no photography policy that was approached by a member of the public trying to sell postcards of the exhibits back to the museum’s own retail team!
01.08.2012, 18:40
Emphatically, Yes! Just one reason is when tourists for example visit London, often a vital part of their visit includes pilgrimages to various museums and galleries. Photography restrictions mean that tourists leave with travel photos of everything except their visits to exhibitions which is a big shame because it leaves a tremendous gap in the memory of the places visited if there are no photos to remind them of the interesting, inspiring, wonderous (or indeed enigmatic, odd or hideous) things they saw!

Also, I think museums speak more of 'the museum experience' these days and do not expect people to come to exhibitions and main collections just to gawp at objects. Part of the museum experience should surely be to engage with the collection on any level so why not a more personal level through one's own interpretation through photographs?

I agree wholeheartedly with previous comments that photography should be managed however, I think this can be done discreetly in a way to ensure that visitors do not obstruct the exhibits, at least not for too long. There is nothing worse than one visitor leaving having enjoyed the collection immensely by taking as many photographs as possible whilst another leaves having had all the enjoyment drained out of them due to inconsiderate and overly zealous photographers.

I think there will always be exceptions to any rule if we get into copyright issues however banning visitors from even taking photographs of the buildings (especially when so many institutions have invested in such inspiring architecture or refurbishments) has always seemed odd to me.

MA Member
08.08.2012, 17:21
"Museums ... do not expect people to come to exhibitions and main collections just to gawp at objects".

If not, then what on earth are they for?

Is the memory of tourists so poor that they can't recall any of their visit without a photograph? Perhaps if they spent longer looking at real things instead of playing with electronic devices, they might have a more retentive memory and a richer culture.
Evelyn Silber
MA Member
01.08.2012, 17:14
Other than use of flash and photography of loans in exhibitions it now seems completely impractical and pointless to ban photography in museums and galleries.However, alongside the many benefits for study and teaching there are also irritations which can build to obstructions - the people photoographing everything in sight as a substitute for looking at anything for more than 2 seconds - and worst of all the people queuing to have theIr photos taken next to an uber-famous work, to the detriment of those actually wanting to look at it. But other than posting an attendant with a forbidding countenance, deterring such behaviour is problematic. Perhaps it is a price worth paying for the additional access.
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
01.08.2012, 17:24
I instantly thought of the Reina Sofia in Madrid when I read your comment, as although photography is allowed in most of the galleries, it's forbidden in the Picasso rooms - and there are guards by Guernica!

Over-zealous photographers are very irritating, although surely there are only a handful of artworks/objects that would attract this sort of behaviour?
MA Member
13.08.2012, 13:07
with regards to the Picasso rooms I would say from experience that this is quite possibly a copyright issue. Anybody who has worked on Picasso exhibitions might be able to tell you about the absolute nightmare relating to Picasso copyrights. The time spent going backwards and forwards trying to get resources signed off just relating to famous quotes let alone images. It is not always the museum who has ultimate control over some of these issues, it can be much more complicated.

Having said that, where there are no copyright or light damage issues I would say that allowing people to take photographs is an important part of people engaging with the collections and the building not to mention the marketing of your museum.
Lucy Salt
MA Member
Keeper of Art, Derby Museums & Art Gallery
01.08.2012, 16:59
At Derby we now follow the example already mentioned by Oliver in his post below. Non-flash photography is allowed (and without 'professional' equipment, e.g. tripods) for personal use.

We once prohibited photography entirely in our Joseph Wright of Derby Gallery because we wanted to restrict the publication of images of museum objects without permission. Image rights continue to consistute an important form of revenue for the service, but we have reviewed our photography ban recently. Our decision to allow photography was in part based on the idea that most publishers/authors will know to contact the copyright holder of an image for permission anyway. We could also recognise the benefits that photography provides when used in conjunction with social media. That people might be sharing images of the objects that inspire them, or their experience of their visit, with others is somehting that we feel we should be encouraging. Social media includes cross-generational communication, but also a great link with younger audiences, and we'd like to tap into that as it provides oportuntites for audience development.

On a practical level, the use of mobile phone cameras is difficult to manage. We have been using QR codes recently, and so smart phone use is actively encouraged. For us to maintain a ban was not only daft, but very limiting.
Oliver Green
MA Member
01.08.2012, 16:02
A blanket ban on photography in a museum or gallery is both pointless and unfriendly. But allowing photography by visitors does need to be managed in some situations: no flash (not needed with digital cameras anyway), no tripods, personal use only (not for publication) and no photography in a loan exhibition if owners, artists or copyright holders have not agreed. It's pretty straightforward really, but art galleries in particular are still absurdly restrictive about this and usually cite dubious conservation and copyright reasons for a complete ban. Is there any evidence of photography causing museums a real problem?
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
01.08.2012, 16:11
Out of interest Oliver, would personal use only rule out posting a picture to Facebook or Pinterest? And if so, are there any situations where you might let visitors share images in this way?
Oliver Green
MA Member
23.08.2012, 20:41
I suppose what I mean by personal use is non-commercial use and that's probably a better way to express it. Technically, posting a pic on Facebook does amount to publication, and it's a bit more than personal use. On the other hand nobody is going to make money out of a Facebook posting. It's pretty harmless and not something any museum can really hope to control, so why not minimise the officious rules and regulations?
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
31.07.2012, 12:51
Comparison of regulations on taking photographs in European museums. Thanks to NEMO for sending this through on Twitter:
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
30.07.2012, 18:04
An interesting aspect of this question is about how people access information about museum objects online. Quite often, it is through a source other than the museum's website.

This being the case, is it not in museums' interests to encourage Wikipedia, for example, to hold accurate information and images about objects they hold?

Certainly Wikipedians think so:
MA Member
30.07.2012, 17:01
Publishers, authors and musicians have been wrestling with this one for years... do you let your content go free and digital or keep it under strict control? The thing is, it was tougher for music and books because they risked giving away the very content they had sold. Museums don't face that risk - you can't digitally reproduce the experience of standing in front of a remarkable object, and an image merely reinforces memories and inspires others. Hold on - merely? Merely deepens the experience and engages new audiences? ... Perhaps we should not be questioning whether we allow visitors to take pictures but instead encouraging it - and developing ways to monitor their engagement and feed back to our funders.

Of course, living authors and artists may not agree - and there's the opposing rant about people who photograph rather than experiencing their lives...
Danny Birchall
MA Member
Website Editor, Wellcome Trust
30.07.2012, 16:56
The results also prompted me to rewrite our institutional photography page to be a bit more photographer-friendly:
Danny Birchall
MA Member
Website Editor, Wellcome Trust
30.07.2012, 16:54
I did some (very basic) research asking museums and galleries about what governed their attitudes to photography, and how they were changing. There were some interesting answers, and you can see the results here:
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
30.07.2012, 16:36
I'm going to get in first to pre-empt comments that it's not a yes or no question!

Obviously in some instances museums and galleries cannot allow photography to protect copyright (and maybe conservation depending on your view on the damage non-flash photography can cause).

But should they allow photographs with exceptions, or just have blanket bans? Is the former option too hard to police?

I'm also sharing a couple of blogs on the subject: