Monday, 13 January 2014

Photo or no photo at the museum?

With smartphones and digital cameras so widely available, it becomes easy to take pictures in museums (when it is allowed). But is it a good idea?

In recent study published in Psychological Science, Linda Henkel of Fairfield University explains, based on a rigorous study, that people who take pictures of objects or specific details of objects have worse memory of them than participants who just looked at the exhibits.

In the article “No Pictures, Please: Taking Photos MayImpede Memory of Museum Tour” about this study, Henkel calls this the “photo-taking impairment effect” and is quoted explaining:

“When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences”

Because we think we will be able to look later at the photos at our leisure, in the comfort of our home, we don’t focus… we are not in the moment.

Is that Diderot? - Oil on canvas panel (6" x 8") by Benoit Philippe

So, photo or no photo?  Let see the positive and negative points

Positive points

  • I have taken photos of paintings for this blog, because it is a great way to share and give a sense of a museum or an exhibition.
  • Photographs are a great way to complement the notes I take in my notebook about the composition, colours, texture. Because I take notes, I need to concentrate and really look at the painting. I may also draw a quick thumbnail with annotations (see: Taking notes at the museum).
  • I can photograph interesting details showing the artist’s technique or texture that would normally not show on pictures posted on the website of the museum.
  • I always take a picture of the label. This saves time when I rename the picture files of the photographs. Also, with the exact title, I can find more information on a particular painting on the Internet. It is frustrating to look for a painting and struggle to find it because you don’t have the exact title.
  • I also like to take picture of people looking at the paintings. I find they make interesting subjects. You can see some of these paintings on the blog (Polka dot 2; Louvre-Lens meditation; Watching The blind girl)

Negatives Points

  • The main one is that you don’t enjoy the exhibition the way you should: you rush through, taking one picture after another and you don’t stop to admire any of the works on display. The reason you go to see “the real thing” is because a photograph will not give you the same feeling as the original…
  • The other potential drawback is that, if everybody starts taking photographs, it becomes distracting.

Check before your visit

Not all museums allow you to take photographs. It is best to check the museum website before you go. Another reason to check the website is that their online catalog may be so good that it does not make sense to take any (or many) photograph.

If you can’t find the information on the museum website about their policy for taking pictures, ask when you buy the admission ticket.

For museums allowing photographs, make sure you understand the rules:
  • You may need a permit (sometimes for free, other times for a small fee).
  • No flash and no tripod seem the rule.
  • Generally, not for commercial use.
  • Taking pictures may still be prohibited in some sections for copyright reasons (contemporary works, temporary exhibitions, works on loan from another museum, etc.)

Related resources


Cindy Michaud said...

love this, like folks who record a vacation instead of really enjoying it...whaaat? go home to then feel the joy of vacation?

Cindy Michaud said...

BTW, would love to share this with my readers on my blog next month, giving credit to you of course and doing some editing to make my own comments...please email me with your reaction/permission and how to credit you and link back.

Benoit Philippe said...


I don't really do "re-publishing" but you are welcome to quote extensively from this post (with quotation marks) and add your own views. Please include a link back to this post.