Museum Photography: Examples from Three Countries (UK, USA, and Russia)

Industrial Gallery, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (@Julia Shuvalova, 2008)

In the first week of December I went to Birmingham, and one my destinations was the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery that houses the works of some leading Pre-Raphaelites. Taught by experience, I asked about museum photography. Yes, I had to fill out the form again, but this time the rules were set out in more detail, although once more there is a clause or two that may potentially be difficult to interpret even for the staff themselves:

1. Any copyrights (including publication rights) created in the photographic materials produced under the conditions stated below are reassigned to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

2. Any photography is for personal reference only. No permission for any reproduction rights of any kind is granted or may be assumed. Permission for reproduction rights should be applied for, in writing, to the Picture Library. Each case will be evaluated independently.

3. Any work, which is protected by the artists’ copyright, may not be photographed without the permission of the copyright holder.

4. Any works on loan, including temporary exhibitions, may not be photographed.

5. Flash photography is permitted unless otherwise specified.

6. The use of professional photographic equipment is prohibited. Tripods and monopods may not be used under any circumstances.

7. Video cameras or camcorders may not be used under any circumstances. Filming is prohibited.

Fair enough, reading these rules may put an intrepid visitor off taking pictures in the gallery altogether. However, the first two points just further reinforce what I have highlighted in the previous post on the question of reproduction. The problem is seemingly not only about a picture’s commercial use, but about the multiplicity of such uses. Naturally, if the photo is included in a book, it will be reproduced as many time as the book. For this, it is essential to apply for a permission to a museum.

Regarding the 3rd point, my feeling is that this needs to be discussed with the copyright holder before their work actually gets to be displayed. This is something that many professional artists’ and photographers’ websites tend to lose the sight of. By creating a website and making it public, they by default agree that this information can be shared. It is the same as with the printed word: if it was printed, you cannot stop people from quoting it. This is not to say that their work can be reproduced for commercial purposes by other people, but this should mean that a blogger may wish to not only write about them and give a link to their website, but also to include an image in the post, to illustrate why it would be good to visit the website at all.

Likewise, when an artist is displaying their work at the museum or gallery where photography is generally permitted, they have to be aware that a visitor can upload a taken photo online. It makes every sense to restrict this, on the one hand; but, on the other hand, the world has grown bigger with the Internet, and this potentially means that artists, especially young, may find it more and more difficult to compete with other artists and to assert themselves in the world. Social Media tools, and particularly photosharing, will facilitate this to an extent.

With loaned works and temporary exhibitions, I feel the galleries would need to spare some resources to clearly display the permission signs in such spaces of the gallery. As more and more often galleries intercept the regular display with a temporary exhibition, it is difficult for a visitor to understand where a photography permission ends and where it resumes again.

Regarding the specialist photography permission, this is a good point and the one that I think can be reinforced to avoid the taken photos being reproduced to a commercial end. This is how the Brooklyn Museum defines their stance on photography in the gallery:

Photography and videography are allowed in the Museum so long as the images are taken using existing light only (no flash) and are for personal, non-commercial use. Photography and videography are often restricted in special exhibition galleries.

Add to this also that many paintings are displayed under the glass, hence the photographic image of a painting in the gallery space can be far from ideal for reproduction.

A different take on photography and videography in the museum comes from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia. As you need to purchase tickets to view the collection, you can also purchase a permission to make photos or videos in the museum. The website explains that there are warning pictograms in the halls where it is not permitted to take photos or to use flash. I did use this permission once myself in 2002, and this was great to show the museum to my parents who happened to have never visited the Hermitage.

The question rises, of course: why would I film, and not buy a video cassette or a DVD? Well, we all count our pennies, and on my memory even 6 years ago it was cheaper to pay for a photography pass rather than to buy a DVD set. I have been taking a notice of what people photograph and film, and I have never seen any of them making a complete record of the collection. If any of the readers have been to the Hermitage, they vividly imagine the sheer grandeur of the place: you would not know what to photograph because there is too much to see, and all too splendid! They say it takes 5 hours to quickly run through the entire Hermitage (i.e. only stopping at a few paintings), so imagine the weight of this on your photo- or videocamera. But what the Hermitage achieving with this is very valuable. On the one hand, they allow people to create a personal record of a visit to this art depository, a historic monument, and one of the most beautiful sights in the world altogether. On the other hand, by asking for a small fee for a photography permit they also bring in money to the museum.

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