The Rise of the Happy-Snappers
It’s that time of year in Paris – parisians have gone where ever it is they go for the summer (Côte d’Azur? Brittany?), boulangeries are closed and the streets are quiet. Except for certain tourist hotspots that is: Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay, amongst others, have visitors queuing around the block. In the Louvre, you can’t stand still without someone poking you and asking you to step out of the way so they can take a photo of their family or loved one smiling in front of the ‘Venus de Milo’, or giving a thumbs up with the ‘Mona Lisa’ in the background behind a swarm of happy-snappers.
Photography was briefly banned in the Louvre in 2005, but with the digital revolution in full swing this was becoming harder to police. What’s more, “No Photography” falls into that category of rules that people tend to ignore (like cycling the wrong way up a one way street or under-age drinking). Result: museum staff meeltdown as they had to constantly remind recalcitrant tourists. Photography is now permitted in the Louvre (except for temporary exhibitions) as long as the flash off.
Photography in museums remains, however, a divisive issue and there seems to be no common stance across major musems. The trend in the United States seems to be to allow photography. The Met, MoMa and the National Gallery in Washington all allow photography without flash and for non-commerical use. In Europe there is no unifying policy. In the National Gallery in London, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Prado in Madrid photography is not permitted. In France, as well as the Louvre, most contemporary art institutions allow photography. But, the Musée d’Orsay, famous for its rich collection of impressionist paintings, recently announced that photography was to be prohibited inside the museum. The museum’s main argument against it is that it causes visitor traffic jams.
While shouty critics argue that the museum management just wants to increase postcard sales, the question is thornier than it first appears.
The website, Louvre Pour Tous, whose mission is to “inform and defend museum-goers”, points out that with this new decision the Musée d’Orsay is missing a trick and revealing itself as backward. People who take photos in museums are often doing so to share their experiences on social networking sites, blogs or photo-sharing sites. By banning photography in the museum the management are seen as “surfing against the tide” of new media, apparently ignorant of the fact that bloggers and other internet users promote the musuem and its contents.
Louvre Pour Tous cites the Château de Versailles, Louis XIV’s extravagant royal residence now one of France’s most visited museums, as a counter-example which has ridden the flickr/picasa/facebook wave and launched a photography competition, “Reflections of Versailles”, based on photos visitors have taken in and around the château. The best entries are exhibited on the website.
Another argument, which is particularly French in its nature due to the structure of public arts funding and, well, national character, is that “patrimoine” (heritage) belongs to every French citizen and so every French citizen should be within their rights to photograph something that is, at least in a fairly abstract way, theirs. Moreover a tract published by the CGT (General Confederation of Labour, one of France’s main trade unions) highlights the fact that 20% of the ticket price at the Musée d’Orsay goes toward the museum’s acquisitions budget. So even non-French visitors can fight for their right to a little piece of Monet or Renoir.
Curiously the question of conservation has taken a back seat in this debate. In the end flash-less photography does little to harm the art. Although this is something that still has to be policed. In the last week the Louvre has erected white gauzy sheets across its more notably ceilings (for example paintings by Le Brun and Delacroix in the Apollo Gallery). Signs claim this is ahead of restoration work, I’d hazard a guess that too many flashes are to blame.
Which begs the question – should people have a right to their piece of “patrimoine” when the historical value of it hasn’t even crossed their mind? The proliferation of digital cameras and mass consumption of images has created a new sort of museum-goer, the happy-snapper. Sometimes these 21st century museum visitors are so keen to immortalize the moment they were grinning inanely in front of Degas’ depiction of parisian down-and-outs in ‘L’Absinthe’ that you have to wonder whether they are actually looking at the art at all. A friend returning from New York felt her visit to MoMA was ruined by the incessant snapping. “One man was trying to get a shot of his young daughter posing in front of Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’” she said, “I wanted to remind him that this is Picasso’s warped vision of a brothel”.
No matter. The snappers will have their way, and they probably ought to.
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