Thursday, June 05, 2008

Photography in Museums

This piece was spawned by a discussion between Neil (who just got back from Iceland) and another correspondent (who asked that the entry to be edited from the version originally posted at about 9 AM this morning). My comments took on an (overblown) life of their own...

(Neil's original observation)

1. Allow photos - bluntly get with the modern world and
allow it.
The concept of "we copyright our artefacts you can't take
pictures but we'll sell you..." is dead. The "it interferes
with other people" in most cases isn't true. I would have
said "never" but after Maeshowe I'll moderate that to
"mostly". Even in the case of places like Maeshowe there
should be regular "photo tours" where photos are allowed
(say 1 of the 8 daily tours).
Feel free to disallow flashes, feel free to use anti-flash
glass. Feel free to keep fabrics in drawers with the lights
off until people pull them out and push the button.
This goes further though - people want the photos so HELP
them. Check the lighting for glare on the glass. Provide
scaling in the exhibit cases so the photos are more useful. Perhaps the simplest way is just to use a standard font to
provide the numbers in the cases. A couple of museums did
that, now I just have to email them and ask what font it was
and presto I've got a scale.

This is a massive problem, going back to the late 70's into the early 80's. By my observation, about the same time as the switch from museums regarded as collections held as a public trust headed by historians and archaeologists, to museums as entertainment enterprises headed by business managers.

When museums were supported by public funding, a clear argument can be made that the owners of the objects are in fact the visiting public. I therefore have a right to take images of my own stuff. Tempered by the dynamics of maintaining public access and not harming the objects.
I find the general idea that many major museums consider that allowing images to be taken of objects inside the collections is to be considered a form of revenue generation troubling on a couple of levels.
Right off the top, I must temper my opinion by noting that particularly in the United States, there are many PRIVATELY owned collections, rather than the mainly PUBLIC ones normally the case in Canada. There is a further gray area around 'Not for Profit Corporations', which are also far more common in the USA than here in Canada (and I suspect not common in Europe either).
I note that when an institution says it is 'licensing images from the collection' this implies (to me anyway) that it is the likeness of the object that is being controlled, not the physical photograph itself. If the object is held in a public institution, the museum is at best 'holding the object in trust for the public' and a legal argument can be made that 'they' do not actually 'own' the object itself (see above).

Commercial 'for personal profit' use of the images being perhaps a different situation. I say perhaps. There may be a fee charged which is related to the mechanics of making the image itself. Note that this is not related to the 'rights' to the actual object.
If I request the object taken out of its case, so that I can apply special lighting or image set up, then I should fully expect to pay something for that level of access. In this case I am paying for the supervision and action of the curatorial staff. However, as I personally make the actual photograph, what I chose to do with it after the fact is my concern alone.
If I want to use a 'standard image' that the museum has produced of the object (where they have done that set up), then of course I should have to pay for the service provided. Then I am in fact paying to license the photograph itself. This costs whatever the institution deems suitable. Again its not the likeness of the object, but the physical photograph I'm then paying for.

There are clear technical restrictions related to objects and photography.
- The most obvious one is related to the use of lighting. Without direct staff supervision, no use of specialized lighting. This extends into the public displays - no use of flash photography by anyone, at any time, of any thing. It is true that only certain classes of objects react in a negative way to intense light, some are not effected in any way what so ever. Painted versus metals as a clear example. For purposes of control, its just simpler to rule 'no flash photography'.
- No use of tripods (or monopods). Two reasons, the most obvious being the blocking of floor space that tripods represent. The second reason was originally related to image quality. In the days of slow films, it was simply impossible to make 'publication quality' photographs without the use of a tripod during the exposure. The way to solve this physical limitation imposed by the technology of film cameras was through the use of flashes. See above.
So in the 'old days' a simple way to segregate personal 'snap shots' and potential commercial photography was simply to forbid the use of either tripods or flashes. However, starting in the late 1970's technology started to breach these imposed limitations to quality.
- First was the introduction of more sensitive colour films. I can actually remember when the first of these, Kodak Ektachrome 200 ASA, was released against the then standard Kodachrome 64 ASA. At first this increased ability to take effective colour images in lower light was balanced by less clarity to the grain. Eventually most of the major manufacturers had colour print and slide films that gave accurate colour and high image quality at 400 ASA. This the difference between needing bright sunlight to being able to shoot good images with normal indoor light levels. (Refer to the comments on museum lighting below)
- The Second 'problem' for museums was the introduction of physically ever smaller and more automatic cameras, especially as built in flashes became the standard. Again in the 'old days', a quality 35 mm camera was a relatively large and complex piece of equipment. The flash itself was a secondary piece of equipment. These were bulky enough to be clearly obvious. So museum staff could sort out potential commercial photographers at the gate. These were also significantly expensive equipments - a good 35 mm camera cost the equivalent of at least three weeks wages. The standard 'instamatic' type tourist camera took small and extremely poor quality images, certainly not good enough for any kind of publication use. As camera technologies and miniaturization increased, better image quality and more automatic features got packed into smaller packages - and at seriously reduced prices. A major problem now occurs. The camera is far smarter than the person using it. The machine decides if a flash is required, and uses its own built in flash to provide the intense light required. Most owners have no idea how to turn off this function. It becomes easier for museum staff to just forbid ALL cameras than attempt to judge just who is knowledgeable enough to be allowed to use one correctly in the museum environment.
- The switch from film to digital imaging has huge implications. The 'processing gap' between taking the photograph and converting it for publication has shrunk (if not completely disappeared). My current digital camera is an Olympus 35 mm frame with a 8 MG 'sensitivity'. The cost was roughly equivalent to one and half days pay. The images it takes are roughly equivalent in terms of quality to those I got from my 30 year old Yashica using Ektachrome 400. Now I took over 600 images on my recent Denmark trip. At two museums, I took images of virtually EVERY object in the collection from the Viking Age period. If I had done so on slide film, the cost of film and processing would have been at least $600. Most of these images are at least good enough quality for web based publishing. I was not using the best quality that the camera was capable of recording, but even still most of the images would compact to the standard 300 dpi at 8 x 10 size (again about what would be expected from the film).

Curiously (or not so much so) the increasing use of 'theatrical lighting' in museum presentations also have its date traced directly back to the increasing technology of casual photography. Many of us who love detailed looks at objects remember the old days of the 'Victorian Stuff' museums and display methods. Flat groupings of many related objects with simple and ample overhead lighting. One easy way to reduce the quality of potential images is merely to reduce the amount of light available for making the photograph. Some of this shift is also due to an increased consideration for the durability of some objects and the effect of light on them. When the case is full of iron or glass, this argument is laughable however. The current use of small pools of highly directed lighting clearly negates the argument that this is done for preservation alone. Any serious student of the artifact has been endlessly frustrated by the net result of such theatrical effects. A highly illuminated surface that leaves the rest of an object shrouded in darkness leaves the human eye unable to make clear observation. It certainly makes clear photography virtually impossible, and its hard not to assume this is the primary reason for the staging.

On my own recent trip to Denmark, I had contacted each of the major museums I planned to visit well before my departure. The most important net gain to me was that each institution allowed me to take photographs inside the collection. For at least two of the museums (National Museum in Copenhagen and Ribe Viking Centre) there is normally no photography permitted. At the Ribe Viking Centre, I did in fact take images of virtually their entire Viking Age artifact collection. I also purchased both the popular overview and the primary archaeological report containing 'official' images of the same objects (spending some $200 just on these).
I balance that very positive experience against what happened at the National Museum in Dublin on my only other overseas trip (back in 1989). Here I was not even allowed to take my camera INTO the museum. This because they were attempting to generate revenue via the selling of books that described 'the Treasures' - objects like the Ardaugh Chalice and Tara Brooch. My reason for visiting the collection was NOT to see these objects (for which I did in fact purchase both books and 'official' images on slide). My interest was in the many everyday (thus not 'impressive') objects from the recent Viking Age Wood's Quay excavations. Objects which (even still) have largely not even had the original primary archaeological reports published. The net result was that instead of any clear record of what was on public display, I have merely a few scribbled notes and small drawings in tiny note pad. On any number of levels, the entire experience was negative.

How fast the once imposed technical limits on photography are shrinking creates new problems for any institution that operates under a pure business model, where they think access to quality images of their collection is nothing more than a revenue stream. Truth is, many institutions are allowing the imaging technology of the 1970's and the business practices of the 1990's to shape their current policies.
At best, a policy of 'no photography without signed release' is one that would satisfy both researcher and manager.

1 comment:

Chris Manning said...

This is a subject which has bothered me for many years now. Just like you , most of the objects I'm interested in are metal. The use of flash or decent lighting is not going to affect them at all. However, I'm willing to play along with the no flash rule that most museums have now. My DSLR has a vibration reduction lens on it which allows me to take hand held photos as slow as 1/5s without blurring of the image. I get reasonable shots of most objects that way.

I would also be willing to play along with the no photography rule if museums were willing to publish decent reports on their collections.

The Vatican and the AGO have been my most frustrating visits. The Vatican allowed non-flash photography in most places. The Sistine Chapel, and their "Papal treasures exhibit" were the exceptions. The Sistine Chapel is no big deal since there is an excellent book covering the restoration and has all sorts of pretty pictures. Unfortunately there is no catalogue for their metal objects.

The AGO was in many ways more frustrating than the Vatican. Not only was I unable to take non-flash photos of their medieval metal work, I was berated for trying to sketch some of it as well. At the time they had no catalogue of their medieval pieces. Very frustrating when you consider that the AGO receives 40% of their funding from the government. Perhaps if I spent the $1500 to join their Curators' Circle they would allow me to sketch pieces....

For those of us who are not "art professionals," trying to get reasonable access to collections is nearly impossible.


February 15 - May 15, 2012 : Supported by a Crafts Projects - Creation and Development Grant

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