Had I not had my camera, I think I would have been more focused on the painting on its own. Because of my camera, I was very aware of the image created by all of these people gazing at The Milkmaid, nodding as they watch her pouring milk. A new perspective. I also liked seeing how respectful people were about waiting to take a photo of the painting, as though a little shy about taking liberties with such a celebrity.
I noticed that the act of taking a photograph seems to give people a sense of agency, an important sense of something to do. I'm often struck by the flatness of the experience (visual and emotional) in art museums: flat paintings against flat walls with flat captions. Sure, the idea is that the art should reach out to you in some way, but in practice it often leads to a kind of dead-eyed shuffle through the galleries. (Just spend five minutes in the Louvre on a Sunday morning and you will see what I mean.)
A recent piece of research (seized upon with GLEE by numerous broadsheets) suggests that taking photographs of objects in museums worsens recall of those objects. But the research also found that if there's a specific reason to take the photo (to zoom in on a detail, for example), people remembered it better. So, with the right incentive (whether your own interest or someone else's suggestion) a camera can be a tool that helps you feel like an active participant in the museum experience, not just a shuffler.
And here, everyone seems to be ignoring him.
But again, the interaction of the people, their cameras, my camera and the painting framed the experience in a new way. If anything, I thought my appreciation of the painting was enhanced because of this moment when I was acutely of Vincent Van Gogh's loneliness in the middle of a crowd.
So, I think it's safe to conclude that the presence of people photographing in the Museum didn't ruin the experience for me, nor - I hope - did I ruin anyone else's experience (apart from the man who elbowed me as he tried to get into optimal position to photograph this painting). The crowding wasn't ideal but was mostly limited to the iconic paintings - there were still plenty of opportunities in the museum to have an uninterrupted one-on-one with the art.
In fact, the visit was an important reminder that when artworks are in public spaces, the public - and their cameras - become part of the experience. The obligation is on the museum makers (myself included) to develop galleries that respond better to the fact that visitors are not just participants in their own visit, but also become part of how other visitors experience the museum.
In other words, while you could say that The Rest of Us Are Ruining the Art Museum for the Rest of Us - you could also argue that the presence of other people contributes to the kind of unique, memorable experience you can only get from visiting a museum.