Tuesday 14 October 2014

How Do You Take Your Art?

How do take your art?  Alone or in a crowd?  Fast or slow?  Through a camera lens or in a camera-free zone?

The debate about how people should behave in art museums ramped up recently as the National Gallery in London became the latest in a slew of museums to allow photography in their galleries, leading to many, oh many, columns about how photos - selfies in particular - are Ruining The Museum Experience For The Rest Of Us (see here and here if you're interested in reading more) linking directly or indirectly to opinion pieces that suggest You're Looking at the Art All Wrong (here and here).

Oh.  Really?

In the interests of satisfying my curiosity I decided to carry out my own, entirely personal, non-scientific research on a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, one of the most visited art museums in the world.
I spent most of my time in two of the most popular areas of the museum: the Gallery of Honour (featuring big names like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hals) and the 19th century galleries.  I didn't take any selfies, but I did spend a lot of time looking at art, photographing art and photographing other people looking at art.  

The brilliant Nina Simon points out that one of the main gripes against allowing photography in museums (makes it harder to see the art) has less to do with photography as such, and more to do with crowding.  So even if the museum banned photography of, say, the Night Watch, I'm pretty sure you'd still have to peer through a crowd of people to see the painting.  But while it's true that there's a perma-crowd in front of the work - actually, brilliantly, standing in a crowd (taking photos, talking, looking at their maps, jostling for a better view) helped me to get it.  I'm in a crowd, reflecting a crowd, reflecting a crowd ...

Here, people are gathered round Vermeer's Milkmaid.  I love this photo: it looks just like she's doing a demonstration in a department store.  Hey, check out this great milk pourer I have.  Yours for only €19.99.

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.

My pro-photography stance was tested later on, beside the Van Gogh self portrait.  There was a bit of pushy-shovy as two guys tried to get into the best position for photos.  It made me feel uncomfortable to see Vincent's sad face peeking out through the crowd.

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.

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