The Case for Museum Photography

Let me tell you what it is like to be an art history major at UC Irvine. Syllabi often read “30% – Essay on a work of art at LACMA” and “Must provide proof of museum visit with a photograph of you in front of the work.” So you visit a lot of museums. You stand in front of a work of art, taking copious notes. You snap a quick photograph to remember the image in front of you. You ask a fellow patron to snap another of you in front of it. Upon return, you sit down, organize your notes, view the photograph once more and begin to write.

Needless to say, this important scholarly task becomes much more difficult when photographs are not allowed in the particular gallery you are required to visit.

There are many ways to experience art at an art museum. There are simple-minded visitors who enter galleries with expensive cameras, intending to photograph, and by doing so remember and appreciate, every work of art they view at a museum.

There are those who travel far and wide to visit a famous arts institution, such as London’s Tate Modern or Paris’ Louvre, and hope to preserve their experiences by capturing images of themselves in front of famous paintings. There are children who see something cool and instantly photograph it with their smartphones. Finally, there are students, like me, who understand that not all aspects of a work of art can be experienced without viewing the work in person.

In any case, photography is a means by which many individuals appreciate and interact with great works of art and it therefore should absolutely be allowed in all galleries of all art museums to promote the egalitarian nature of an art gallery, increase a museum’s popularity and encourage visitors to return. In the digital age of smartphones and social media, photography at museums is inevitable.

The New Yorker Magazine recently ran an article on the facets of the art museum donation process and the relationship between museums and the many donors who contribute to their collections.

It told the story of Mark Landis, a middle-aged frequent art donor, who gave dozens of paintings, works on paper, and works in other media to an array of museums in several U.S. states. All were fake. Landis had scoped out existing lesser-known works by famous artists and carefully copied them, even physically manipulating his finished creations to make them appear as old as he claimed they were.

Landis had been donating for several years before one museum finally discovered that the works he donated were not originals. Museum visitors who viewed Landis’ copies on display believed that they were seeing original works.

Many museums do not allow photography in their galleries because they do not usually hold copyrights to the works they display, and because many donors do not want their possessions photographed and commercially used by others. Yet copies of almost all works of art can easily be found online, which means that the original must have been photographed at least once.

I can, and do, almost always find an image of a work of art in several places online before viewing it in person, no matter how old, how famous, or how valuable it is.

Thus, when museums enforce strict no-photography polices, in an attempt to protect a work of art from exploitation, they are attempting to fix the unfixable — thousands of copies, whether digital, like those that appear on sites like Tumblr and WordPress, or physical, as were the works donated by Landis, exist, often unbeknownst to the institution itself. Plus, museum guards cannot possibly catch every instance of photography in galleries.

With smartphones and social media platforms such as Instagram, photographs are also an excellent way for museums to increase their popularity and market their collections and exhibitions.

Art museums are non-profit entities that survive almost entirely on funds donated by wealthy patrons and collectors. They often cannot afford to waste the opportunity to market themselves through social media by not allowing photography.

Though no iPhone photograph can do a great work of art justice, photography in art galleries is both a useful marketing tactic for museums and an efficient learning tool for their visitors. I feel confident that as the digital age progresses, art museums will gradually lift their restrictions on photography.


Eli Heller is a fourth-year literary journalism and art history double major. He can be reached at