Guarding at several art museums over the past two decades, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in the way many people commemorate their visits with photography. More and more museumgoers are using individual artworks as cool things to be photographed next to. Increasingly, museum visitors are less interested in appreciating the art on display, and more invested in finding pretty objects to accompany their selfies. It’s as though history simply becomes the background to their own portraits. “Look — that’s me next to [insert famous masterpiece]!”
This behavioral turn corresponds to the rapid developments in photography since the turn of the century. In the 20-plus years since I began guarding at museums, photography has become: digital, allowing for instant image production; a commonplace feature on smartphones and other devices; and ubiquitous via social media. When I began my career as a guard at Harvard Art Museums in 2001, visitors wishing to take photographs had to sign a special form at the front desk and wear a badge with a camera logo. Permission was never denied, and though people probably didn’t read the whole document, which outlined the rules of taking pictures in the galleries (no flash, video, or heavy equipment), it was an attempt to deter willy-nilly photogs.
Today, museums actually promote photography in their galleries, forgoing the need for special permission. And why wouldn’t they? It’s free advertising. If you didn’t already know that Pablo Picasso’s “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” (1905–6) resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, you will once someone you know posts it online. The problem here is that people don’t always know what they’re photographing or even bother to read the accompanying wall text. True, museum professionals often lament the fact that some visitors spend more time reading the wall texts than actually looking at the work. But if people are going to take the time to photograph something, I’d rather they also photograph the pertinent info, so that they know what it is they shot while later scrolling through their endless photos album.
To complicate matters, there are works that require the viewer to photograph them in order to view them, such as Hank Willis Thomas’s “And I Can’t Run” and “Blow the Man Down” (both from 2013). And while some people forgo taking pictures of themselves in front of great works of art, seeking only to capture the art itself, there are usually high-resolution images in the form of postcards in the museum gift shop. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get as good a shot as the in-house photographer. I get it though: People want to photograph things themselves; it makes their experiences feel more real.
Digital photography coupled with social media has turned the world into a cornucopia of boundless experiences. The problem is, these experiences tend to be regarded as individual, rather than collective. An art museum should be a place that brings us together and shows us how we are all part of a larger history. I am more than aware that I sound like an old fuddy-duddy. And I fear that my words will most likely fall on deaf ears. But I can’t help but think that the artwork people are photographing in museums is falling on myopic eyes. Museumgoers are increasingly regarding the work they find in art museums as an accoutrement to their existence, to their world. All this old stuff lying about is only there to serve their solipsism. Say cheese!