museums

In defense of taking photos in museums

Angel Martinez
In defense of taking photos in museums
The art world has greatly benefited from the instinctive practice of pulling out our phones and posting our whereabouts on our Instagram stories

MANILA, Philippines – Prior to COVID-19 closures, visitors of the Ateneo Art Gallery were typically greeted by a bright blue wall, littered with micro-paintings depicting sceneries against picturesque sunsets. This installation in honor of everyday life in the Philippines – entitled Mabini Art Project: 100 Paintings – is also meant to pay tribute to what continues to be considered a conservative, low-brow art form. By “dividing” a single large-scale oil on canvas piece into 100 various-sized rectangular frames, Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan question existing modes of production and consumption and the roles of the viewer in perpetuating these norms.

This rich historical context isn’t exactly common knowledge, yet Mabini Art Project was the most photographed part of the Ateneo Art Gallery up until it was taken down in early 2020. “We really considered it the most Instagrammable piece of the space because of its purpose as a photo wall,” said Boots Herrera, the institution’s director and head curator. “Whenever guests or VIPs come over to visit, we even make sure that we take a commemorative picture with them there.” 

I have one with the installation as well, from my first visit to the gallery as a college freshman. On that day, I remembered students falling in line to sit on the bench facing the wall – posing with their back turned to the camera as if in a moved, introspective state – and then walking away, past the informative notecards provided. It’s become a common opinion among members of Generation Z that doing so strips masterpieces of their importance and renders them as a mere backdrop, a magnet for influencers in the vicinity. But believe it or not, this is the least of the worries of some curators and creators today.

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Art in the formal sense has always been both financially and intellectually inaccessible to some degree, housed in intimidating structures and controlled by influential consumers of high-brow culture. As a result, some argue that these spaces should primarily serve the educated, rather than those with less refined tastes and a lack of know-how on fundamentals. Others would even imply that the presence of the latter type of viewer adversely affects the experience of those who truly “deserve” to be there.

Since one of the primary aims of museums has always been to democratize access to works of art, many all over the world have doubled down their efforts to invite more people in. Now, they welcome patrons from all walks of life, each with differing reasons for visiting and thus equally distinct methods of engaging with what’s on display – including taking photos. “We noticed a new wave of young people visiting [the gallery] after the lockdown, with their main purpose being for social media,” said Gaby dela Merced, head curator of Vinyl on Vinyl Gallery in Makati. “Photography just so happens to be the visual language for the youth of today, which helps cultivate their love for art. Because of that, we are generally okay with photos and the very act of posting online. Personally, I’m all for it!”

As counterintuitive as it may sound, the act of taking photos serves as an entry point for engagement with cultural properties. Gal Zauberman, a marketing professor from the Yale School of Management, conducted a study with his co-researchers in which they randomly assigned certain participants to take photos during key events and then record their reactions. His team found that those who were told to snap pictures enjoyed more, as they focused on the visual aspects that allowed them to savor the moment fully. If this act is capable of eliciting such an effect, it seems rather snobbish to demand that museumgoers partake in the experience in a pre-approved, pre-determined way.

In fact, as Yuha Jung stated in her timeless thesis on “the ignorant museum,” “If the museum does not encourage visitors to engage with those objects [on display] in their own ways and to consider their relevance to their own memories, history, and knowledge, the museum becomes a mere depository that benefits only a few people.” By implying that those who interface with artwork in ways we don’t deem critical enough cannot fully appraise and appreciate what’s on display, we may end up discouraging well-meaning beginners from cultivating an interest in the field. We can only be policed for normal behaviors too many times before we decide it’s probably best to walk away.

“I cannot impose that others should experience my work in this certain way alone; that they devote this amount of attention or do these certain actions to prove the intensity of their interactions,” said Mars Bugaoan, a contemporary visual artist and printmaker. “I just feel like these things are generally out of my control. All I’m in charge of is creating an environment and letting visitors in: whatever they feel, however they choose to connect with what I do is entirely up to them already.”

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Much has been said regarding the inherent evils of social media, but it isn’t exactly the enemy in this case. In fact, the art world has greatly benefited from the instinctive practice of pulling out our phones and posting our whereabouts on our Instagram stories, especially after pandemic restrictions eased. “Since we allowed photography five or six years ago, we began seeing social media as an advantage that allows us to augment what our team can do in an official capacity,” said Herrera. “Yes, we see the people taking photos and videos of our exhibits and no, we are not offended. In fact, we see it as indirect promotion! Thanks to the increased audience reach that Facebook and Instagram has brought us, we saw a spike in visitors post-lockdown, which has really helped us sustain demand for our programs.”

The Ateneo Art Gallery has since reinforced their digital efforts, uploading 80% of their past and existing collections to their website and creating virtual tours that go beyond “the typical AI-constructed galleries” to allow curious observers to get more up close and personal with in-house artwork.

Dela Merced echoed this, saying that accommodating the major shift to online platforms was crucial to Vinyl on Vinyl’s survival. “We appreciate any kind of media used to promote our work, especially those that cater to different age demographics. When we want to reach out to our audience, we don’t want to exclude any group, which is why we find it important to boost each one.”

Even artists benefit from the wide reach that can only be afforded by algorithms. “It’s a given that those you know will like your work and tell you about it, but if a stranger reaches out to me or posts my work online, it’s one way of validating that they truly did connect with my piece,” Bugaoan shared. “It’s a way of measuring engagement as well, especially since I’m the kind of artist that creates an atmosphere that doesn’t exactly have a definite meaning. Social media has become a way to connect with people through art that you’ve done, whom you probably wouldn’t have had the chance to speak with otherwise.”

This liberty to document our visit, however, doesn’t absolve us of any responsibilities we have to those around us. “While our team has never considered ‘who deserves to be in our space’, we do remain worried about the safety of the artwork as well as the physical experience of those who come to visit,” Herrera said. “This is why we don’t allow flash photography or the use of selfie sticks: it will distract other viewers and maybe cause accidents. If someone gets temporarily blinded because of the brightness of the flash or hits other pieces, they could harm both the display and themselves.”

Bugaoan brought up a recurring incident during the annual onsite Art Fair Philippines, where “stereotypical millennials” would painstakingly try to achieve the perfect photo in front of a painting or sculpture that it would “ruin the vibe” for every other paying customer. “Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t be getting in the way of those who want to encounter the work as well. We should still be sensitive and mindful in spaces like this: although you’re not prohibited and actually encouraged to take photos, you shouldn’t forget that museums are meant to service everyone and not just you.”

Dela Merced also recalled an ongoing trend she would observe among visitors, who would pose in front of the white walls between their paintings. “There are plenty of other spaces outside with equally bright walls and even better lighting. It irks me a bit when they have to do it inside because it disrupts others’ experiences.”

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While there are no requirements for re-entry into these establishments, it still helps to enhance one’s experience by extending it beyond its four walls. “One way to express long-term support and relationship-building with a work of art or the artist is continued conversation as an audience member: assessing what the artist is trying to make us understand and allowing that assessment to serve as a catalyst for one’s own creative output,” said Bugaoan. “If you have a platform, you can also share your experience with the art and artist so your following can feel compelled to visit as well.”

“If something on display interests you, don’t let that end when you walk out of the museum,” Herrera suggested. “You might want to look it up, find more information about it online, and share that. After all, we can only do so much: we cannot give you everything nor can we force you to act a certain way.” 

She adds that objects placed in an exhibition are rarely created or situated in relation to one another: their job as curators is to make sure they all function in harmony, as vehicles for understanding concepts and ideas. Whatever comes next is entirely up to us, a realization that can be both daunting and freeing – daunting in the sense that we are challenged to create something meaningful and productive upon bearing witness to the brilliance of others, but freeing because we all conveniently possess a unique perspective that breathes new life into the work we interact with.

This is precisely why it’s important to allow others to immerse themselves in art in whichever way they deem fit – even if at first glance, it looks like they’re just staging elaborate photoshoots for the ‘gram. The art world is still viewed as an ivory tower by the general public, steeped in elitism and sorely lacking in inclusivity. Instead of finding ways to keep the walls high and shut people out, we should be concerned with opening more doors and letting light in. – Rappler.com

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