Why I won’t visit museums that don’t allow photography

museum photography

In February, I wrote that when I was in Milwaukee, I didn’t go inside the Pabst Mansion because the place doesn’t allow photography. Not only did the mansion lose out on my $9, they lost out on other potential customers who might have seen my photos and decided to visit the place for themselves.

I’ve drawn a line in the sand. I refuse to visit any museum or tourist attraction that doesn’t allow visitors to snap pictures.

Reasons for banning photography
There are only two possible justifications I can think of for a photography ban (and if I’m missing something, please leave a comment and let me know): A) Either the museum thinks that photography, particularly flash photography, might damage some artifacts, or B) The museum thinks that if people take photos, they will end up online, people will see them, and then won’t come visit since they’ve already seen some of the museum’s collection.

Situation A can easily be resolved by banning flash photography but allowing non-flash photography.

As for B, that’s a silly theory. If anything, seeing really cool photos of a museum will make people want to go there. I’m pretty sure that more people are enthusiastic about checking out the Harley Davidson Museum after seeing my photos than they were before. That’s generally how these things work.

harley scott riding

I’ve also heard a few people say that copyright issues are in play when it comes to photography bans, but I don’t understand that one either. Why am I not allowed to take a picture of a copyrighted work? I can take photos or make audio copies of copyrighted music for my own personal use. Why would the same logic not apply to photography?

Photography bans are futile
Last year, I broke my photography-ban rule and visited the Grammy Museum, only because I’m a huge fan of the Grammys and of music in general. Of course, I snapped some photos when nobody was looking. And I’m hardly alone – a Flickr or Google search will confirm that hundreds of pics of this place are online, despite their photo ban.

The lesson is this: With all the tiny digital cameras these days and even cell phone cameras, people will take photos in your establishment and they will end up on the Internet, whether you like it or not. There’s no use trying to fight it.

To me, museums that still ban photography are like record companies in the late ‘90s that opposed downloading. Instead of embracing the technology and using that free publicity to their advantage, they stubbornly stick to an antiquated view that winds up being a lose-lose scenario for everyone involved.

grammy museum

A little over a year ago, the Museum of Arts and Design lifted its ban on photography. The director of public affairs explained it this way:

“In an age of blogs, iPhones, Facebook, and WikiLeaks, MAD realized that we could not control the dissemination of images the way we had in the past. Since we had begun offering detailed information about works in exhibitions via cellphone, we were already encouraging visitors to use their phones in the galleries. So who was to stop them from taking a sneak shot? Well, the guards, of course, but they cannot be eagle-eyed 100 percent of the time. Hence the change in policy.”

Other perspectives on the issue
David Saxe notes that some of the most respected museums in the world have no ban on photography:
At Too Many Museums, It’s Check Your Camera At the Door

A photographer examines some of the reasons for photography bans and refutes them:
Museums banning photography is becoming commonplace

Here’s an opposing view from the always engaging Geraldine at Everywhereist. She makes reasonable arguments, but I’m sticking to my guns:
Ten Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Take Photos in Museums

Here’s another opposing (and much less convincing) view. I’m quite sure that people who take photos at museums are there to admire the art in addition to taking photos, but this cynical man doesn’t think so:
These people were at the museum not to admire the art, but to take snaps to prove they were there

How do you feel about photography bans?
If I wasn’t a blogger, would I still feel so strongly about the issue? Probably. It’s hard for me to justify paying to visit an establishment that I can’t share with my readers. But I like taking pictures everywhere I go, so even if I didn’t have a blog, I would probably feel the same way.

If you’re a blogger, how do you feel about photography bans, and how does that affect your coverage of those sights? If you’re not a blogger, do you care about photography bans at all?

All feedback is welcome!

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About Scott Shetler

Scott is a Chicago-based journalist and blogger who seeks out quirky sights and awesome destinations throughout North America and beyond.

48 comments on “Why I won’t visit museums that don’t allow photography

  1. There are many places in India where photography is not allowed, most notably in Temples. There is the security issue and also the issue of peace and divinity that must be maintained inside a Temple.
    I feel its good because then we can pray, rather than clicking pics.
    Like the temple in my latest post, photography was not allowed.
    But in case of museums they should be allowed. Its allowed in Mahatma Gandhi’s house.
    Nice article.
    Have a nice day Scott:)
    Arti recently posted..Dwarkadheesh Temple in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh

    • Authorities at Museum and Religious place, might be thinking:
      We ban Photography because:

      1. Our Collections will be harmed.

      2. greedy and pro-photographers would make it a horrible experience for other Ordinary and sincere Visitors( who actually visited for the purpose of experiencing the beauty of art and/or praying.

      3.On many occasions, we are contributed certain works by other artists/Societies, which do not prefer commercialisation of their work (ofcourse Museums charge an entry fee, but thats considered for maintenance Purposes, and these org. do not want Internet Geeks to exploit on their work and mint money)

      4.Some of the works, hold an active Copyright from the Creator(since he/she or the inheritor may still be alive or depending on the local rules the time period of copyright expiry varies)

      5.We dont want to share our thoughts, but we feel We are gonna Suffer revenue losses. 🙂

      6. Even if we allow and keep certaiin conditions, its gonna be real tough to make them implement and make sure the Photographers abide by them later on.

      Solutions which Authorities may adopt :
      1. keep a few Hours( depending on your survey, when the visitors are generally less) and weekly once, open for Photographers.

      2. Clearly identify, those collections which you allow for Photography.

      3.take precautionary measures to ensure that the artifacts would not be harmed.

      4. Escort the Photographers in small groups to monitor their activities on that particular day.

      5. Charge such Photographers a reasonable fee ( more than for other ordinary visitors), which should be justified since taking such extra measures, would mean extra expenses.

      Voila, I have written a short article in this comment. 🙂 Hey Scott thanks for this wondefull post.
      I agree with you, that the revenue loss fear of museums is baseless. Since, people who are curious would still love to visit such places, infact a bunch of pro-photographers would join the league too, since they would be now Legally taking snaps without any fear and spread the news around.

      I, initially thought of writing an article on this, but since I have discussed it here, I have now decided to write a fool proof yet simple to understand article after reasearching a little more, with focus on the legal rules governing Photography and various situations/locations. i.e When, where & How to Click legally.
      Cya
      Inder RS (www.request2god.com)
      Inder RS recently posted..Poem5- My Enrollment To Vicious Cycle of Life and Death

  2. Bravo. A post to my heart. As you may know, I’m an absolute museum fan and I will turn around at the door if they tell me I can’t take pictures. Mind you, in reply to Arti’s comment: temples or other religious places are different. I only mean proper museums.
    inka recently posted..My favorite Turkish dishes

  3. I was recently in Istanbul and visited the Modern Art Museum there. It’s considered to be one of the best out there and has a huge collection of mostly Turkish artists rather than simply being filled with pieces from the international art world. And it WAS impressive.
    However, they didn’t allow photos inside. I found this supremely annoying. I could have done an entire post on the place which no doubt would have encouraged people to visit when they saw some of the really cool pieces there. But now? No, I’m not sure I’ll even mention it. Would it keep me from going? Probably not, especially if it’s something I really want to see, but I would prefer the option to take photos.
    Kristina recently posted..A Walk Around Rome

  4. It bugs me as well, and you are very correct in that these bans actually prevents visitors. It’s really hard for me to recommend a museum “because it’s cool” and not have ANY photo showing some said museum’s coolness.

    While I am less likely to enter, I haven’t gone as far as you yet on refusing to go to a museum that bans photos, but that’s an interesting take. I wonder, do you notify the museum why you chose not to visit to give your ban more oomph? Just curious.

    I really appreciated the “no flash” rules in some areas of Versailles. For one it kept me from being blinded by people’s constant flashing, but still allowed me to capture its beauty. And it’s probably easier to police than outright banning all cameras, esp, as you pointed out, in this day and age.
    Talon recently posted..Well Hello Colombia!

    • I haven’t actually notified any museums. I have a feeling they wouldn’t care since I’m not anybody big. They probably wouldn’t see the big picture of all the potential publicity they might be losing out on from all bloggers or regular visitors who would be inclined to spread word of mouth.

  5. Scott, I agree with you – there’s no really good reason to ban photography in most places, and they can specify “no flash photography”. Sometimes, if you’re writing for publication (either print or online), they’ll make an exception, but usually not.
    One particularly egregious example of a photo ban was at the Neon Boneyard (I think that’s what it’s called) in Vegas. I was writing for a large-circulation print publication, yet they wouldn’t allow photos — I was told through the state tourism agency that the museum requires you to license (for pay) their own photographs. Seems to me, they shoot themselves in the foot with a policy like that — I crossed them off my agenda, and they were deprived of a potentially large print audience. I don’t get it.
    glen recently posted..HOGS at Louisiana’s Houmas House Plantation

    • Yeah, forcing people to pay for their own photos is definitely a misguided policy. Sometimes it seems these places like to exercise their power rather than thinking about what’s best to promote the facility.

  6. I’ve got a new one for you. The Winchester Mystery House says that they don’t allow photography because someone took a bunch of photos then recreated a Hollywood set based on the photos. Then made a movie about Sarah Winchester that the group did not approve of.

    • Well, now that is insane. Punish everyone for the actions of a couple people? Plus, now that the movie has already been made, people know what the place looks like. So why continue the ban?

      • You would have to ask them 😉 BTW, the whole mystery thing is a fabrication by the people preserving the house. They only fabricated the ghosts/spirits/mystery thing to bring in people and money. In that context it makes sense.

        If you’ve ever been to the house or are interested you should read “Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune”. It explains the REAL Sarah Winchester and is a very good history read.

    • Haha, that’s a good comeback. I made sure to see all the exhibits at the Grammy Museum before I started taking pics, just in case that happened.

  7. hmmm, I know many museums that have oil paintings and older artwork ban photography because of your reason A. Even if they said no flash allowed only on the sign, not everyone will follow the rules, which is a problem. For those museums trying to protect older paintings, I respect them for that.

    Other museums that shows sculptures, crafts and stuff, I probably would not support the photography ban as much. However, since some museums are privately owned by a company or family, watch out man, they can probably sue you for not following the rules or not getting consent.
    Annie – FootTracker recently posted..Photo Essay – Celebration of the Blossoms

  8. Ugh, it totally drives me nuts! I went to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and they don’t allow it. I was completely bummed because there was a bunch of cool stuff I wanted to snap of shot of, for my scrapbook / collection. Even if I’d seen a pic of them online, I would have still visited!
    MassachusEATS recently posted..WIAW #11

    • Damn, I forgot about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame photography ban. I was planning to feature Cleveland at some point as one of my featured travel destinations, but now I might not even bother, since that was going to be the centerpiece of my Cleveland coverage.

  9. I agree, the no photographing rules frustrating especially since they don’t seem to state their reasons behind the ban. When I was in Innsbruck last summer we were allowed to take pictures inside the Hofburg because we were ‘journalists’ (TBUIBK conference). I know you can request the ability to take pictures as a journalist but have also heard that some places are not real receptive with those requests. It would be great to hear from museums regarding this issue.
    Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista recently posted..Off the Beaten Path in Rostock Germany

    • I have seen a lot of museum websites where you can make a formal request to take pictures. Some want large sums of money to grant these requests. I haven’t tried that yet, but it might be worth pursuing.

  10. I can see why not being able to take photos would bother people (it often bothers me), but I don’t think I’d make an ultimatum. I once had a grand notion of starting an album called “Adam standing in front of art” but I never kept up with it.

    Sometimes I like the idea of disconnecting from technology and stepping away from the lens. And usually the only way I do this is if I’m forced to!
    Adam recently posted..An ode to the Berlin Späti

    • I can see that line of thinking. For me, I appreciate things the same whether I have a camera with me or not. Not being able to take pictures just makes me sad I can’t share the awesome sights with others.

  11. I was as a museum yesterday which had a ban. I was disappointed but I understand because a lot, if not all, of their material was copyrighted.

    I’ve written about this topic. I don’t have a problem with the ban. I probably wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t worked in art galleries and represented artists. The last thing most artists I know want is someone photographing their work (or framing their postcards – I’ve seen this happen).
    InsideJourneys recently posted..Weekly Photo Challenge: Two Subjects

    • But I could also go online, find an image of the painting, print it out and frame it or use it on a postcard. If someone wants to violate copyright badly enough, they’re going to find a way to do it. Having a photography ban at a museum doesn’t prevent this at all. That’s why I don’t get the copyright argument.

  12. Scott, what a great post. I really get bummed when there is no photography allowed in some museums. Mostly they say it’s because it can lead to the deterioration. And I can see some people forgetting to turn their flash off (or not knowing how to do it) and flashes still happening, so they ban it all rather than risk it.

    I didn’t think about your other suggestion, that it might deter people from visiting. Dumb move in those cases. Especially in today’s society with social media. Talk about awesome free PR!

    I didn’t read all the comments your post sparked, but I’m sure someone has had to touch on security. I know when we were in Istanbul at Topkapi Palace, they wouldn’t allow photography in certain parts for 2 reasons: they didn’t want to disrupt the flow of movement, and they didn’t want people taking picture to use in plotting to steal certain items.

    Sometimes I feel like sneaking pics, though. I’d never do it, but oh how I’ve been tempted!

    This was a great post. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone address this issue before!
    Courtney Mroch recently posted..Tribute to Professor Cline’s Haunted Monster Museum—Natural Bridge, Virginia

  13. Photography bans are because they want to sell postcards and prints and if you have them you won’t buy stuff. As you said it is something that lessens their revenue because people don’t want to buy over priced stuff. Music and DVDs is suffering because of pricing – they just don’t get it

    i do not like the photography ban but even government buildings are considered not to be photograph – some rules are just not written down

    Taking pictures without flash is good because the picture can come out not print quality.

    Copyright is a tuff call on both sides of the equation
    eileen ludwig recently posted..Why I love timeshare travel

  14. I was at a small exhibition within the Denver Art Museum this week and it was so damn frustrating because I couldn’t take pictures of the gigantic canvases with Kerouac’s words emblazoned on them. In fact, security was so tight when I raised my camera to photo the signage (so I wouldn’t have to take notes) the very burly guard says to me: “There’s a guy standing behind you, so don’t try anything!” Is the security at the Louvre this tight?

  15. Hey Scott,

    Interesting article. I shoot a lot using a tripod so go one step further and hate it when tripods are banned. My most memorable occasion was at Rockefeller Center. The security guard told me it was for liability reasons, in case someone were to trip over it and get hurt. It was 5am, he and I were the only two people there. I promised him I’d make sure he wouldn’t trip, but it didn’t do the trick.
    Johnny Peacock recently posted..Young Boy, Rwanda

  16. I went to one mansion the other day. I asked if I could take photos of the interior decor and they said no. I didn’t ask why but I keep sulking. I think I know reason C: they are nt looking after the place properly and some art critic slash heritage controller might see it and jump into action. Although, your reason B seems to be the main reason I have encountered so far.

  17. Also, many museums now tend to have a website section called For Press and they upload different photos to use in the media, even from the most recent exhibitions. I guess their quality is better than the one I could take with my digital camera.

  18. Great article and I whole heartedly agree with you.

    I’ve been an amateur photographer much longer than I have been a blogger and I always have a camera (or two!) on me when I visit places. Now that I do have a blog, my appetite for photography has only grown because I enjoy sharing pictures with my readers. Fortunately I have encountered very few museums that actually ban photography but I still encounter it once or twice a year. Sometimes I have been able to get permission to take pictures by arrange it in advance but that only works if their website or advertising warns you about a ban in advance.

    If I do encounter a ban – or the staff are intransigent on the issue – I make a point of commenting on my disappointment in their Visitors Book or online. I don’t know if it makes any difference but they are unlikely to change their policy unless their visitors kick up a fuss.

    • Hi Lee, thanks for reading. You make a good point about speaking up – I think that is one of the best ways to get these sorts of policies changed. I even sometimes find it easier to sit back and stay quiet, but we might be able to get some museums to re-think their policies by letting them know how we feel.

  19. Photography isn’t art. Period! There is a fuckload of difference between a talented person who uses his skills to conceive, draw and render a painting and someone who points a camera at a lighthouse and goes *click*!

    If you can’t perceive that difference, then yeah, art museums aren’t for you. Go stare at your photo album instead.

    • I beg to differ from you dear W.W.Maxfield. Agreed clicking an already 2d painiting is no art, but Capturing a 3d moment in camera and presenting it as 2d to the world is something to be appreciated. I hope you understand the difference, if you truly understand and respect ART.

      from an simple artist, who loves to draw, skecth, paint and equally enjoys shooting 3Dimensional objects with a camera. Cheers !!
      Inder RS recently posted..Poem2- Secret Reason Why The Almighty God Gave Us Freedom of thought

  20. I’m a retired photographer (motorsports) and I recently visited several museums in southern California.

    Most museums, like the Nethercutt Museum (which is free!) in Sylmar and the NHRA museum in Pomona welcome photographers (and flash photography) with open arms.

    There are several others that don’t allow flash photography…and I had a choice of jacking the ISO up to 6400 on my camera or dragging a tripod along with me. The thought of setting up the tripod again and again for each shot convinced me to shoot with available light. The results (for personal, non-commercial use) and were acceptable for what I was doing.

    On the other hand, one dinky little collection, the Justice Brothers Automotive Collection in Duarte, CA absolutely refused to allow me to shoot anything. There weren’t any signs, but I asked out of courtesy…and ran into a brick wall. The only reason they gave was, “we used to allow that but we don’t now.” I strongly recommend skipping that place…and I certainly won’t be buying any of their automotive products.

    I considered driving up the coast as far as San Jose to visit the Winchester Mystery House, since I’d visited the Hearst Castle and thought they’d make an interesting comparison, but when I heard that no photography is allowed….well, I saved myself about 600 miles and a day’s travel.

    There’s one place that I don’t understand: The Petersen Automotive Museum in LA. They allow flash photography throughout their facility, except for their “vault” which can only be visited as part of a “special tour.” No photography is allowed in that area, period. I have no idea what’s in there, and I don’t really care. I don’t plan to go back to a place that won’t allow me to shoot, with or without flash.

    So I’m with you, QTG. I won’t patronize places that have an “attitude” toward people with cameras and especially those who do so with no other reason than, “that’s our rule.”

    Sumol Gai

    • I do think most of the opposition is just “that’s our rule,” with no logic behind the rule. I’ve heard about the Winchester House but never made it there. Thanks for offering your opinion.

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