A recent Telegraph article announced that the chairman of Arts Council England thinks there should be a one-hour photo ban (on selfies in particular) in art galleries. My first reaction was: “This is an interesting and absolutely horrible idea.” I see how a photo ban could be conceived as a strategy to enhance the visitor experience—I have certainly muttered to myself in annoyance when there are so many people taking photos of an artwork that I can’t get close enough to see it (or if I feel brazen enough to make my way to the front so I can see it, I feel bad for ruining everyone’s photo). However, if this one-hour photo ban were to go through, I see it creating a lot more negative visitor experiences than positive ones when you put yourself in the shoes of the security guard—the person who has to enforce the rule.
Let me step back a moment and say that I owe my current professional career to my work as a security guard. In addition to many other roles as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, I guarded galleries and certainly learned a lot about visitor experiences. As someone who wanted to work in a museum, I found that I, as a security guard, had the power to either make or break the quality of a visitor’s experience. Tell visitors about Peggy’s many artist lovers while standing in her bedroom—make their visit and even their day. Ask a visitor to leave her bag in a locker or coatroom—incite anger to the point of someone asking for a refund and never setting foot in the museum. It was a humbling experience to say the least and completely transformed my thinking about the work I wanted to do for museums.
Now jumping back to the policy at hand…when reading the article, I first imagined how this would work on the ground. I immediately empathized with the poor security guards who would have to enforce this policy (as did a Hyperallergic author who commented on this policy). Yes, perhaps signage would alert visitors to the ban, but from evaluation we know that it would go largely unnoticed. Therefore, my predictor is that the first awareness a visitor would have of the policy is when a security guard tells him or her not to take a photo. No matter how friendly a security guard may be, being told not to do something can create an embarrassing situation. How the visitor then reacts to feeling embarrassed is another story. Does he argue with the guard? Just continue to take pictures anyway? Does he internalize it and feel awful for the rest of the day? Any way it plays out will generally result in a negative experience for the visitor as well as those around him.
The chairman’s comparison of this no-photo policy and the “quiet car” is a perfect analogy in my opinion. As a frequent train rider, I love the concept of the quiet car, and I choose to sit in it more often than not. It works well when everyone knows they are in the quiet car. The trouble is, typically, there is one person who doesn’t know, which puts a negative pallor on everyone else’s experience in the quiet car. Most quiet cars have a sign, sometimes the lights are dimmer than other cars, and sometimes the conductor will announce which car is the quiet car. Perfect—except non-regular riders do not notice the signs, subtle lighting cues, or are aware what car they are in (am I in the first car?). Therefore, when the un-knowing person is encountered by a fellow quiet-car rider or conductor about a rule-breaking cell phone conversation, the ensuing interaction often doesn’t go well. I have seen and heard about everything—from a New Jersey Transit rider being escorted off the train by police after starting a fight with a confronting rider, to an Amtrak rider construing the conductor’s request as him telling her she “has a big mouth.” For these reasons, I find myself avoiding the quiet car lately because I end up being more frustrated than relieved and feeling more negative than positive. From what I have seen as security guard, evaluator, and expert train rider, more negative than positive visitor experiences might result from this potential photo-ban policy.