Intentional Visitor, Put Down Your Camera!

For today, I’d like to change our blog name from “Intentional Museum” to “Intentional Visitor” as I reflect on an article that came to me from a museum friend of mine: Why Taking Photos at Museums is Hindering Your Memory.  I have always been torn on museums’ no-photo-policies, and this article adds another tick in my anti-photo column.

Photograph courtesy of: http://www.emilysack.com/2013/01/why-museums-ban-flash-photography.html
Photograph courtesy of: http://www.emilysack.com/2013/01/why-museums-ban-flash-photography.html

In her research, Fairfield University’s psychological scientist Linda Henkel found that camera-toting visitors have worse memory for objects than those who choose not use a camera concluding that visitors who use a camera “rely on technology to remember for them.”  I felt like she was talking to a younger me.  The first time I went to the Louvre, which was as a high school student, I fell victim to the instinct the article mentions: to “meticulously document” everything!  At that time, I had no idea if or when I would ever return, so I photographed every object I could.  When I had the opportunity to go back to the Louvre in college, I was astounded by how little I remembered about everything from the paintings to the general layout of the building.  I felt as though I was visiting a new place entirely.

The internet affords access to photographs that are of much better quality than those I took with a disposable camera at Louvre; so in retrospect, my compulsion to document now seems silly.  I know that there are many compelling arguments for allowing photography in museums.  For instance, I have heard the argument that being able to take photos can provide a sense of ownership of an experience (e.g., “These are my photos of my experience, and your photos of your experience will be different”).  I have also heard the argument that taking photos contributes to identity-building (particularly for young adults) in that visitors want to share their museum photos through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or Instagram for friends to associate with them.

Despite feeling conflicted on the museum photography issue, even I still love to use my camera when visiting museums to photograph labels for reference when I get home.  But where photography is problematic in my opinion, and as I think the article suggests through the idea of memory-making, is that cameras prohibit close looking—a behavior that I would argue all museum educators, regardless of the museum type, value.  I certainly don’t have the answer, but I’d love to find ways to engage camera-toting visitors in close looking.  I know my museum-visiting behavior has evolved over the years through repeated exposure to museums, but maybe there are strategies out there that encourage close looking (maybe even with a camera in hand).  I would love to hear from our colleagues about what they are!

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9 Responses
  1. It would be great to collect ways in which cameras can help support close looking. Importantly, Henkel found that, “taking a photograph of specific, zoomed-in details aided in an individual’s memory, both for the singular aspect of a work and the larger object in general.” I find this an important distinction. Using your camera to document rather than look closely hinders memory. Using your camera to help look closely helps memory. And, as you point out, there are ways to use the camera to support close looking.

    Similarly, your idea about documenting labels you want to remember seems like it should aid memory. I recently visited the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I particularly liked one room, and looked at everything carefully and thoroughly, and THEN pulled out my camera so I could continue looking when I returned home. This compelled me to look for longer, and more carefully, and allows me to continue to dwell on this exhibition space.

  2. Amanda Krantz

    Rebecca, Thanks for pointing that distinction out about using your camera to document versus look closely. There are so many ways people can use their camera, especially now that most people use the camera on their phones, and so using your camera can support close looking if you use it the “right” way. It isn’t as black and white as I suggest in the title of the blog.

  3. Photography is definitely a hot topic! But, it would be a shame if people were to jump to conclusions based on just the headline of Henkel’s study (I’m not saying you are, but the anti-photo brigade are using this as grist to their mill).

    One big caveat is that participants were *told* what to look at and what to photograph – it wasn’t a study of “natural” museum visits. So while the results are interesting, its implications for how visitors take and use photos in the real world is open to debate. Also, as Amanda said above, the results also showed that the camera can enhance close looking.

    Like most museum professionals, I have hundreds, if not thousands of exhibit photos. I use them to jog my memory of what I’ve seen, or for inspiration when I’m brainstorming new exhibit ideas. I can completely forget I’ve seen an exhibit but then the photo helps the memory come flooding back. For me they are an aid to memory, not an inhibitor of it. Of course I’m not a typical visitor, but photos are not a simple good-bad dichotomy.

    1. Amanda Krantz

      Thanks Regan, It’s great to hear from you! I agree that it would be a shame to jump to conclusions based on the headline of Henkel’s study (and even the title of this blog post). The caveat you point out is important, these weren’t “natural” museum visitors. And it is also important to note that I speak from the perspective of not-an-average visitor. One of the things that compelled me to write this post this way is first-time or “novice” museum visitors. I feel that first-time visitors are particularly sensitive to documenting behavior, and they are really the ones I’d like to put down the camera and look closely. Of course, I’d like them to be encouraged to put down the camera in a friendly and persuasive way instead of the sometimes embarrassing “no photo” way that most visitors are told to put down their camera (which is driven by different reasons than the no-photo message I am suggesting). I just wonder if first-time visitors are even receptive to the no photo message that I think could inspire close looking because I feel like first-time visitors have the most to gain from learning to look closely. Learning to look closely was a revelation to me, even though I feel that I had a proclivity for museums spawned by an aunt who continued to take me to them abroad and in country. And as someone who came to appreciate close looking, I always wonder if there is a way to get visitors there more quickly (even if they are not so inclined) and what the repercussions of are there to them not getting there (is it so bad that they don’t?). So many questions!

  4. Jenny

    Thanks for this, Amanda. I similarly enjoy using my camera to capture labels for later–in fact, for me, I think this helps promote close looking. I like to take pictures of the texts in the room so I have more time to closely observe the object, without first being influenced by the text. Then I read the texts later when I get home and reflect on the experience.

    1. Amanda Krantz

      Thanks Jenny! I am so glad you shared this article with me. As art history folks at UD, I think we quickly learned how important it is to look carefully at objects. I feel like, maybe unknowingly, our professors modeled close looking. Even a decade later, I can still picture Dr. Chapman quietly leaning in closely to take a good look at a print from the Gallery. She wouldn’t say much, but you knew she was thinking a lot!

  5. A couple of years ago I observed a group of schoolchildren in Toronto using digital point-and-shoot cameras to document some ancient sculptures. I could easily envision them creating web resources for themselves, writing journals of what they had seen, and reflecting without the chaos of the field trip or the distractions of classmates. (With the possibility of macrophotography, they might also have captured some telling details visible only on their computer screens.)

    For photographers who understand the camera as a tool, the image becomes a confirmation of individual experiences, literally from one’s own point of view. It can also inspire critical thinking about an object — and about the larger museum scene of observers surrounding and contemplating it. The camera also allows the comparisons that museums tend not to allow: photographs of two objects can be directly juxtaposed using these images.

    As an aside, I am now writing about museum observations I did thirty years ago, and one way I can address what I saw then is by reviewing my crude, dim slides of exhibitions and specific objects. They were a struggle to capture, and my Nikon was a heavy burden, but now I find them to be evocative and generative as I write. We do not use cameras to remember anything. We use cameras to take photographs as we are in the midst of our experiences.

    1. Amanda Krantz

      Thanks David! I like the example you share from Toronto. I would be very interested to hear about the experience reflecting on observations from thirty years ago. I can see how photos will help jog your memory and am curious what new things you may uncover in those observations!

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