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.
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!