(screenshot via @ollywainwright/Twitter)

People are up in arms about signs at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) banning not just photography but also sketching in its latest temporary exhibition, Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear. Posted at the exhibition’s entrance, they were first noticed by the Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright, who wrote that the signs “betray everything museums stand for.”

After speaking with a museum spokesperson, he explained that the rule is implemented for logistical reasons: the V&A anticipates long lines for the underwear-filled exhibition, and artists sketching skivvies for prolonged periods may cause traffic to get bunched up in the galleries. This is actually not the first time the V&A has implemented such a policy, Wainwright writes, reporting that the museum’s David Bowie exhibition in 2013 adopted the same measures. When Hyperallergic reached out to the V&A, however, we received a different explanation, with a spokesperson emphasizing that “it’s an issue with loan agreements.

“Visitors to the V&A are welcome to sketch within the permanent galleries,” the spokesperson explained. “We also allow visitors to sketch in temporary exhibitions, providing loan conditions permit.”

The statement is in direct contrast with Wainwright’s writing that “the draconian rule … has nothing to do with protecting intellectual property, or abiding by the terms of strict loan agreements.”

On its website, the museum simply states that as part of its guidelines for using its galleries, “Sketching is not permitted in exhibitions” — a vague line that suggests you should simply leave your pencils and sketchpads at home. So it seems the larger problem here that has bred confusion and heated backlash is not the undergarment-centric exhibition’s no-drawing policy, but rather the museum’s conveyance of its protocol. Staff members should post the rule clearly both online and in galleries, accompanied by a proper explanation of the museum’s intentions (policies against flash photography and videos do note that private loans are the reason for the restriction).

Such a prohibition is actually not that rare, and there are even more sweeping ones than the V&A’s. The Art Institute of Chicago has a similar policy, although its website simply states, “Drawing and sketching are not not allowed in special exhibitions.” The Royal Ontario Museum, too, does not explain why it restricts sketching to only permanent galleries. Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria explains online that visitors may not sketch in its exhibitions due to loan conditions. And Seattle’s Frye Art Museum has a detailed sketching policy that differentiates between sketching and copying; it notes that “copyists” must understand that their drawings are nothing more than reproductions.

Most museums, however, have liberal policies toward sketching. London’s National Gallery explicitly welcomes drawing in both its permanent collection galleries and its temporary exhibitions; it’s joined by institutions including MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Portland Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston — which allows drawing and sketching in all galleries, but painting in only its permanent collections. And then there’s the Rijksmuseum, which last November launched a campaign to promote sketching over photography that involves doling out free sketch paper and pencils.

While it’s unfortunate that artists are unable to draw certain works of art in buildings intended to educate, no museum should be shamed for a policy that is far from unique and that really stems from legally binding contracts.

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

3 replies on “How Sketchy Is the V&A’s “No Sketching” Policy?”

  1. Many museums do not allow photos or sketching of special shows. I believe it comes form those who loan the items.

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