Clamoring crowds around the Mona Lisa (photo by Harald Groven, via Flickr)

Clamoring crowds around the Mona Lisa (photo by Harald Groven, via Flickr)

One of the stories making the rounds in the art blogosphere at the moment is this article from LiveScience, which details a study that found people were less likely to remember artwork they saw in a museum if they photographed it. Psychologist Linda Henkel conducted two experiments with undergraduates: the first showed that students who took pictures of art objects had more trouble recalling them — what Henkel calls the “photo-taking impairment effect”; the second confirmed the same results, with the added conclusion that those students assigned to take detailed shots of artworks (a head, a foot, etc.) actually remembered them better.

Henkel’s findings dovetail nicely with an essay by Eric Gibson, who’s the Arts & Leisure features editor of the Wall Street Journal, in the current issue of The New Criterion. Gibson’s piece decries “the overexposed museum” (its title), and he writes:

Yet, like a Trojan Horse, there is something in their midst that threatens to undo the museums’ efforts. This is the near-universal use of smartphones and tablets to snap pictures inside the galleries. Flash photography has long been banned owing to the damage its blasts of high-intensity light can inflict on paintings. Smartphones and tablets pose a less visible but potentially graver threat. They disconnect the visitor from the art on display and imperil the museum in other, very real, ways. For this reason, if the museum experience is to continue to mean anything, these devices, like flash photography, need to be banned.

A woman poses for a portrait with the Mona Lisa (photo by Carrie Cizauskas, via Flickr)

A woman poses for a portrait with the Mona Lisa (photo by Carrie Cizauskas, via Flickr)

Gibson goes on to fault the ubiquitous presence of smartphones not just for museum picture-taking overload, but also for the ascension of the #ArtSelfie. “Rather than contemplating the works on view, visitors now pose next to them for their portrait,” he writes. “In pre-digital photography the subject was the work of art. Now it is the visitor; the artwork is secondary. Where previously the message of such images was ‘I have seen,’ now it is ‘I was here.’”

Taken together, the message from Henkel and Gibson seems pretty clear: Death to the Instagrammers!! You’re ruining the art for everyone, including yourselves!

OK, so, maybe I’m being a little dramatic. I’m only trying to match Gibson’s lofty tone, which he uses to extoll the virtues of the good-old-fashioned museum-going experience — an experience that’s now been lost to the touristing masses. PS1, you should never have changed your photo policy.

Except I don’t buy it. First of all, Gibson’s argument is muddled: it’s hard to tell if he’s taking aim at selfies or photography in museums in general. It seems like the latter, with a dig at the former because it’s cool to have a stance on selfies now. And if it’s just the latter — well, when I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, before smartphones and tablets were anywhere near their current level of ubiquity, the room was insanely crowded and everyone was taking pictures. I’m not convinced smartphones have changed that, except perhaps to bring a severely modified version of this experience to works less famous than the Mona Lisa.

But more importantly, Gibson contends that people are approaching artworks now the way they do the Grand Canyon: get in for the photo, then get out. No engagement, no reaction, no interaction. You can’t, he says, have a real “art experience” (his phrase) when you’re busy taking pictures of the art. And Henkel’s findings would seem to confirm this (61 undergraduates can’t be wrong).

I disagree, because the obvious point Gibson has missed is that people are often taking pictures because they’re excited about art. They came because they wanted to see it with their own eyes. And they’re using their cameras and smartphones as a form of interaction — we live, after all, in the age of mechanical reproduction, not the age of aura. Did we lose something in the exchange? Probably. But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands completely. The way we understand and process art has changed — you can take it home with you, blow it up on your computer screen, remix it in Photoshop, Snapchat it to your friends — in part because the way we understand nearly all cultural production has changed. Henkel’s findings are interesting, but I’d like to see someone discuss them in relation to larger studies about how our brains and memories work amid the overload of the internet. And I must say, as an art critic with a terrible memory, my smartphone is my savior when December rolls around and I’m expected to make best-of lists.

I’m not saying Gibson doesn’t have a point — there certainly are plenty of people who come to the museum for the photos and nothing else. Those people annoy me, too. (I tend to give them dirty looks or photo-bomb them.) The trend toward oversized art spectacles doesn’t help. But at the end of the day, if museums are managing to reach more people and get them looking at art, I see that as a good thing. Sure, I miss the quiet sometimes, but now I have the satisfaction of looking around a crowded gallery and knowing that at least some of these people are finally seeing what I see.

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Jillian Steinhauer

Jillian Steinhauer is a former senior editor of Hyperallergic. She writes largely about the intersection of art...

18 replies on “To Instagram or Not to Instagram?”

  1. It’s also this focus on a certain need that can be problematic. Do we need to remember an artwork. And for what? Sometimes the visits itself, or to be surrounded by art, is enough. But, with that said, it’s interesting that we don’t seem remember the art work, despite our interaction with it.

    1. I agree with this, the details/objective quantification aren’t all I would evaluate. If you can have a brilliant experience just being around work perhaps the experience is more important than the art.

      Does it matter if Vermeer painted brown or blue eyes if the experience of seeing a Vermeer in person is such a beautiful experience in itself?

  2. After seeing some comments floating around on Facebook, it seems that there is quite a mix of people that are either for or against photography in art museums. While mobile devices make it easier for people to share experiences for social and cultural currency, Gibson’s focus may also be on some transcendent experience with art as well. This totally belongs to an older and generational perspective. To some extent, I agree that people ought to actually experience artwork. SF MOMA actually proposed that the public give about a solid 10 minutes of looking at art, which I loved. That’s a long time for many people considering that visual art is often give 1-2 minutes of look time, at best.

    But I do agree with another FB commenter that technology offers a way for people to connect. While some people use mobile devices as an extension, I guess my hope is that people look back at the photograph they’ve taken and have a story to share or something compelling that offers them a new insight. In any case, thanks for writing the piece. It definitely connects with the notion of the archive as well.

    1. Yes, of course; I mean, I like to look for a while and then photograph, because they’re not the same thing. But I think that saying all photography in museums is wrong is wrong-headed. I think the museum should and could try to shape the experience, as with your example of SFMOMA. That’s the way to go.

  3. I can understand both sides of the argument. I think that when I take a snapshot of an artwork, consciously or unconsciously, I feel less compelled to look closely because it now lives in my memory card, available for unlimited future study (which is of course unlikely to happen).

    I actually find myself primarily using the camera to capture the exhibition label for works that intrigue me. This allows me to study the work and artist later. I’ve had people laugh at me more than once, as they happily take photos of the work itself, but given that there are almost certainly much higher quality reproductions of the work online, I’ve always thought the practice kind of silly.

    In any case, it’s not purely an either-or proposition. One can study a work closely, and then take a snapshot. I’m not sure that the type of person taking art-selfies or uploading #gettingmycultureon snapshots to twitter were likely to gaze into the eyes of a Rembrandt portrait for a half hour anyway. In a world where art viewing is associated with cultural status, and status is so often shared via social media, banning cameras might drive drive people away from museums altogether (not to mention drive home the notion that they’re stodgy anachronistic institutions). Museums need to find a way to harness the desire to share and interact with technology to encourage visitors to engage more deeply with the work.

    1. Agreed! Museums do need to find a way to harness people’s energy, and I think they’re still working on it, since this is all such a new phenomenon. I take a lot of photos of exhibition labels, too—but I’ve also been known to take an art selfie. =)

  4. I honestly find this study to be dubious. It contradicts decades upon decades of market research that suggests otherwise. Secondly, has this study been replicated to confirm results? It’s a sensational headline for a slow news day.

    1. I think it’s becoming too common for commenters to attribute anything they don’t agree with or don’t want to discuss to a “slow news day.” This is important and should be discussed. I have been noticing that the quality of conversation around images and photography in galleries and museums has really gone up though. That, IMO, is a really good sign.

      1. This is completely sensational and most obviously a slow-day story. If it’s so important, where was the study published-what peer review journal was it? What was the sample size and what was the correlation factor (n)? And it’s obvious that writer does not know that the golden rule in science is that correlation never implies causality. Hmmmm…yeah, none of that is mentioned here, neither was the fact that this study has not been reproduced by any other peer-reviewed organization. Perfect example of journalists confounding scientific studies for headline grabbing slow-day news story. It’s about social media and oh-my-god–you’re going to destroy your mind by taking pictures, look we found this study that says so–so let’s all discuss–forget that no one in this article seems to grasp the under pinnings of an actual scientific experiment or accurately explain what the findings actually mean–no b/c then there wouldn’t actually be a story if that happened.

        1. Considering I don’t discuss the study in any great depth, your attacks seem completely unfounded. I bring it in as an example that leads to my larger point. If you want to take issue with the science or the way it’s reported, feel free to write to LiveScience or Henkel. If you want to actually discuss what’s in my piece, please do.

  5. “people are often taking pictures because they’re excited about art.”

    We don’t know why people are excited about taking pictures. Could be the art or could be the fact they want to be seen standing next to famous art.

    The question museums should be exploring (and I would venture many, if not most already are> is how can they enable people’s use of smartphones to provide a more meaningful museum experience (for those who want it)?

  6. I share your scepticism that it’s all changed with smartphones, and your scepticism about the Henkel study. But I was at the Louvre last week, and saw an almost perfect negative correlation between taking pictures and engaging with art. Most people – I really mean most – weren’t even looking at the captions as they took pictures. And surely we need cameras less these days given how easily we can download better-quality images from the internet than we could take on a cellphone or on our own camera. I’ve written my own critique here, which doesn’t distinguish selfies from general photography in museums:

      1. Indeed, and I’ve taken photos myself. I recognise the real and unfortunate cost of banning photography. But people who are not already engaged in art who go to galleries today quickly adjust to the idea that what you do in galleries is take a few snaps and move on. It doesn’t seem to me to be a route towards engagement. In a slightly different context, this piece in the NYT speaks to some of these concerns:

          1. One reason for restricting photography is that it harms other people’s ability to appreciate – especially flash (bans never enforced effectively). Another observation: I’m struck by how other spheres we welcome being told how to engage (e.g. dress codes at restaurants, protocols at weddings, strongly enforced norms at sports matches). I think assuming that it’s OK for some people to snap and move on does them a disservice.

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