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L’enfer, c’est les autres

21 August 2014

Titian Noli Me TangereMuch has been written about the furore over the National Gallery’s recent change in its policy concerning photography in the gallery. Not you should note about its own images – which some of us consider the more important issue – but about whether visitors should be allowed to snap away as apparently they now do at most social gatherings. Overwhelmed by the inexorable tide of such social media, the gallery has decided to concede defeat. Few however have complained about the introduction of wi-fi throughout the gallery, intended to allow visitors to find information on their devices while standing before the pictures they describe. This it seems was uncontroversial, but the difficulty of distinguishing between different modes of use forced the change in policy on photography. I have some sympathy with the second part of that statement, having recently had to consider whether the use of a mobile phone (in a stationary vehicle) to take a photograph of a crime was itself an offence.

The National Gallery is of course “curated”, to use properly a verb that itself has become over-fashionable (first English use, ignoring a letter by Henry James: 1969). Curators (1632) decide where the pictures are displayed – on the main floor, or in the reserve (where you can see them on Wednesdays; now they have the further choice of consigning them to the oblivion of the store). You may think that removing a restriction on photography is neutral, but it is not, as you can see from the behaviour that ensues in this YouTube clip (courtesy Jon Sharples). The policy has been part of a conscious programme (to which funding and resources have been committed) to get us to interact with the art through portable electronic devices. Those are active decisions that justify the scrutiny and depth of debate we have seen.

Many years ago, when I enjoyed the privileges and arrogance of being a merchant banker, I took the view that museums should charge for admission, as it increased the depth of the visitor’s [apostrophe intentionally placed] engagement with the pictures. It fostered the act of private communion with these great things, untroubled by οἱ πολλοί (but respecting the noli me tangere principle). Those who wanted to come often could apply (by post) for an annual visitor’s pass, on payment of a sum just larger than a single admission ticket: the scheme would deter coach parties and schoolkids but offer no barrier to the real enthusiast.

Of course that view was wrong. Most people become enthusiasts through casual encounters of the very kind my policy was designed to deter. And the one part of this debate that surely isn’t in the least controversial is that increasing the number of people who genuinely, profoundly, delightfully appreciate the great treasures of the National Gallery is a good thing. (It would be even better if they included government ministers.)

Yet the result, as seen in the clip, speaks for itself. Susan Foister has said that there are six million visitors to the National Gallery every year, and six million different ways of looking at art. Sadly she has added quite a few of not looking at it – and of making it considerably less easy for the National Gallery’s traditional visitors to enjoy their visit. The difficulty is that there is no answer to this debate: we cannot go back to the elitism I might have espoused in my youth.

Personally (although this may not have come across in Twitter exchanges) I don’t think there should be a ban on photography as such: I favour the widest possible dissemination of images of the collection, and if the gallery doesn’t offer a photograph of a tiny detail or a frame that is of significance to a researcher I think it would be monstrous to refuse to allow them to take it. Art History News (who cite a pentimento on the nose of Titian’s Mary Magdalene which the official image didn’t capture) clearly have a better telephone than I do (I recently handed back my smart phone for my 15-year old Nokia whose battery lasts a week and does everything I want). And I think the far more important issue from the point of view of scholarship is not whether people can snap away with telephones, but whether high resolution images can be freely downloaded and licensed without fuss for all non-commercial purposes. This would do far more to advance the Gallery’s scholarly objectives. And an immediate step would be to fix the problems with the fullscreen viewer which I have repeatedly reported, and which, while I was writing this, gave me the usual “Server Error/The page you are trying to access could not be displayed due to a server error. We have been notified of the problem and will resolve it as soon as we can.”

But I wish the ban could have been lifted with less of a fanfare. A little part of me still clings to the elitist idea that certain things should be permitted to those that know how to ask. The needs of scholarship are minute compared with the phenomenon that has been unleashed. It would be far better if we could rely on culture and good manners than rules and prohibitions.

Several people picked up on a recent report about a popular musician who had asked her fans to stop using their digital imaging devices during her concerts. A new vogue, hopes the Grumpy Art Historian, suggesting to the National Gallery that they are behind the times. But while it doesn’t surprise me that iPhones are in regular use at pop concerts, I do think we should reflect for a moment on why we don’t get up in the middle of a church service, advance before the altar, and take something the word for which the Oxford English Dictionary admitted two months ago (although it has existed for 12 years, down under, where it belongs, while the activity itself has existed for four and a half thousand years). You could ask the same question during a string quartet at the Wigmore Hall. Perhaps there are rules (there probably are at Wigmore Hall) but that isn’t why people don’t do this: it is because those who go to church or to chamber music recitals do so because they have respect for the institutions and the performers, and recognise that the imposition of their own personalities on the proceedings is wholly inappropriate. They, and their fellow attendees, are there precisely to escape such ephemera. And that is no different from what many visitors want when they go to the National Gallery (even if not all the art goes back to the Fifth Dynasty). There is nothing elitist in that aspiration.

The point has been made that photography in other museums rarely causes a problem – the Mona Lisa of course being the exception (all this has been to her but as the sound of a million shutter clicks). You can go round the V&A and scarcely see a single flash, although they are permitted. The problem, we are told, is because the National Gallery has Famous Pictures. So what if it were simply to consign Sunflowers, the Arnolfini Marriage, The Ambassadors and two or three others to the reserve? Would the tourists content themselves with the website image (how many of them know there is one); would they, charmingly, explore the building – or would they, joyfully, discover some of the other treasures in the main rooms? Now that would be outreach (1899).

Update – 24 August

Best advice as always is to get there when the doors open. Even at 10.20 am this morning you could see the Arnolfini Marriage without a queue. And it wasn’t until 10.35 that I was first dazzled by a flash. Curiously that was from a man photographing his daughter in a doorway, with no paintings in the frame. In fairness I concede that the only real problem area this morning was – Sunflowers.

Bendor Grosvenor’s persuasive piece was in this weekend’s Financial Times (paywall: but you should be able to access the podcast). I can certainly wholeheartedly endorse his plea for the abolition of image reproduction charges, at least for non-profit uses. If you look at the National Gallery’s policy, scholarly use is free – but you only get small images, can only use them for specified purposes and still have to complete endless forms. Since someone at the Gallery is paid to vet those forms, I can join Bendor in an offer to the Gallery to save at least £10,000:  by abolishing the paperwork, and relying on self-certification of eligible use.

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From → Art history

One Comment
  1. Ronald de Leeuw permalink

    Dear Dr Jeffares,
    I tried to send you an email about an unidentified double-portrait, French eighteenth century, which shows the girl attributed to Drouais (Allais) auctioned in 1988 in Milan. My mail however, was returned. Could you please give me a valid email address? I would be much obliged if you read my letter.
    Yours sincerely,
    Pro.Dr. Ronald de Leeuw,
    Amsterdam NL

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