13 June 2012

At the Museum

One of the things I feel guilty about from time to time is that, although I live near one of the great cultural centers of the world, I don't take advantage, often enough, of the things New York City has to offer.  One recent rainy morning, two of my favorite companions and I decided to do something about that.  We visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on West 53rd Street in Manhattan, which is only about 10 miles from my house.

We parked in a garage, agreeing to split the cost, and walked the rest of the way.  Mid-June is the height of the tourist season in New York, and there was a line almost to the end of the block to buy admission tickets for the museum.  Fortunately, one of my companions had a museum membership, so we were able to skip the long entry line and go right inside.  We checked our umbrellas, hopped into the elevator, and headed for the top floor, which houses modern paintings and sculpture.

We saw all the beloved classics: Monet, Van Gogh, Lichtenstein, Kahlo, Ernst, Matisse, and many, many more.  There was more than we could ever hope to see during one day, but we were going to do our best to see as much as we reasonably could before we had to pick our kids up from school.

Edward Ruscha's "OOF" (1962).

The museum was absolutely packed with tourists from all over the world.  And every single one of them - almost to a person - carried a camera.

Now, this was not my first visit to MoMA by a long shot.  I'd been there many times before.  But I don't remember seeing so many people with cameras.  In fact, it is my impression that art museums generally forbid photography of their exhibits for various reasons.  First, the repeated flash of light a camera creates can damage old, fragile paintings.  Second, there's no telling what someone is going to do with an image of a great work of art once they have it stored on a memory card or their iPhone.  Allowing photography probably cuts deeply into the profits of the museum's store, which sells things like books, postcards and posters.  And third, it's incredibly annoying and obtrusive when I am trying to admire a work of art and someone steps right in front of me to snap a picture.

This happened over and over again.  I'd be looking at a painting or a sculpture, and someone would walk right up to it, push in front of me, and take a picture.

Sometimes, I'd be reading the descriptive plaque next to a painting, trying to learn something about the artwork, and someone would walk right up, between me and the wall, and photograph the description.

One of the other conventions I am used to in museums is the unspoken rule that people stand back at a reasonable distance to admire the artwork.  Some places actually have lines on the floor, a few feet from the wall, which visitors are not allowed to cross.  MoMA does not have anything like that, so people can and do get right up next to the paintings to examine them at close range, whether or not they are blocking someone else's view.

This happened again and again, and it started to really interfere with our enjoyment of our day at the museum.  Feeling pretty cranky about it, we decided to ask a security guard about the museum's policies.  He told us that every museum has a different photography policy, and sometimes different exhibits within the same museum have different policies.  For example, at MoMA, there is no prohibition against photographing permanent collections, but works that are on loan to the museum or are part of a traveling exhibit may not be photographed.  With regard to standing at a distance from the works of art, if there's no line on the floor or rope keeping observers at bay, it's simply a matter of etiquette.  Touching the art is, of course, strictly prohibited.

Given that a large percentage of the other people at the museum that morning were foreign tourists, I wonder whether it's also a cultural issue.  I've been to many museums abroad, though, and I have never seen such avid photographers and so much pushing and shoving as I saw on this particular morning in New York.

What do you think?  Do you observe unspoken rules at museums?  Do you photograph works of art when doing so is allowed, or step between other visitors and the work they are admiring?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that a trip to a museum is a collective experience-you and the art, you and the other people enjoying the art. To the extent that you interfere with someone else's enjoyment of the art, you have broken the social contract. Clearly shoving in front of someone is inappropriate. But getting in between someone admiring a piece while they are studying it, and without a nod to them seeking either approval or forgiveness for your close inspection, is rude.