One reason you can't take photos in the art museum

Many art museums don't hold the copyrights for the paintings and other artworks they own. So, while protecting the art from damage by exposure to 50 bazillion flashes is part of the motivation for banning museum photography, this is also a copyfight issue — and museums are starting to side with the phone-camera-toting public.


  1. It is also just annoying having people take flash photographs anywhere you happen to be, and some large percentage of people don’t know how to turn off the flash.

    Still, our copyright and security theater overlords might as well start getting over it.  Not many years left before most people are recording most of what they see and hear routinely.

    I have noticed in several museums over the past 5-10 years that the signs at least sometimes say “no flash photography” rather than “no photography”.

    1. Maybe they’re *trying* to educate the public that they shouldn’t use the flash!


  2. furniture and art copyright/ownership is also the reason given for not being able to take photographs inside the first floor of Monticello. but i did go on the behind the scenes upstairs tour there and the foundation owns all the furniture and antiques on the upper floors so we were allowed to take pictures there. 

      1. the thomas jefferson foundation doesn’t own most of the furniture and art on the first floor. from what the docents have told me on the few visits i have made in the past decade, the owners of the art and furniture have legal rights to images of those items because they make money off the sale of postcards, books, calendars, etc.

        1. the owners of the art and furniture have legal rights to images of those items because they make money off the sale of postcards, books, calendars, etc.

          Yeah, copyright doesn’t work that way.

          1. and as i said, i’m stating what i’ve been told on my visits there. i admit i have no knowledge of the legality of what they claim. 
            the specific guidelines don’t mention it on their website but i’ve been 4 times in the last decade and been told the same thing each time as part of the tour.
            the guidelines as published on their website:
            and they seem to be trying to indicate they have rights to any images taken there:
            “No photograph or image of Monticello, its grounds, or collections
            may be published or reproduced without prior written
            permission and payment of applicable fees. All photographs or images must bear the requisite credit listed
            on the image, or if none is stated, “Monticello/Thomas
            Jefferson Foundation, Inc.””

          2. No, but you can legitimately make “no photography” a condition of entry, then dress it up as ‘copyright’ because that’s a simple explanation.

        2. They can control access, but they have no intellectual property rights to  the art and furniture.   The reason they control access is that they want to sell more stuff in the gift shop.

          1. well yes, that’s obvious. but various monticello foundation employees have told me that it’s because of copyright. whether that’s true or not, i have no idea

  3. A few weeks ago I was standing in front of A Sunday on LaGrande Jatte at the Art Institute of Chicago. That painting has been reproduced on paper, umbrellas, note pads, in books, you name it. And yet. All around me were people photographing it. As if their cell phone will capture an aspect of the painting not otherwise available. People are strange.

    1. “There are many like it, but this one is mine.”

      The aspect that the picture captures is that this was my view of that painting, on this date, time, and location. 

      1. The generation growing into a young adulthood of ubiquitous camera phones are the same kids who grew up through a childhood and adolescence marked by the ubiquity of Pokemon. This is their latest way of “catching them all.”

    2. By photographing art instead of looking at it, they’re stealing their own souls, one eyeball and neural pathway at a time.

  4. What Jackbird said. 

    Caravaggio’s The Toothpuller was put to canvas about 500 years ago.

    So unless Disney has retroactively pushed through a half-millennium copyright extension, what exactly is the museum holding copyright on?

    Are we not looking at a Caravaggio, but some forgery made after 1923? Is the frame copyrighted?

    This point baffles me every time museums talk about copyright on the pieces they exhibit.

      1. Copies of an original work don’t separately qualify for copyright protection and if they’re actually different from the original, they aren’t “copies” of it.

  5. I went over this with Cory a few years ago. It’s not so much copyright as the fact that most inter-museum lending agreements (which cover traveling shows as well as individual pieces) specify no photography. Since borrowed pieces are frequently scattered through an exhibit, it’s usually easier for museums to have a blanket no photography policy.

    1. I used to work in Rights and Reproductions at a university art museum and it’s exactly this.  Even though the lender doesn’t typically hold the copyright they insist on the photography restrictions.  It’s also difficult for limited staff to enforce restrictions on a per object basis.

  6. The photography ban has, in many cases, been more about boosting sales at the gift shop…

    1. No. It is to protect the art and to preserve the experience of visiting a gallery or museum for others.

  7. A pox on people who photograph stuff in museums or galleries. My experience is that they are (en-mass) rude and inconsiderate. They feel that because they will only dwell for a second or two to take their trophy snap, it is OK to push in front of a small (or large) crowd who have paused to view and contemplate the piece. Trouble is, there are now so many freakin’ people for whom “pix on FB or it didn’t happen” is their live’s mantra, they form an endless procession of snappers, just annoying the living crap out of anyone else who might like a moments’ quiet enjoyment of the art.

    And don’t get me started on the bloody endless sea of held-overhead phone screens that continually block my view and distract me when I’m trying to enjoy a concert.

    1. Last times I’ve been to museums for in-demand shows, the throngs of millers-about were much more of a problem than any cameras. DERP WALK RIGHT UP IN FRONT OF EVERYONE FOR A SEC. RINSE, REPEAT.

      1. True, you don’t NEED to be taking a photo to be an asshole, but I’ve noticed a correlation in museums and galleries.

    2.  Shh, calm down, grandpa.  Do you want to watch an episode of Matlock?  C’mere and sit, I’ll program the DVR for you.

    3. It’s cute the way you’ve generalized something that has probably happened about twice to you, and generalized it into an adolescent rant directed at a huge group of people you’ve never met.

    1.  Yes, I had wondered about this before, and found the same article.  Good find.
      “These trials showed that ‘fugitive’ pigments deteriorated while on the
      walls of a controlled-light gallery at about the same rate as if a
      modest ‘hotshoe’ flashgun was fired at them every 4 seconds from a
      distance of about 4 feet. Saunders’ results for pigment damage agree
      quite well with Evans’ calculation that one flash from a flashgun of
      similar power, at a distance of 2.5 metres, was equivalent to about one
      second of gallery light.”

      And in the conclusion “However, to prohibit the use of flash on the grounds that it will harm the exhibits is the least plausible reason of all.”

      1. Pastels are more sensitive, I’ve been led to believe. But OK. That flash photography is just plain annoying is reason enough to discourage it in my view.

  8. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to see the Picasso exhibition one last time over the weekend before it went away. It was absolutely packed with everyone else who was doing the same and the worst I’d ever seen any gallery in the museum. Multiple times I saw people stepping in with iPads and holding them up in front of people to snap pictures. Dozens more were doing the same with their phones to similar, though slightly less annoying, effect. 

    I’ve also seen it a lot at aquariums, which tend not to be as busy, but phones and tablets aren’t good at low light fast motion photography through glass so you get people trying 5 or 6 shots and blocking the tank the entire time. Sometimes you can’t see a small tank because there are 3-4 phones in front of it.

    Regardless of the rules of the institution, how about the goal of just not being rude to the people around you?

    1.  Wouldn’t the same rules apply to people who don’t have cameras?

      Darn people, always getting in my way!

  9. The Henry Moore Sculpture Centre, I believe Moore made it a condition if his donations. Otherwise, photography is forbidden; that said, learn to shoot from the hip and turn off your beep. Fair use if you use them study.

  10. In federal Canadian museums, the policy, for the permanent exhibits, is “Since you (the Canadian citizen) own, you can take pictures of it – just don’t use flash, please, eh.” 

    Of course, non-museum-owned exhibits rary exihibit) forbid photography (since those aren’t ‘owned’ by the citizens.

Comments are closed.