Arts Desk

Archives’ Photo Ban Will Protect Its Documents. Could It Change the Culture of Museumgoing?

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It's impossible to make your way through the National Archives and not know that flash photography is banned. There are signs in the rotunda and throughout the exhibits. Guards remind visitors to turn off their flashes when they pass through security. And yet the institution estimates that some 50,000 flashes go off each year—making historic documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights lighter and less decipherable over time.

Enforcing the rule has been a long-standing problem. “The flash has gone off. The damage is already done," says Maria Stanwich, the Archives' director of operations and public programming.

And so the Archives announced a drastic move yesterday in the Federal Register: It will ban all amateur photography beginning Feb. 24. Media photographers will be able to shoot with approval from the Archives.

From the Archives' perspective, its first responsibility is to its papers. “We are the stewards of these documents,” Stanwich says.

But the language of the announcement suggests a motive beyond simply protecting the fraying proclamations: to change the experience of visiting the Archives. From the Register:

It has long been noted that visitors with cameras disrupt and dramatically slow down the flow of visitors and frustrate many of the eager visitors who are forced to wait to view our country's founding documents. By eliminating all filming, photographing and videotaping by the public in the exhibit areas, NARA expects to eliminate delays, and provide its visitors with a more rewarding experience.

If that suggests that the leaders of the Archives, a public space, are judging what kinds of activities are appropriate within its walls and what kinds are not, Paul Roth says it's a good thing.

"Anyone who has ever been to see the Mona Lisa in that hyperbaric chamber has had to see the spectacle of all these people crowding around and taking flash pictures," says the executive director of the Richard Avedon Foundation and the former curator of photography of the Corcoran Gallery. "For me, the decision—the very act of banning photography entirely—means that people are on some level being asked to just look, and that will change the experience of looking for those who want to take pictures and for those who don’t."

Because the Archives is a public institution, Roth says, "the decision is more controversial than at any private museum. It’s essentially a ban on a certain kind of behavior which one could even call speech. It’s interesting, and also kind of brave." As for whether the Archives' decision could have repercussions in the museum world, where comprehensive photography bans are rare, Roth declined to speculate.

But some critics argue that policy also ignores the fact that to some Archives visitors, photography is a valuable part of the experience. Photographer Erin McCann—an administrator of the DC Photo Rights Flickr group, which hosts photos shot in locations where photography is banned—writes on We Love DC in a sort-of-open letter to National Archivist David S. Ferriero:

We’re being punished because some tourist from South Dakota doesn’t understand how to work his camera. The logic is maddening, and it dismisses the importance of documentary photography. You know all those old pictures the museums around town—Archives included—have displayed on their walls? They weren’t created by fairies, Mr. Ferriero.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Mr. T in DC.

It has long been noted that visitors
with cameras disrupt and dramatically slow down the flow of visitors
and frustrate many of the eager visitors who are forced to wait to view
our country's founding documents. By eliminating all filming,
photographing and videotaping by the public in the exhibit areas, NARA
expects to eliminate delays, and provide its visitors with a more
rewarding experience.
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