The Folger Library in Washington, DC is one of my favorite places because it’s about books and Elizabethan England, two things that fascinate me. As an historian, books are not an unusual passion but as an American historian, I’m interested in the Elizabethan period because of the comparisons to our Colonial era. So every time the Folger mounts an exhibit in their gallery, I go no matter the topic and want to document what I’ve seen and learned through photos (and share them with you!). And yet, while copyright protects none of the material on exhibit, the guards frequently stop me from taking photos and one time I even had to prove I deleted the images from my camera. The latest exhibit on Shakespeare was photo-prohibited because it was on loan, but again, none of the materials were protected by copyright (all pre-dated 1700). Ironically, at the entrance to the exhibit is a special booth where visitors were asked to share videos or photos of themselves talking about Shakespeare on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Huh? To thine own selfie be true, as long as it doesn’t include any actual historic objects on exhibit.
That’s such a contrast to other museums in DC which encourage photography. The “Wonder” exhibit at the Renwick Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, is filled with contemporary art, which is typically tied up in a particularly rabid form of copyright protection, encourages photography with signs mounted in nearly every gallery. Somehow they’ve figured out how to allow photography by the public without jeopardizing their collections, reputation, or loan agreements.
Museums and libraries have to figure out how to embrace photography.* While overall attendance has dropped for the past thirty years, interest in photography has grown by leaps in bounds.** Indeed, it’s the only cultural or artistic activity that’s growing in the US and by prohibiting it unconditionally, museums and libraries are only further distancing themselves from the rest of America.
*The Rauschenberg Foundation recently developed a radical but thoughtful photography policy, which is described in the New York Times.
**National Endowment for the Arts, “Survey of Public Participation in the Arts,” 2012.