Last weekend I went to see “Spirited Republic,” a temporary exhibit at the National Archives about the history of alcohol in the United States. I’m interested in the history of food and knew the Archives would dig up some interesting materials. It was a worthwhile visit but ugh, right at the entrance is a sign declaring “no photography.” This isn’t unusual for temporary exhibits because they may contain materials that are protected by copyright or have objects on loan. In this exhibit, however, everything was drawn from the collections of the Archives or had fallen out of copyright. If I went around the building to the Research Room, I could retrieve any of the items on display and make photographs without question. Secondly, most of the items are historic governmental or administrative documents, which don’t encourage selfies or other distractions. Photographs would most likely be taken by people who were really interested in the subject and wanted an image for reference. If they’re worried about light damage, people can be warned not to take flash photos (and studies by conservators show that flash photography has to reach excessive levels to cause significant damage, so this is usually an unfounded concern). If they’re worried about security, everyone has already been screened in the usual DC way and guards are posted throughout the exhibit. Finally, photography is one of the only areas of creative activity that’s growing in the US (bucking the declines in sewing, painting, pottery, or music according to studies by the National Endowment for the Arts) and the Archives has a rich trove of content for inspiration (and it helps publicize their exhibits and collections). The “no photography” makes absolutely no sense at the National Archives. Instead, the National Archives should assume that photography will be allowed unless there are specific and legitimate reasons not to do so. Just follow the same rules as in your Research Rooms.
Prohibitions on photography isn’t the only stumbling block to public access and historical interpretation at the National Archives–I’m sensing a growing use of Continue reading