Are Museums Destroying Art?
by Mark Dubovoy
The Impact of Art
I fondly remember the first time I saw the Mona Lisa. It was many years ago at the Louvre Museum in Paris. It was my first visit to Paris, it was peak winter and it was a cold rainy day. The museum was not particularly crowded and there was the Mona Lisa, simply hung on a wall in all its glory. There was no special protection and no special security. You could walk right up to it and literally touch it (although of course I would never even think of doing that!). You could also sit at a small bench right in front of it and admire it for as long as you wanted. The place was quiet and the few other people that came by to see it were very polite.
For me, this was a momentous experience. To say that I had chills down my spine is an understatement. I had seen many pictures of the Mona Lisa, I had read a fair amount about it, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. It was beyond extraordinary. It was only after seeing it "in the flesh" that I realized what the fuzz about this painting was all about.
And so it is with all great works of art. The first time I saw one of the great Gustav Klimt paintings, the first time I saw a Van Gough, a Picasso a Monet a Rodin sculpture or an Ansel Adams original print i realized that the impact of the original works of art could never be reproduced. One simply has to see the real thing "in the flesh".
Art is to be cherished and contemplated
It did not take long for me to realize that art needs to be contemplated. A great work of art is so overwhelming and contains so many subtle clues that it takes time to absorb it all and it takes even more time to digest it. Therefore, I find it quite important to eliminate spurious distractions when trying to enjoy a masterpiece. Things like loud sounds or unruly crowds can totally ruin the experience.
It is also incredibly important to cherish art, as it is one of the pinnacles of human achievement and one of the few things that we can pass on to future generations. I find acts disrespecting art very disturbing and they tend to upset me.
Back to the Mona Lisa
Returning to my story about the Mona Lisa, I used to make it a point to return and visit the Louvre each time I went to Paris. Things changed a little when the area around the Mona Lisa was roped off, but one could still get reasonably close to the painting.
Things had changed again on a subsequent trip to Paris. A sheet of glass was placed in front of the painting. At that point, some of the intimacy was lost. Particularly since (as far as I could tell) the glass that was used did not have anti-reflecting coatings.
Some years later, things had gotten much worse: The Mona Lisa was placed behind a horrendous piece of yellow glass. I call it horrendous, because it totally ruins the experience of seeing it. It makes it impossible to discern the original color, the original texture and many of the subtleties of this amazing piece.
(Side note: Yes, the piece needs to be protected in a humidity and temperature controlled environment. It also needs to be protected from UV radiation and bright light. There are also security concerns. I can think of better ways to achieve these goals. I am sure they are more complicated and more expensive but in my view they would be well worth it for a piece of this caliber. In any case, I am simply reporting what has happened as opposed to engaging in a discussion on how to best protect this piece while not ruining the experience for the viewer).
But the worst was not the glass. The worst was that the governing body of the museum decided to allow photography inside the premises.
The museum was packed with large groups of people in tour buses with loud and impolite guides, most of the people were unruly, loud and pushy and worst of all, the only thing they were interested in was shooting a picture of the Mona Lisa. I can say without hesitation that the vast majority of the people I saw that day never saw the painting except in a small cell phone or camera screen. Seeing the actual work of art seemed completely irrelevant to them. The only objective was to snap a "trophy shot" of the painting.
The real problem was that the people were so unruly and impolite, that those of us who wanted to observe the painting could not do it. First of all, there were continuous red and green lights all over the painting from the autofocus aid devices. Second, there were constant flash bursts. The flash bursts were coming at such a high repetition rate that it was literally impossible to look at the painting for more than about 1 second without getting blinded from the reflection of the flashes on the glass.Third, there was so much pushing and shoving going on that it was literally impossible to get close to the Mona Lisa without getting really physical and rude, which I was not willing to do.
I decided to return the next morning before the museum opened in order to be one of the first people in the door. I dashed over to the Mona Lisa as fast as I could. I was the first person there, but within about 3 minutes the autofocus aid lights and the bursts of flashes no longer allowed me to enjoy the piece.
As if that was not bad enough, the next time I returned to Paris and went to the museum, things had gotten even worse. While the last time the sole purpose of these people being there was to grab a trophy shot of the piece, now the new fad was to put their face in front of the painting and have someone else photograph them. So now we had red lights, green lights, tourist faces, flash bursts and people shoving and pushing to get their faces in front of the work of art.
School Children at The Hermitage Museum
The current situation with the Mona Lisa and the Louvre in general is what I call a complete disaster.
First of all, the constant bursts of bright light with tons of UV are very destructive to paintings, tapestries, fabrics and other kinds of art objects. While I have seen specific areas in other museums where flash is not allowed, the reality is that most people do not even know how to turn the flash off, and enforcement of this rule is basically non existent. The constant bursts of flash are pervasive in all museums that allow photography even when they stipulate no flash.
By allowing photography inside a museum, I believe the museum should be held directly responsible for the premature destruction of priceless pieces. No matter how good the protective glass in front of the Mona Lisa is, nothing is perfect and some percentage of the light in these constant flash bursts is getting through. The result is that there is totally unnecessary additional stress placed on priceless pieces like this one. There is no question in my mind that the flash bursts are causing it to fade faster than it otherwise would.
To add insult to injury, the people that appreciate art and are interested in viewing this and other famous pieces inside the Louvre cannot do so. The reason is that the red and green lights from autofocus assist mechanisms, combined with the rapid repetition of flash bursts are literally blinding. As far as I am concerned, I will not return to the Louvre until they change their policy and ban photography inside the museum.
One might think that this is the end of the argument for not allowing photography inside museums. However, on top of the argument above, I believe that museums that allow photography inside the premises are destroying art in a less evident but more powerful and more massive way.
Current fad: Take my picture in front of the painting
The second destruction
The second and much more powerful way in which these museums are destroying art is by the de facto elimination of the appreciation of original pieces. The vast majority of people inside these museums are after the trophy shot with their face in front of a museum piece. They do not look at the originals, they do not care. They do not contemplate them. They are not interested in understanding them or experiencing the message. They do not cherish them. And they do not care if they are loud, unruly and impolite to others. In fact, I think they have become completely oblivious to the value of art and clueless and rude to people who might feel and act differently.
In my view, any museums that allow photography inside the premises represent a complete failure of the main mission of a museum, which should be to educate people, to make them and future generations learn to cherish and understand art, to display priceless pieces and to protect them and preserve them for future generations.
Photography inside a museum has a serious negative impact on all of the above.
I recently returned from a trip to Eastern Europe. Among other museums, I visited the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. While at the museum, a group of school children, about 9 years old entered the room I was in. They had 2 teachers with them. The children were from a Russian public school on a field trip to the museum. They were very loud and unruly, running all over the room, getting in front of people, pushing their way through and so on. Just about every kid I saw had a cell phone and what they would do is run from piece to piece as fast as they could and take one shot of each work of art. It looked like a contest to see which kid was the fastest in taking pictures of all the pieces in the room. Kids are very adept with technology, so they were running while looking at the scree. They hardly, if ever. looked at the museum pieces directly.The teachers did nothing except take their own pictures of the kids running around in the museum.
Since I do not speak Russian, I asked our guide to translate for me. We asked several kids what they intended to do with the pictures. The universal reply was that now that they had seen them on the screen once, they would probably erase them as soon as they got home. We then asked the teachers what the kids would do with the pictures and the reply was that they would probably never see them again.
The sad reality is that this school museum field trip to the Hermitage was a trophy hunt with cell phones. These kids not only did not learn anything about art, but actually got the wrong message about museums and about art. If we create a whole generation like this, I hate to think what will happen to the masterpieces of yesterday and today.
Some people's view of how to enjoy art: On a small screen for a few seconds.
Is there hope?
There are museums that do not allow photography, and at least in my experience they are dramatically different. Case in point, the Museé D'Orsay in Paris (my favorite museum of Impressionism as well as an amzing building) and the Museum of Russian Art in Moscow.
I find these types of museums to be much quieter and visitors tend to be much more polite and respectful. People in these museums actually look at the art, what a concept!!!! Even with the most famous pieces in crowded rooms I can usually get some time to admire them without being distracted or intruded upon.
It is a different world when you do not have "trophy hunters" running all over the place.
Unfortunately, such museums seem to be in the minority.
What to do?
My conclusion is that any museum that allows photography inside the premises is culpable of destroying art and failing its mission. We, as photographers, need to make museums and the art world in general aware of the destructive power of this trend.
I encourage the readers to contact the governing bodies of their local museums as well as other museums they have visited in an effort to instill the urgency of banning photography inside museums. The more they hear from us photographers, the more they might listen.
On a Personal Note
As some readers of this site know, I recently suffered a serious back injury. This has prevented me from writing articles (among many other things) for some time as the simple act of sitting and typing is excruciatingly painful.
I would like to thank all of you who have written so many nice get well notes, as well as those of you who have called and visited me.
It will be a long recovery, but I intend to recover fully.
© Mark Dubovoy