Why You Won’t See Any Photos from The Neon Museum on Thomas Hawk’s Digital Connection and Why They Don’t Want Their Images Shared on Flickr

Delicatessen Liquor, Christmas Eve, 2005.jpgNeon sign, Ventura Boulevard, California. Hosted on Zooomr

I just got back a rather disappointing email from the Neon Musuem in Las Vegas. I had written to the musuem to inquire about taking photographs of some of their neon signs this past weekend while in Las Vegas. I’m not going to link to the museum. You can find them on Google if you want.

For those of you who don’t know what the Neon Museum is, it’s a boneyard of sorts of many of the old Las Vegas neon signs. It’s a place that these signs go to die and the non-profit Neon Museum states their mission as “to collect, preserve, study and exhibit neon signs and associated artifacts to inspire educational and cultural enrichment for diverse members of our international community.”

Unfortunately their policy with regards to photography does not seem to fit with their stated mission.

My interest in shooting the Neon Musuem was simply to share in a non commercial way my interpretation of neon art with the rest of the world. I already have a decent size collection of neon signs and images up on Flickr and I was hoping to add to my collection with some historically significant signs from the Neon Musuem. Because I value the preservation work that someone like the Neon Museum is doing I even offered to make a donation to the museum in conjunction with approval to shoot some of their pieces. I mentioned that my desire was non commercial and simply to promote the museum via my blog and flickr.

What I got back from them was something which I think runs contrary to their mission statement:

“Although many people have taken it upon themselves to post photos of the Boneyard on Flickr and other photo-sharing websites, we ask that no one do so. We are an educational facility first and foremost – and therefore do not allow stock photography. Photos that are uploaded to sites such as Flickr are not copy protected, and therefore are able to be lifted and used by unscrupulous people. As a result, we are trying to limit the number of images from our collection that are hosted on the web.”

This is wrong and backward thinking. As a non profit that says it’s mission is to exhibit their neon signs and who specifically mentions an international community, to restrict the exposure of their collection this way flies contrary in the face of both promoting and exhibiting their work internationally.

Rather than let the whole world explore the historically significant collection (did I mention I found out about the musuem in the first place by perusing shadowplay’s excellent set of neon sign images on Flickr), the Neon Museum would seek to lock their collection up lest (god forbid) some unscrupulous person dare use one of their images somehow. I’m not sure how potential unscrupulous users outweighs letting an entire international community (it’s not always easy for everyone from China or India to get to Las Vegas) appreciate their collection and build awareness and publicity for the good work that they are doing via the web.

I would hope that the Neon Museum would reconsider their policy of excesively protecting their images (really signs that in many regards probably most appropriately belong to all of us as historical artifacts of past generations). It is an unfriendly position for them to take and it is not at all what a public, non profit museum ought to be about. I fail to see how when the de Young Museum, with even greater valued art and artifacts, and the Oakland Musuem of California can open up their galleries for public photography that someone like the Neon Museum insists on being so unfriendly towards the very constituents, promoters and donors that they should instead be courting. Especially as neon is particularly well suited for photography I find this to be a shame indeed.

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31 Comments

  1. Griffon says:

    It is a shame they don’t look at is a way to build interest.
    I’m not sure I follow their comment about copyright though, the photographer still owns the copyright of anything they shot and can defend it against theft or misuse. Though I guess that is just a red hearing argument to make them sound less arbitrary.

  2. Matthew Braun says:

    I ran into the same problem while I was living in Vegas. Though the staff member I dealt with was very courteous, at one point it was mentioned that they were even considering sending the lawyers after those who had put pictures up on Flickr.

    Strangely, they did have some leeway in the online publishing of photos IF you put it on your own site and only showed the photos via Flash. (ugh)

    I got a listing of their prices for commercial shoots and while they weren’t that excessive, it was sad that commercial use was fully ok (well, no porn or abuse of trademarks) but free and artistic use was not.

  3. I had similar trouble…

  4. Anonymous says:

    I live in Las Vegas and am familiar with the Neon Museum, so I thought that maybe I could provide a little insight.

    The Neon Museum is a non-profit museum that is not generally open to the public. It gets its entire revenue from tours and photo sessions. Since photos of the signs are very sought-after, and this is a major form of revenue for the museum, it is not in their best interest to have these signs available for free on the web.

    Of course, most museums do not allow photography of their exhibits at all, so the Neon Museum’s policy is not out-of-line.

    The museum is also in an unusual situation in that, since it is not open to the public at this time, it does not wish to have an inordinate amount of publicity, due to the afore-mentioned “unscrupulous” types.

    The museum can explain things better than i can, though, so feel free to contact them via their website http://www.neonmuseum.org if you would like to make up your own mind!

  5. Johnny Drama says:

    Not open to the public? How is a museum that is un-available to the public really a museum? Would it not then be just an awesome collection available to and for the enjoyment of only a lucky few? Other than organizing as a non-profit, which usually implies a society benefiting mission, how is this collection different from that of Jay Leno’s infamous car collection? It t too is largely unavailable to the public but makes no claims to serve any purpose other than for Jay’s personal enjoyment.

  6. Johnny Drama says:

    Not open to the public? How is a museum that is un-available to the public really a museum? Would it not then be just an awesome collection available to and for the enjoyment of only a lucky few? Other than organizing as a non-profit, which usually implies a society benefiting mission, how is this collection different from that of Jay Leno’s infamous car collection? It t too is largely unavailable to the public but makes no claims to serve any purpose other than for Jay’s personal enjoyment.

  7. Dustin says:

    Thomas,

    I’m starting to grow weary of your arguments that people don’t have rights to protect their property.

    To think that the museum owners are lesser humans because they don’t agree with you is arrogant, and the whole not-linking-you-can-find-them-on-Google is just sophomoric. Do I agree that they’re shooting themselves in the foot? Sure, I do. But to parade your opinion around like it’s the only one worth having is just … ugly.

    Aren’t you better than that?

  8. Thomas Hawk says:

    Anonymous. It’s odd to hear you defend the museum due to the fact that it is closed off and restricted to the public.

    This fact, and the fact that it seeks to be organized largely around trying to get commercial users to pay up to photograph their signs, would seem to run contrary to their stated mission statement on their websites of wanting to “inspire educational and cultural enrichment for diverse members of our international community.”

    Maybe instead their mission statement ought to read “inspire commercial users to pay up big bucks in order to commercially hawk our signs for the benefit of marketers around the globe.”

    By restricting public access both in person as well as through photography and posting at places like Flickr I fail to see how this would “inspire or enrich an international community.” By being closed off less people see their work. Less people are enriched. Less people are inspired.

    And why even have international in their mission statement. So they don’t want someone from China to see an image on Flickr, but they do want them to make a trek thousands of miles to come pay up big fees to see the work in person?

    So as international travel is quite expensive, perhaps again they should change their mission statement to read “inspire the *wealthiest* of the international community.

    Their museum seems directly at odds with what is in the best interest of the public culturally speaking and as such I personally think they should not even be afforded non-profit status. I agree with Johnny Drama that this is no different than Jay Leno’s car collection, locked up and off limits to a broader general public.

  9. Thomas Hawk says:

    To think that the museum owners are lesser humans because they don’t agree with you is arrogant,

    Dustin. The musuem is a non profit. It receives preferential tax treatment. Culturally and historically significant collections which recieve preferential tax treatment due to a greater public good ought to truly be open to us all.

    I would hope that the museum might see the cultural significance and greater public good in truly sharing their collection with the public at large and not just with wealthy marketers who might pay them big bucks to arrange photo shoots.

    And I never said anything about anyone being lesser of a human being.

  10. Anonymous says:

    This is sad, lame, and goes against the very nature of museums in general. They should be ashamed of themselves. I had never even heard of this place before they pulled this grade A baloney. I would love to visit, but never without a camera.
    It will take a brave soul to flout their backwards rules (perhaps even secretly) in order to get them to actually put their tax-free money where their mouth is in a court of law. Of course the result could very well put their tax status in jeopardy. Ahhhh, is there any problem that can’t be solved with a liberal sprinkling of lawsuits?

  11. Anonymous says:

    Wow – it is amazing how many people can comment on something that they know nothing about.

    The museum is a non-profit and is trying to raise the money so that it can be open to the public. This is why they have to charge for access at this time. They are not restricting access, but they do charge for access, as most museums do. Aquiring signs and maintaining the yard costs a lot of money. The museum is hardly in the business of making money at this point. They hope to be open to the public within a year or so (last I heard) and so the rules may be different at that point.

    They would LOVE to be open to the public, but at this time they do not have a museum facility built. This is what they are working on.

    And to the second anonymous poster – of course you can bring a camera when you visit the museum – no one said that you could not! I have done so myself on a tour. They simply do not want unprotected photos available to anyone on the web when photos are one of their few sources of income until they have a facility built.

    Again, I would urge people to look at their website – http://www.neonmuseum.org – to make up their own minds.

  12. greg says:

    You’ve completely misrepresented the Neon Museum and their reasons for limiting access to their collection. The email you’re quoting was likely written by a good friend of mine and your self-righteous lectures about our cultural heritage are completely off the mark. You guys have no idea how hard it’s been to even rescue the signs and have a place to store them.

    Your false dichotomy is especially troubling. The choice isn’t simply between limiting access or opening the collection to the public, but between offering the limited access they have now while trying to scape up every dime they can get or opening things up to everyone (as you’d prefer) and watching the already unwanted collection whither and die.

    If you really care about the signs, encourage people to donate to the collection so that it can be properly restored, secured, and displayed. Right now the signs are sitting in an open lot in the middle of nowhere.

    More here :

    http://www.thetalentshow.org/archives/002567.html

  13. Mike D says:

    Fans of neon art should make sure to check out tsbauld’s photos on flickr.

  14. Thomas Hawk says:

    greg. I was told that I would have to submit a request in writing and I was also told that part of this request would need to include my purpose for taking photos and I was also told that I could not post these images to flickr.

    This stance runs contrary to their stated mission statement of enriching the international community.

    By keeping the museum closed off they do their international community a dis service.

    I was perfectly willing to make a donation and provide additional publicity and encourage others to make donations when I thought what they were doing was something cool and really in the interest of public art. Instead they are about keeping their collection proprietary.

    Promotion on my part (and a donation) do not hurt the museum but rather help it.

    Their protectionist stance regarding their collection is unfortunate as the “unscrupulous” folks who would use images of these signs (really signs designed to be public) would likely never pay them a dime anyways.

    Instead legitimate use and more broad exposure of their collection is stimied and they receive bad publicity within the context of a more open cultural community.

    I might really care about the signs (as you suggest) if I were able to experience them as a photographer which is what I requested. But instead their backwards policies put me off and now they instead lose the potential donation that might make as well as encouragement for others to do so also.

    They should rethink their decision.

    Broad public display and distribution of a collection such as this should be more important than the occasional “unscrupulous” (if this even exists at all) use that may occur. There is a greater good in enriching an international community than there is a loss due to openness.

    I can’t sympathize with their plight to try and raise funds when they take a position that is contrary to a broader public cultural and historical good — personal feelings for your friend aside.

    If they are unsuccessful especially it will be a shame to know that these signs could have been preserved at least in photos and were not due to their hostile closed stance.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Oh, come on. Have you actually been to the museum? It’s not like they have the neon signs all plugged in so you can see what they look like at night.

    First off, everybody needs to understand what “museum” is here. It’s not the Getty Center or the Met. It’s literally two vacant dirt lots with wire fence around, staffed by a few people who obviously are doing this for the love of Vegas history, not for the money. Depending on the size of the group you tour with, it costs about five bucks a person. Nobody is getting secretly rich off a non-profit status, as far as I can tell.

    Second, I went there a few months ago as part of a pre-arranged tour, paid my donation, signed a release saying I wouldn’t use the images commercially, and snapped a bunch of photos. The docent that led us around was awesomely knowledgeable. It was easy, fun, and I learned a lot.

    I’m sorry to hear you got your panties in a wad over whether or not you could put photos on Flickr, and missed out on a fun time yourself. You could have easily just signed the non-commercial waiver, gone through the tour, and experienced something fun and out of the ordinary.

    Third – if the Neon Museum weren’t there, a lot of these signs wouldn’t even exist for you to see. I doubt that collecting old neon signs is a highly profitable venture, so their policy seemed to me (and the other 15 people on the tour, all of whom signed the same release) pretty reasonable while they raise money to actually open up a real facility.

    So why all of this negative publicity (also from Cory Doctorow from BoingBoing) when they’re trying to do something cool, just because you don’t like their photography policy?

    Finally – can’t wait to hear your tirades against the the Guggenheim for not allowing photography, as well as the Louvre for not allowing pictures of the Mona Lisa.

  16. IrishMASMS says:

    Did you catch the neon signs that are down around the Freemont street? There are a few on the side streets, just there on display from the ‘old’ Vegas

  17. Thomas,

    There must be a way that you can go back to them and negotiate something. Seems to me that a monetary gift (tax deductible) and a release that limits your photographs to non-commercial use (and that also offers to pull them from disribution if someone else abuses access to them). There are merits to both sides of the argument. Free and open access to what is essentially art and an important era in American history is noble. But the collection is this non-profit’s greatest asset and it seems they are just trying to protect it from rampant exploitation.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous – “as well as the Louvre for not allowing pictures of the Mona Lisa.”

    Unless this is very recent, not quite true – I was there a couple of years ago, and happily took photos and video of the Mona Lisa.

  19. Rick Pali says:

    Of course, most museums do not allow photography of their exhibits at all, so the Neon Museum’s policy is not out-of-line.

    Maybe things are different in my neck of the woods but both the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization allow photography.

    The only restrictions are no tripods, no flash, and often temporary (travelling) exhibits do not allow photography at all…which is a condition of the exhibit owners rather than the museum itself.

    Perhaps stating that “most museums do not allow photography” would be better qualified.

  20. Rick Pali says:

    Of course, most museums do not allow photography of their exhibits at all, so the Neon Museum’s policy is not out-of-line.

    Maybe things are different in my neck of the woods but both the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization allow photography.

    The only restrictions are no tripods, no flash, and often temporary (travelling) exhibits do not allow photography at all…which is a condition of the exhibit owners rather than the museum itself.

    Perhaps stating that “most museums do not allow photography” would be better qualified.

  21. Andy Havens says:

    It’s not unreasonable for people who own stuff to do what they want with it. I’m a huge fan of openness, museums, libraries and all-around-fun… but as a marketer, I also understand that if you’ve figured out a way to monetize something weird and wonderful, and you’re at a precarious stage of development, you may want to limit certain access to it until you get stable. And it’s not necessarily contrary to the stated purpose of the museum, if, as greg states, they’re at the stage where they’re simply trying to get things started and believe that offering open photographic access to the collection will limit paid access. If they do something specific (allow publicly posted photos) that will stymie income at the development stage, and that causes the collection to be jeopardized, that will certainly put the kabosh on the long-term mission of the collection. No collection, no benefit to the community at all, eh? At a later stage — a more financially stable one — open photographic access may be more reasonable.

  22. Anonymous says:

    This site offers advertising and flickr charges to be a memeber, so both are commercial.

    They don’t want you to own pictures of their property and give them away for free to other commercial ventures.

    Seems reasonable.

    You really cry wolf alot.

  23. Pascal Klein says:

    I think it is about fair time people move from this disgusting habit of restricting people from the sharing of ideas and creative works because ultimately that is exactly what enhances and improves society.

    People need to wake up and understand that if they allow people to have at least some rights over content such that they can at least share it freely with one another then eventually you will benefit as well because you will be able to make use of and/or enjoy the works of others.

    That is what an entire operating system (GNU/Linux) is based around not to mention the fundamental ideologies of the free culture movement.

    I think it is sad to see something like this. Write them back a letter and explain it to them.

  24. Anonymous says:

    yeah, an open letter, everybody loves those.

    They need money to preserve and store the signs, who says they have to let you make money on your blog with pictures of their property. What right do you have to take pictures for free to post on your commercial website? You are not a non commercial entity, there is little art to see here, and a lot of lame pictures of plastic toys.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Ironic that you post a bitch-and-moan session on the internet to publicly lambaste a non-profit museum for preventing you from taking pictures of their exhibits for “non commercial” use…and all the while there’s this little HP advertisement dancing in the corner, earning you revenue while you bitch about the myopic practices of some non-profit entity you’re seeking to exploit.

  26. Thomas Hawk says:

    Anonymous, with regards to the HP advertisement I did start taking advertisments earlier this year largely to pay for the maintenance of this blog.

    To date this blog has been a money losing entity for me. When my hosting bill went up to $149 per month to pay for for a dedicated server, I decided accept ads to help pay for what was becoming a very expensive hobby.

    All of the money I make on this blog either goes back into it or into my photography hobby. It is certainly not my motivation for wanting to shoot the neon signs. I’ve been shooting neon signs for years and love the art.

    I also have no problem with the neon art museum charging commercial users to make their money. I just think that this practice by them should go along with allowing the art to be seen by as many people as possible and don’t believe that opening photos of their work would in any way be detrimental to their revenue.

  27. Anonymous says:

    “I just think that this practice by them should go along with allowing the art to be seen by as many people as possible and don’t believe that opening photos of their work would in any way be detrimental to their revenue.”

    And you’ve reached the heart of the matter, that being your assertion that what you think and believe should be adopted by another party who maintains interests opposed to your viewpoint. You believe your photography would promote their efforts, and they aren’t interested. You think that you should be allowed to photograph and present their collection for your own purposes and they disagree.

    What you think and what you believe doesn’t much matter when the property is not yours to present, so the whiny diatribe you’ve published on the internet in an obvious attempt to defame a party that has disagreed with you is immature, dishonest and self-indulgent.

    It is obvious that you are seeking to exploit the objects owned by another party for personal gain, and the ostensible promotion for the museum is secondary to the benefit directly afforded to you as a photographer. The intrests you are certainly more selfish then charitable. If charity was your aim, you would have offered to photograph their collection and turn over all rights and copies to the museum to promote the items as they wish.

    “To date this blog has been a money losing entity for me. When my hosting bill went up to $149 per month to pay for for a dedicated server, I decided accept ads to help pay for what was becoming a very expensive hobby.”

    Regardless of how much money you lose running your blog, you’re still taking in revenue to offset costs while gaining whatever self-promotion this indulgent exercise affords you. On this very page, you have an advertisment drawing in money on while you criticize a non-profit organization’s decisions to protect their property. You state that any revenue gained from these advertisements goes to fund your blog and photography, but you neglect to acknowledge that both those endeavors offer direct financial and promotional benefit to your commercial personna. Furthermore, this entire blog seems to be an advertisement for your professional relationship with zooomr, so it doesn’t quite fit the notion of a non-commercial piece of free expression.

    Sorry, it just doesn’t ring true and it’s entirely unethical to mount a campaign of public opinion against a party that is excercising their legal right to limit the commercialization of their property.

  28. Thomas Hawk says:

    Anonymous.

    “What you think and what you believe doesn’t much matter when the property is not yours to present,”

    This museum enjoys the benefit of tax exempt status. I earn money and pay taxes and can buy property, and even if it is art, it is mine to keep and enjoy and restrict as I so choose.

    They derive an economic benefit from their tax status and you might say that the taxes that I pay in fact go to subsidize them and every other tax exempt organization in the United States.

    When a museum elects to organize as a tax-exempt organization I believe that everyone out there is entitled to voice their opinion with regards to how appropriately the tax exempt organization is pursuing their stated goals and mission statement.

    My opinion may or may not matter but the right to voice it is mine and mine alone.

    I think it is a stretch when you say that I seek to exploit the collection for personal gain. To date my photography has generated very little income whatsoever. When you strip out the few photos that I’ve sold (as I already agreed that my photography of the signs would fall under non commercial use) I’ve made exactly zero dollars with my photography.

    In terms of indirect benefits that would amount to anything worth a hill of beans, at this point I think that this is a stretch. It is a jump to say that my primary purposes with regards to shooting their collection is to somehow personally profit economically. Whether or not their photos are on my blog or not and any subsequent PR type goodwill associated with this is non existent.

    Thomas Hawk is not worth more as a brand if these photos are on my blog or not. Equally, Zooomr (where I don’t draw any salary by the way) is also worth no more or less depending on whether or not these photos exist on the site.

    Of the 7,000 or so photos I’ve published online a handful of extra photos from their collection would have exactly zero material benefit to me.

    Your arguments are merely meant to discredit me to somehow shine some positive light on the fact that this museum is not following their stated mission of educating and exhibiting their signs to an international community. Restricting photography and photo sharing (the best possible way to reach an international community) is wrong. If they were a private tax paying organization I might feel differently. But they are not.

    “Sorry, it just doesn’t ring true and it’s entirely unethical to mount a campaign of public opinion”

    It is certainly not unethical for me to express my opinion regarding this museum and their practices as I have done. I would hope that others would also take a greater interest in monitoring the non profits that exist in our society and pointing it out when their practices do more to hurt culture and art than to help it.

    I would bet you that this museum makes far more money pimping out their signs to CSI and other TV shows than I make from my blog. Of course I pay income tax on what I make on my blog while they do not.

  29. Also see the good set of photos from the museum on Flickr from Planetgordon.com.

  30. Carlitus says:

    I posted my set on Flickr as I wanted to share what I saw and I wanted to encourage others to visit the museum when they’re in Vegas. The museum can do nothing but benefit from the exposure Flickr gives. It is free advertising, plain and simple. I will definitely not receive any money by posting the photos I took and no one is legally allowed to use them commercially anyways. If the museum asks me to take down my set I will, but until then it will stay up, alongside the hundreds of other shots posted on Flickr.

  31. […] place I had never heard of until he wrote about it, The Neon Museum, thinks keeping images of it protected helps with their mission of “cultural enrichment for […]