Portland Art Museum, You Suck, Oregon Historical Socitey, You Suck Worse

So today’s question is a simple one.

How is it that The Metropolitan Museum and the MOMA Museum in New York, two of the finest art museums in the world, will allow photography in their museums and the rinky dink Portland Art Museum will not?

Heck, even that little museum back in my own town of San Francisco, the de Young Museum, will allow photography, but somehow the folks up here running the Art Museum in Portland think that they are doing society a favor by restricting people from taking photos in their museum.

What’s worse, you also can’t take photos even at the Oregon Historical Society. That’s right, the Oregon Historical Society who you would think as a public institution ought to be interested in widely disseminating and encouraging viewing of the history of Oregon, would rather shut photographers out.

You know what show is going on at the Oregon Historical Society right now? A show about Abraham Lincoln. God forbid that someone snap an unauthorized photo of one of our greatest, but very well dead, American Presidents.

Do you know what the Oregon Historical Society’s Mission Statement is?

“The Oregon Historical Society’s mission is preserving and interpreting Oregon’s past in thoughtful, illuminating, and provocative ways.”

Of course maybe a better mission statement for them might be,

“The Oregon Historical Society’s mission is preserving and interpreting Oregon’s past in thoughtful, illuminating, and provocative ways, but sometimes photography of Abraham Lincoln can just be a tad *too* provocative so leave your camera at home asshat.”

Now for some of you this post might sound like a bit of a repeat and you might just chalk this post up to Thomas Hawk trying to be America’s angriest photographer, but seriously WTF?

Do the trustees at the Portland Art Museum and Historical Society really think that their “amazing” collections are that much more worthy of protection from those vicious photographers that might dare publish a photograph of a Degas sculpture up on Flickr than the Trustees at the MOMA and the Met?

That’s the show that’s going on at the Portland Art Museum right now, a show on Degas. Hey Brian Ferriso (he’s the dude that’s the executive director, I think, at the Portland Art Museum, he was the art director at the Tulsa OK museum before this gig). Hey Brian Ferriso check this out. I’ve got a *real* photograph up of a *real* Degas. Check it out. Do you know where I took the photo at? The Metropolitan Museum of Art in *NEW YORK CITY.* Yep, I know, those New Yorkers can be backwards sometimes, can you believe it, a photograph of a real life Degas.

There are lots of reasons that folks like Ferriso will try to justify their museum policies. The one you hear a lot is, well flash damages our valuable paintings. In truth I’ve never seen any conclusive research that flash damages paintings at all. But even if the same tin foil hat guy that made up the “no cellphone usage” at the gas station signs thinks that flash will somehow radiate a painting, then the solution to this one is easy. Allow photography *without flash*. Heck, my 5D doesn’t even have a flash on the camera. And by the way, if flash is so bad for paintings, then why are the trustees at the Met and MOMA being so careless and reckless by allowing you to photograph their paintings?

Another reason I’ve heard for disallowing photography in museums is that it is disruptive to the other patrons. Ok, fine. Then allow photography one day a week and post the day. This way those sensitive ear folks that would rather not be bothered by the quiet click of a camera might choose one of the other 6 days of the week to go.

I suspect the real reason that the Portland Museum and Historical Society don’t allow photography is because they are afraid that if people can take their own photos then they won’t buy their overpriced books in their bookstores. And I’m sorry this is just too lame a reason not to let people take photos.

The Portland Art Museum and Historical Society need to wake up. They need to understand that by allowing the democracy of the digital world to publish thousands of photos of their collections on Flickr that people become *more* interested in seeing the collection in person, not less interested. That social media can be trusted and that rather than having people restricted that they should open things up more. These institutions are public institutions. Non-profit public institutions receiving the most favorable tax treatment in our society. By disallowing the world beyond Portland access to their collections they do society a dis-service.

That’s all for now. I will say that I got up this morning and saw the most amazing sunrise over the City of Portland. I’ll post those photos later and in the meantime if you want to check out some cool photographs from museums check out my collection of images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the de Young, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum or the Oakland Museum of California. Sadly, Portland’s Art Museum and Historical Society won’t be getting sets in my library. But hey, then again, they didn’t get my $10 for admission either.

By the way, in no way should my condemnation of these bad museum policies in Portland be relflective of my overall feelings about the City of Portland and the people who live here. The people of Portland are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met in my life. It’s amazing to me that strangers will just come up to you and start a conversation with you. This is very different than San Francisco and I’ve found it really nice just having random strangers come up to me and talk to me about what I’m doing and my photography. And the photographic beauty in this great city is some of the best I’ve ever seen. The bridges, the neon, the nightlife, the art, the galleries. Portland has now become one of my most favorite cities in the world. I could see myself living here someday and I will be back many, many times in the future.

Update: Rachel Schoening from the Oregon Historical Society responds:

“Had we been contacted in advance regarding photos of an exhibit, I would have given permission. It’s just that simple. It has nothing to do with the store. In fact, we don’t have any books depicting the Lincoln exhibit in the store. When a collector or organization lends to a museum, they often have rules attached. One of them is usually “no photography”. We have no choice but to follow that rule. It is usually meant for commercial photography using very hot bright lights, etc. That’s why I can make exceptions some times. Thus, the difference between permanent and non permanent exhibits & allowed photography. We have more control over permanent exhibits. Notice the low lights in the exhibits? That’s because a very old manuscript can be damaged by long exposure to light. If we want the copy of the emancipation proclamation to be around for eternity, every bit of safety counts. Will a quick snap hurt it? No. I get that. Also- there are photos in the exhibit that are from the Library of Congress. We had to pay usage fees based on our specific use. If someone took a photo of the exhibit & used it to create something commercial we would be held responsible. I don’t like it, but it’s the reality. We just have to be vigilant.”

and a bit more in the comment below.

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17 Comments

  1. tomh says:

    It’s not the flash, and it’s not the crowds. It’s just that the magic light box will steal your soul. Didn’t you know?

    But seriously, fear does strange things to people. The best part about fear is that you don’t seem to need a rational justification for it.

  2. Danno says:

    Other museums do the same thing. Boston’s art museum will allow photography only if it’s part of their permanent display. Special exhibitions are off-limits to cameras. The reason? After the exhibit area is a store containing books, calendars, prints, coffee mugs, etc. of the exhibit pieces. It’s all about money. If they can’t charge you to see it, they lose out.

  3. Thomas Hawk says:

    Boston’s art museum will allow photography only if it’s part of their permanent display.

    Danno, even this I could tolerate. But *no* photography allowed *anywhere* in the museum like Portland. This is far too restrictive.

  4. Sam says:

    Yea, I didn’t like it either that the PAM didn’t allow photography. I sneaked a photo and wrote a bit about it here:
    http://flickr.com/photos/samgrover/161404243/

  5. RachelS says:

    Pardon me, for interrupting your rant about Oregon Historical Society. I work here. None of the reasons you listed for not allowing photography in the exhibits are correct. In fact, you are really off the mark. Also- We are not a “public institution”. We just received state funding after not getting any support for many years, and the amount the state gives us is about 1/3 of our operating budget.

    Had we been contacted in advance regarding photos of an exhibit, I would have given permission. It’s just that simple. It has nothing to do with the store. In fact, we don’t have any books depicting the Lincoln exhibit in the store. When a collector or organization lends to a museum, they often have rules attached. One of them is usually “no photography”. We have no choice but to follow that rule. It is usually meant for commercial photography using very hot bright lights, etc. That’s why I can make exceptions some times. Thus, the difference between permanent and non permanent exhibits & allowed photography. We have more control over permanent exhibits. Notice the low lights in the exhibits? That’s because a very old manuscript can be damaged by long exposure to light. If we want the copy of the emancipation proclamation to be around for eternity, every bit of safety counts. Will a quick snap hurt it? No. I get that. Also- there are photos in the exhibit that are from the Library of Congress. We had to pay usage fees based on our specific use. If someone took a photo of the exhibit & used it to create something commercial we would be held responsible. I don’t like it, but it’s the reality. We just have to be vigilant.

    There are some traveling exhibits that allow photography. We had an exhibit from the Smithsonian just last summer on sports that did. I am not sure why we suck worse, but personally, I think your statements suck. We work very hard to find support for OHS & unlike the Art Museum, offer free days once a month! During Lincoln, all students (of any age) are free!

    Next time you talk about Portland, do a little research. We are a great city. Just try us.
    If you have any questions, further comments, or want to get an exception to snap a photo- let me know. I will do what I can to help.

    Rachel.Schoening@ohs.org

  6. Anonymous says:

    As a museum professional, I’d say your comments are off-base, unresearched, and unfair. And it is not about money. As institutions responsible for sharing works of art and culture, we have an obligation to comply with a good deal of legal restrictions in order to present those works. It is often necessary to restrict the use of photography for traveling shows so that lenders will agree to allow their pieces to travel. Pieces from private collections especially have more conservation issues and lenders want various legal assurances that they will get their pieces back in the condition they sent them in. Some museums prohibit all photography without advance arrangements as a simplification of the process; particularly when they do not have personnel to enforce policy.
    I understand your frustration, but I think the current situation superior to one in which lenders won’t allow works to travel and the public may only view them through institutional catalogue. As a photographer, I’m sure you wish to take images yourself. Often this can be arranged. However, when it cannot there are people like me who can help by sending you images we have in our archive–as long as it’s not for commercial use.
    And by the way, The Met and MOMA do *NOT* allow flash photography in their galleries. It is distracting to have 300 people flashing away, and is mostly useless for general “point-and-shooters.” You are photographing on a professional level; you should know to ask for permission from museum staff. Not the guard; he doesn’t know. From people working on the admin. and reproductions side in advance.
    The Met’s Gallery Policy:
    Still photography is permitted for private, noncommercial use only in the Museum’s galleries devoted to the permanent collection. Photographs cannot be published, sold, reproduced, transferred, distributed, or otherwise commercially exploited in any manner whatsoever. Photography is not permitted in special exhibitions or areas designated as “No Photography”; works of art on loan from private collections or other institutions may not be photographed. The use of a flash is prohibited. Movie and video cameras are prohibited. Tripods are allowed on weekdays only, and only with a permit issued by the Information Desk in the Great Hall.

  7. Thomas Hawk says:

    Rachel,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post on your no photography policy. I’ve appended part of your comment to the original post and appreciate your willingness to engage in a dialog regarding the photography policy of the Oregon Historical Society.

    I’d like to take a moment to respond to some of your comments.

    One of the reasons for not allowing photography at your institution is because you are concerned that bright, professional, commercial grade lighting *might* damage some of your sensitive documents.

    I can understand this, but still think that your policy is misplaced.

    The simple solution is rather than banning *all* photography (99.9% of which does not involve professional, commercial lighting), instead simply ban professional commercial lighting. In fact you can take this one a step further and even ban *all* free standing lighting apparatus.

    This way those of us who are using Digital SLRs or simple point and shoot cameras would be able to enjoy and shoot the exhibits *without* fear of ruining your historical documents.

    I assure you that museums like the MOMA and the Met in New York are just as concerned about ensuring the safety of their important art and artifacts.

    In terms of your blanket “no photography” policy being required because of special exhibits that require this policy. This too is a red herring. Note how museums like the de Young, the MOMA and the Met handle this. They simply allow photography of their permanent collection while prohibiting photography of their special exhibits when required.

    I’m sorry if my distinction about your being a “public” institution was off the mark. My point is that as a non-profit organization with some state funding and more significantly tax-exempt status I consider that you owe the general public a little more consideration with regards to your policy.

    I would encourage you to reconsider the photography policy of your institution. Having you as a gatekeeper is not the best policy as 99.9% of the time people are not going to know to contact you personally in order to shoot. This would be a more enlightened policy and would better serve the general public.

    The reason why I feel the Oregon Historical Society sucks worse than the Portland Art Museum is that feel as historians you of all people ought to understand the significance of historical documentation of which the photograph is one of the most enduring forms of historical preservation.

    I will try to contact you personally the next time I am in town in order to shoot. Thank you for your thoughtful response. Portland is indeed a fantastic city.

  8. Thomas Hawk says:

    It is often necessary to restrict the use of photography for traveling shows so that lenders will agree to allow their pieces to travel.

    Anonymous. The solution to this is quite simple. We are not re-inventing the wheel here. All enlightened museum personnel need to do is to follow the policies of places like the de Young, the Met and the MOMA and allow photography of their permanent collections while restricting photography of their visiting collections.

  9. rachels says:

    I love the conversation here. As an FYI- I am sharing your comments & suggestions regarding photography of our permanent exhibits in my next committee meeting. It’s not a crazy idea. Let’s see what I can come up with. By the way- I agree with your comment about the historical benefits of photography. Next time you are around I would love to show you our impressive and absolutely overwhelming collection of historic photographs in our 4th floor Research Library. In fact, I invite everyone for a visit. People have trusted us with some amazing photos- and as long as you wear some white gloves, we will let you search through the originals. Much as I wish they were all stored digitally, (soon, we are working on it) I do love to search for an obscure photo of someone’s great uncle mountain climbing in the Gorge from 1908- and finding it!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Goodness! The original poster has a very good point. However, after we read the responses and learned more about the restrictions placed on museums… clearly it’s a waste of time complaining to the museum – the museum has made it clear that they are following the rules set by the donator/sponsor. So if you REALLY want your input to matter, send it to the exhibition’s sponsor, not the museum itself! As much as it sucks, the museum is legally bound to respect the wishes of the owner of the exhibition. BUT, having said that, if you want to take it one step further, then locate and contact the exhibition owner to express your concerns – now that’s real activism, if you want to truly make a difference…

  11. So here’s a suggestion for any museum that has a ‘No Photography Allowed’ sign. Below that sign, have a ‘small print’ area that explains why. For most people, they’ll just ignore the small print, for people like a lot of us, we would read the note and realize that there’s a reason behind the rule that actually makes sense.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Nice rant, but its proving to be misplaced. Portland Art Museum has its permanent collection and its on loan collection mixed together through-out their galleries.

    How exactly would you be able to direct people to the objects that could be photographed?

    Apparently in your world those institutions wealthy enough to own their own stuff are enjoyable by you, the rest can go stuff it.

  13. Thomas Hawk says:

    Nice rant, but its proving to be misplaced. Portland Art Museum has its permanent collection and its on loan collection mixed together through-out their galleries.

    Anonymous,

    As does the de Young. As does the Metropolitan Museum of art. The answer is simple group the loan collection that requires no photography in a separate area of the museum and post a no photography sign there. Much of the Metropolitan Museum of art is intermixed and you move in one room where photography is allowed and then into another room 5 feet away where it is not. It’s really not that much work to print a little no photography sign.

    So here’s a suggestion for any museum that has a ‘No Photography Allowed’ sign. Below that sign, have a ‘small print’ area that explains why.

    5 minutes from normal. Not a bad idea. Their website would also be a good place to publish this.

    clearly it’s a waste of time complaining to the museum – the museum has made it clear that they are following the rules set by the donator/sponsor. So if you REALLY want your input to matter, send it to the exhibition’s sponsor, not the museum itself!

    Anonymous, this is not the best tact to take as the majority of the collections are part of the museum/historical society permanent collections that they control. Certainly complaining about a traveling exhibit can also be done with the owner of the exhibit, but step one is to get the total no photography ban in the building repealed as a start with the permanent collection.

    As an FYI- I am sharing your comments & suggestions regarding photography of our permanent exhibits in my next committee meeting. It’s not a crazy idea. Let’s see what I can come up with. By the way- I agree with your comment about the historical benefits of photography. Next time you are around I would love to show you our impressive and absolutely overwhelming collection of historic photographs in our 4th floor Research Library.

    Rachel, you obviously care a great deal about the importance of what you are doing and I deeply appreciate your willingness to have the Historical Society consider this matter. Hopefully in the future I’ll be able to write a follow up post to this one commending the Historical Society for it’s willingness to embrace photography.

    Much of the photographic work that I do personally, (I’ve got about 18,000 photographs published online now and plan to have a million before I die) is based on historical preservation. I started collecting photographs of neon (which I shot a *ton* of in Portland) because I realized how much of it was disappearing in a relatively short matter of time. My efforts to capture neon and other photographs are part an expression as an artist and part historical preservation.

    I put as many of my photos as I can online in relatively high resolution format because I want the entire world to be able to appreciate what I’m shooting. This very well may be much more significant years after I am dead than it is today.

    Sometimes things that we don’t think of as important today become much more relevant as they age. While in Portland I spent some time looking at photography books at Powell’s (a great store). One of the books that I spent a lot of time with was Stephen Shore’s book of photographs called “Uncommon Places.” In this book Shore had a photograph taken of a McDonald’s hamburger, fries and a shake from probably sometime around the 70s. I know that this may sound somewhat insignificant but I found the photograph powerful. In part because of how the marketing and packaging of fast food had changed in the past 30 years and in part because of it’s commentary on our society. The mundane, for me, became significant. Much more significant than looking at a photograph today of the same packaging.

    By embracing social media I believe that we will be much richer in the future as the chances go up that many more historically important things will begin to bubble up to the top simply because of the law of large numbers. Maybe it won’t be a McDonald’s hamburger. But maybe it will be something equally interesting.

    I do believe that as we seek to preserve history that we ought to look to extend it’s reach and availability as far as we possibly can. Social media works well for this. By allowing the general public the ability to photograph and publish photographs to places like Flickr and the web it allows people all over the world searching for specific things the ability to better find this information.

    Recently the Library of Congress announced that they were opening an account at Flickr to begin publishing photographs there in addition to their website. In part the idea is an experiment to allow the general public broader access to their collection and do things like tag photographs. I think this work is very exciting and that as we make historical archives of photographs more and more broadly available that in the end history is better preserved.

    The more people out there documenting the world (including museums and galleries) the better. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the architecture of a museum (I also shoot a lot of architecture) may in time become historically significant.

    I’m glad you share a similar enthusiasm as I do for your work and appreciate your willingness to consider how photography and social photographers might be better integrated into your institution.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I think your anger is misplaced.

    Perhaps a large institution can group things as you say because they have a vast collection. But a smaller collection such as Portland Art Museum, you’d lose an understanding of the context of the work just for the convenience of some people who wish to take pictures.

    And, by requiring museums to group their collection in a way that it can be photographed, you’re also putting constraints on the use of the works.

    Even though constraints are what you’re arguing against.

  15. Anonymous says:

    why aren’t you including the sf moma in your rant? i’ve always found their “no photography” policy irritating.

  16. casman says:

    Yet another TH rant that makes me wonder why you continue to feel entitled to photograph whatever you want whenever you want in the halls of the nations museums. Do you let your children get away with not following your rules because they think they are stupid? Come one TH, move on… and yes we all know how many photos you have on the web and how many you will publish before you pass on. No need to pat yourself on the back about that for the what seems to be the thousandth time. And yes you now appear to be the crankiest photographer I have seen.