Many years ago, before human beings had the ability to capture moments of time with flash photography, people simply had to look at paintings as long as they could and try to remember. Until photography became common 100 years ago or so, there wasn’t any controversy about taking photographs in museums. But now, with inexpensive cameras and cell phones that include flash photography, museums are limiting flash photography or eliminating it altogether.
The basic reason that people can’t take flash photographs in museums is that museum curators want to do all they can to preserve the masterpieces of art in the collections. While the quick flash of light might seem to be harmless, the truth is bright flashes of light can damage paintings over the long term. The changes occur in ways that are not immediately visible to the human eye.
Some people have expressed doubt about the sincerity of restricting flash photography, arguing that the museums want to sell more copies and post cards in gift shops. Art experts respond by stating that intense light can negatively affect the condition of the art. The problem seems to get worse with an increase in the use of small flash cameras by tourists.
Apparently the damage occurs because of both the heat generated by flash cameras as well as by the light level from many cameras in the same location. Scientists believe that the paper and other materials on which art is painted can break down. The heat and intense light seems to affect the cellulose in paper, for example. High levels of heat and light may also cause minute changes in the color of paintings by altering the pigments.
Museums are typically rather dark places and when light is provided for viewing it is strategically placed. In addition, it is also a soft, dispersed light that doesn’t affect paintings. Museum construction takes into account the blockage of sunlight so that art work is not damaged over long periods of time. Room temperatures are intentionally low and is kept steady – another way of helping to preserve works of art.
While many tourists carry small cameras to capture items they see on a trip, there are also hundreds of art enthusiasts who don’t carry cameras. They want to view art in a quiet setting, undisturbed by the crowding and flashing lights that seem to accompany museum photography.
The Mona Lisa, which may be the world’s most famous painting, has been at the center of this controversy recently. Hundreds of visitors to the Louvre have taken flash photos of the painting. But this is no longer allowed, officially. We say officially because visitors continue to ignore the rules and take flash photos of the painting anyway.
While some museums forbid photography altogether, others allow photos to be taken without flash. It may be more difficult to get clear photos without flash. Use of a tripod to steady the camera is highly recommended in museums that do allow photography. Those who choose to take photos when in a museum should also be considerate of others who wish to view works of art without taking photos.