When I was an undergraduate student, I had the opportunity to do a study abroad in Paris. It was an amazing opportunity, and I had the chance to experience some of the world’s greatest museums and works of art. Before I left the States, I purchased eight rolls of film. I figured that had to be more than enough for two months abroad, particularly since I took pictures until the camera’s auto-rewind kicked in and therefore was able to maximize the so-called 32-frame film to its maximum potential. (My personal best was 37 pictures…really! Those rolls never really had only 32 frames.) I ended up purchasing three more rolls, usually at a tourist site and for an exorbitant rate.
In addition to my many rolls of film, I purchased almost 100 postcards. For those of you that remember film, you could never be quite sure how well your photograph came out until it was developed. Maybe it was crooked. Perhaps the lighting was wrong. And there were many places where photography was banned. As a budding museum professional, I took those seriously. The advent of the digital camera must have had a serious impact on the sale of postcards. There would always be that amazing image in a postcard that I could never replicate on my camera. But the digital camera took out all of the guesswork. One could simply review all of the images taken on the spot, delete the subpar ones, and retake the picture until a suitable image was captured.
Back to my study abroad. I came home with eleven rolls of film. I returned to school for the fall semester, in which I had to submit a report about my experiences. When I received the final instructions about this report, one of the requirements was that I submit a photo of myself on my study abroad. I froze. Did I actually have a photograph of myself? It was my camera. It was my film. I was clearly the one taking the photos, but did I actually appear in any of the approximately 352 photographs I took that summer?
I had one. Just one. A picture of me standing in Monet’s garden. A friend took it, insisting that I had to have a picture of myself standing in such a famous garden.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I find the “selfie” phenomenon baffling. And apparently “selfies” are overtaking museums. When I was standing in the presence some of the most important contributions to mankind, my only thought was one of awe and respect. I wanted to experience that piece. To lose myself in it. Never once did I have any desire to throw myself in front of it, shouting, look at me! The photographs I took and the postcards I purchased were meant merely as reminders of what I had experienced. I didn’t need myself superimposed in those images to prove what I had seen.
Many museums are giving up their no-photography policy under the onslaught of the “selfie” phenomenon. There are those who say they cannot keep up with the number of people violating the no-photography rule. There are many who argue that museums should just submit to the “selfie” phenomenon because it is the latest trend in appreciating art. There are those who advocate accepting and adapting to the “selfie” and recreating exhibits with the “selfie” in mind—the focus is no longer on the work itself, but the “seflie”.
This submission a serious mistake, because in fact the “seflie” carries serious legal issues for a museum. The first is a conservation issue. There are far too many reports of museum items suffering damage because a patron had to get the best or most outrageous “selfie”—the most extensive damage is suffered by statuary. Imagine someone scaling Michelangelo’s David in order to take a “selfie”. Doubly disturbing is the situation in which the “selfie-seeker” not only damages statuary, but then sues the museum for injuries he incurred when fragile plaster collapses underneath him. It is only a matter of time before this happens.
Second is a security issue. This is not a new subject. But what is new is that camera-phones, which allows the photographer see herself in the frame, can take very detailed pictures of a museum security system in the guise of a “selfie” in ways that were not available in previous technology. Now, the “selfie” taker knows for sure what the security camera, alarms and other security features are within the image where before there was a certain amount of guesswork. Further, it allows a potential thief to create a detailed layout of the museum and pre-plan a theft.
Finally, there is an intellectual property issue. While there are many works that are in the public domain, more modern exhibits contain works that are still protected by copyright. An artist could hold a museum liable for contributory infringement by allowing museum-goers to take “selfies” of a copyrighted work. Further, works created after 1991 are protected by the Visual Artist’s Rights Act (VARA). This act protects an artist’s moral rights in a work, and allows an artist to “prevent any intentional distortion, mutilation, or other modification of that work which would be prejudicial to his or her honor or reputation, and any intentional distortion, mutilation, or modification of that work is a violation of [an artist’s rights].” It is entirely possible that a “selfie” in which the photographer makes some sort of obscene gesture or other disagreeable action would be a violation of VARA, and once again opening a museum up to a lawsuit.