Visitor Photography at Museums and Heritage Sites: Notes from the VSA

This week I presented as part of a panel at the Visitor Studies Association annual conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. The panel was titled, “Visitor Photography: Engagement, Empowerment, Education,” organized by Dr. Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert, and it included four presentations about the way people use photography in museum/heritage settings. My presentation expanded on a blog post I wrote last year about visitor photography in museums–specifically selfies and the various institutional bans/initiatives in place to either regulate or encourage them. I also discussed how selfies in particular are part of a network of contested representations of dark heritage and “unofficial” heritage sites, like the ruins of Detroit.

All three presentations in the session were insightful and interesting, but Divya Rao Heffley’s (Carnegie Museum of Art) and Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert’s (Cyprus University of Technology) presentations were most directly related to the research I’ve done into photography as a form of experiencing and representing heritage.

Visitor Photography at the Smithsonian

Stylianou-Lambert conducted semi-structured interviews, photo elicitation, and participant-observation with visitors to the Smithsonian’s art galleries to learn more about why people take photos in museums. Her findings were fascinating–she broke down visitors’ attitudes towards photography in museums into different categories: 1). People who take photos in museums and had generally positive views about visitor photography in museums; 2). Those who took photographs in museums, but were generally were against the practice; 3). Those who didn’t take photographs themselves, but didn’t have a problem with other people taking photographs; and 4). People who didn’t take photos in museums (usually because they felt that it interrupted or took away from their experience) and generally didn’t think it should be allowed. She also researched people’s most common motivations for taking photos in museums, and the list includes: 1). Remembering the experience; 2). Sharing; 3). Research and education (eg. taking photos of both an object/artwork and its label so you can look it up later); 4). Expression; and 5). Art photography (making aesthetically pleasing images, paying attention to composition and lighting, etc.).

She argues that visitor photography enhances people’s experience of a museum. If given the choice between having a professional photograph of an artwork or their own photograph of the artwork, people overwhelmingly chose their own photo, because it was theirs, and it represented their bodily experience of being in that spot and taking that photo. So photography is a way in which people process, remember, and share their visit.  Stylianou-Lambert also argues that photography doesn’t make us do anything we wouldn’t normally do. Blaming what is often perceived as “bad behavior” in museums on technology doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, since the fundamental motivations for “bad behavior” are already present and photography is just a tool.

In an article  she wrote about tourist photography, Stylianou-Lambert (2012) mentions that tourists already have an idea of what to see and photograph when they visit a place because they’ve already seen images of it circulating in mainstream media and in social media. Taking photos with something familiar (a recognizable landmark or artwork, etc.) is a way of documenting one’s individual experience, yes, but it also draws on and becomes part of a broader, collective representation of that experience itself (Stylianou-Lambert 2012, 1819-20). For example, taking a photo of yourself in front of the Trevi fountain indicates that you’ve been to Rome, and there’s a network of associations we make with a trip to Rome. Another example would be taking a photograph of Michigan Central Station, which has become the most recognizable symbol of Detroit’s postindustrial decline and ruination, to indicate that you’re in Detroit. We tend to reproduce photos we’ve already seen to “certify experience,” or indicate that we’re participating in this larger social representation of a place (Sontag 2002 cited in Stylianou-Lambert 2012, 1818). This doesn’t mean that photography gets in the way of  or replaces experience, though Sontag and others do argue that…it means that we are all conscious of that pervasive imagery (this is what a photo of a ruin looks like, this is what a landscape photo looks like, etc.) and this influences whether/how we take photographs when we visit a place.

Stylianou-Lambert wasn’t doing her research in an environment where negative views about photography pervade or where they can negatively impact the place/institution, and in my presentation, I spoke about photography at dark heritage sites (including Detroit’s “ruin porn”) and the various arguments for and against it. While I agree with Stylianou-Lambert that people’s motivations for taking photographs at any museum or heritage site probably fall within the range she outlines above, the impacts of that imagery vary, as will public opinion about whether or not photography is appropriate at any given site.

My argument is that problems with visitor photography have to do with conflict and tension over who gets to decide what heritage is and represent it. If Michigan Central Station became a museum, would we protest so much about people taking pictures of it? Would people still want to visit/take pictures of it? A big part of Detroit’s appeal (aesthetic, imaginative) for visitors and photographers is its active decay and the rawness of it. A common conception about blighted space is that because it’s unregulated, it’s a sort of “blank canvas,” where one has the freedom to make her own discoveries and interpretations (Edensor 2005). Museums are about having “experts” arrange, interpret, protect, and present heritage for visitors to passively absorb; blight and the types of tourism related to it fly in the face of those goals.

Pittsburgh’s “Family Photo Album”

A People’s History of Pittsburgh is a project that seems to challenge the tendency we have to reproduce the same kinds of images of a place over and over. Divya Rao Heffley is the program manager for the Hillman Photography Initiative at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and her presentation focused on the People’s History project (they borrowed the title from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States), a collaborative, crowdsourced photography archive.  In April 2014, the Initiative solicited photographs and stories about local life from the wider Pittsburgh community and added them to a digital archive (you can view it here), which then became an exhibition at the museum and a book (which I purchased and love). Though the project is now officially over, Rao Heffley reports that people are still contributing photos and stories, and the project’s site refers to the digital archive as Pittsburgh’s “family photo album.”

Community members submitted over 1500 photographs that represent everyday life in Pittsburgh from 1880s to the present: graduations, weddings, holidays, kids playing in the yard, people reading the paper on their mom’s porch, or coming home from work, etc. To encourage contributions, the museum held regularly scheduled “scanning days,” where patrons could bring in their photos and have them scanned at the museum. Anyone who contributed a photo or story also got free admission to the museum for the day.

Location: Pittsburgh. Date: 1950. Photo submitted by Mike Suley: “My wife’s father, Joe Vukela. He worked in the steel mills and was part of Pittsburgh’s tough working class. He passed away in 1974.” Via “A People’s History of Pittsburgh”

The Hillman Initiative’s projects are meant to foster dialogue about the Life Cycle of Images–their creation, transmission, consumption, storage, potential loss, and reemergence–and how technology accelerates that cycle or “redirects the trajectory of an image in unexpected ways.” The People’s History project puts residents’ (normally private) family photos into a conversation with other residents’ family photographs to create something new: a “reconstruction” of Pittsburgh’s history through the lives of its residents (A People’s History of Pittsburgh). Rao Heffley also reported that the project doubled and sometimes tripled the museum’s visitor rates, and she attributes this to the fact that people felt personally invested in the exhibition (because they, or their friends, or someone they knew had contributed). When people feel like they’ve invested themselves into a project and are represented in it, they show up, they engage. Pittsburgh residents not only got to represent what the city means to them, but they also got to see their city’s history through new eyes…through the lives of their neighbors and members of their communities.

Thanksgiving Day, 1999, North Park. “Sid Navratil and ‘Snoop.’ At a resting place on the Blind Trail, North Park.” Image via “A People’s History of Pittsburgh”

Other Rust Belt cities have created similar projects, though perhaps none as extensive. This reminded me in particular of an Instagram shot from Motor City Muckraker I saw recently of a poster that said, “Remember the Cass Corridor? Share your stories here.” Detroit’s Cass Corridor has been extensively redeveloped in recent years, even undergoing a name change or three, and it sounds like there’s now an ongoing community effort to gather stories and photos that will represent and help residents remember the way Cass Corridor used to be. Another related project in Detroit involved the Detroit Institute of Arts hiring a photographer, Corine Vermeulen, to set up walk-in portrait studios throughout the city where residents could come in and share stories and have their portrait taken. The resulting exhibition focused specifically on the different organizations and independent social and neighborhood groups in the city–in other words, it was focused on the present, on Detroit’s diverse communities and its vitality. A related photographic project about gentrification, urban change, and disappearing shopfronts in New York City also came to mind, as well as the Thomassons phenomenon and the way they help people notice and document the architectural leftovers that result from urban change. Lastly, and though not explicitly focused on photography, Belt Magazine and their press’s city anthologies offer collections of stories by and about residents of Rust Belt cities that intervene in the stigmatizing media narratives about postindustrial communities. When working on an anthology, they’ll regularly post calls for people from that particular city to share their stories.

Though I’m probably not going to do any more research into  museum selfies in the near future as I buckle down to finish my dissertation research, the insights I gained at the VSA will be very helpful for thinking about the imagery that circulates in and around Detroit–specifically imagery produced and circulated by “outsiders”–and the narratives these different types of imagery support. Stylianou-Lambert edited a book about visitor photography in museums that will be published at the end of this year, and my fellow panel participants have chapters in it detailing their research–be sure to keep an eye out for it!

Via Motor City Muckraker on Instagram
Via Motor City Muckraker on Instagram

Works Referenced

*The featured image for this post is from the A People’s History of Pittsburgh digital archive and was submitted by Lisa Toboz. It was taken at the Pittsburgh International Airport in the summer of 1972, and Toboz writes that her mother and her roommates would frequently fly standby to Virginia Beach on weekends when they wanted to escape the city.

  1.  “Detroit’s Cass Corridor Makes Way for New Era.” Detroit News. Accessed July 17, 2015.
  2. Edensor, Tim. Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics and Materiality. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.
  3. “A People’s History of Pittsburgh.” Accessed July 17, 2015.
  4. Stylianou-Lambert, Theopisti. “Tourists with Cameras: Reproducing or Producing?” Annals of Tourism Research 39, no. 4 (October 2012): 1817–38. doi:10.1016/j.annals.2012.05.004.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s