Keep Moving Forward

Last week I took some time to visit a local history museum in a nearby town.  I’d been there before, several years ago, and remembered that at that time there was a no photo policy in effect at the museum.  I was hoping the policy had changed, because there is one artifact in particular that I wanted to photograph.

That artifact is a 1947 wedding dress that was made from German parachutes.  The bride’s brother, knowing that his sister was to be married and that fabric was in short supply, liberated the parachute silk near the end of the war.  He sent it home, where his sister had the dress made for her wedding two years later.  What makes this artifact so interesting is that there are photos of the bride wearing the dress, plus photos taken of the couple quite recently.

It’s a great story, one that I wanted to share here.  So many times we remember wars just through the battles, but it is important to know that every person, whether in combat or not, is affected by war.  This wedding dress is a reminder that history is not just dates and facts, but also people’s lives.

I would tell you more about the bride and groom, but unfortunately, the display was stuck in a far corner, and the print on the display so small that it could not be read.  When I was last in the museum, the dress was in a glass case at the front, prominently displayed.  Last week, it was a seeming afterthought in an unrelated exhibit.  Even if photos had been permitted, I could not have gotten decent shots of the dress.

I don’t like being harsh about local history museums.  They are often staffed solely by volunteers, and the budget is usually tiny.  They have important stories to tell, and as a whole this museum does an admirable job.  But it seems to me that they could do a lot better by this important dress.

Because I still have Amanda Grace Sikarskie’s Textile Collections:  Preservation, Access, Curation, and Interpretation in the Digital Age on my mind, I’ve spent some time thinking about what exactly is needed by small museums.  I’m sure that if I were to ask the lovely docent at this particular museum what was needed most, she would say, “Money.”  In fact she mentioned several times about things that were needed but they do not have the money.

But when I got home and read through my Twitter feed, I found these words from Valerie Steele of the Museum at FIT:

A museum is like a shark, it needs to keep moving forward or else it will die.

Of course I don’t know the context of the quote, as it was taken from a talk she made at a recent conference.  But I do think she pointed out what is a big problem – that people have changed the way we interact with the world, and our museums can either capitalize on these changes, or die.

To start, museums really do need to rethink their photography policies.  Like it or not, people are recording their lives through their smartphones. The smart institution uses this to its advantage.  Every time a visitor tweets or Instagrams, or makes a Facebook post from a museum, that museum gets free advertising.  I can’t tell you how often I see a post on Instagram  by someone  visiting a fashion exhibition that has a friend make a comment  and tag a friend with, “We’ve got to see this.”

Smart institutions make it easy for visitors to share a photo opportunity.  This is my friend Linda, trying on a crinoline and reproduction mid 19th century dress at the Charleston Museum.  They have an entire dress-up area as part of the textile gallery.  Linda does not share my passion for fashion history, but she dressed up in the spirit of fun, and shared the photo.

In the fifteen years that I’ve been actively pursuing fashion exhibitions, I’ve seen a lot of changes.  I started out sketching at these exhibitions because of all the no photos rules.  But now I find that rarely  is an exhibition off limits to photographers.  Yes, there should be rules, like no tripods and such, but most visitors are just wanting a photo or two to share on Instagram.

One of the big arguments against photos in museums is that they counteract the introspective examination of the art or the exhibit.  That may be true, but there is not a lot of private contemplation happening at the Met’s Costume Institute blockbusters, or at the Mona Lisa, or in the Impressionist galleries of any museum.  However, you can overcome this problem by going through an exhibition twice – once just to study the artifacts, and then a second time to take photos.

I’m saying this, not to criticize museums, but to point out that while all over the world museums are in financial trouble, not all problems are going to be solved with money.  Maybe the key to survival is to come up with ways to make visitors feel like they are part of the museum.  Having a good photo policy is just one tiny step in that direction.


Filed under Museums, Viewpoint

14 responses to “Keep Moving Forward

  1. I can understand no flash allowed, but not no photographs at all. I can’t see the harm in taking nonflash photos with cellphones.


  2. Patricia Ewer

    I always admire your comments. You have great insight and the ability to effectively communicate. Thank you.


  3. Hear, hear. A short-sighted and silly policy, indeed. Even worse is when they prohibit even non-flash photos and then do not provide any postcards or booklets for purchase. Do they not want us to share and save memories?


  4. Jan stewart

    I look forward to reading your comments of textile adventures…I appreciate your efforts…good job….


  5. I understand that the issue is control of images, and that the presenting organization wants to keep the content views under their auspices. Bluntly put: they want to own the whole package. This policy is up to them, not the venue (some shows you can, some you can’t). I understand the logic, but I think it’s a losing cause. What they gain in control they lose in free advertising for their shows, which means fewer bodies through the door. This isn’t anecdotal; I’ve seen the numbers here in Seattle/Bellevue. And since most presenting places rely on grants, they need those bodies to fulfill those grants’ audience goals.
    You’ve done a fine job continuing this conversation; I get most of my good information on this from you. Appreciated deeply. Thanks


  6. Retrospecticus

    While I agree with your argument in some types of museums and venues, I don’t agree with it in all. Not long ago I was visiting a special exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, I believe it was called “Art in America” or something along those lines. It was a collection of works done during the Great Depression (more or less), and they had a great variety of paintings. Many well-known artists were included, including Grant Wood, who had at least two featured. One was the “Daughters of the American Revolution” painting you once talked about (which I took a little more time to look at, remembering your lesson about it (thank you)), and one was his most famous, “American Gothic.”

    Here’s where I don’t support photos: First, it was difficult to fully view the painting–not because the area was necessarily crowded or popular–but because people were standing in front of it posing, taking photos, looking at them, giggling, and posing and taking photos again, completely blocking the view. Then, when I was directly in front of the information card reading about it, a woman put her phone immediately between my face and the card, blocking it entirely. She giggled, “Sorry…sorry” but proceeded to take the photo. I looked at her, sighed, and said, “I’m reading here.” To which she replied, “sorry” with another giggle and then left. Throughout the exhibit people were taking photos, either blocking the art completely, or backing into people to get their frame, or taking up space because one couldn’t walk by (or even have their own time at) the area to view that one or others.

    Photos are fine for perhaps less crowded or less well-known exhibits, but with so many people taking up so much space and time in this one, I couldn’t help but feel resentful that the museum allowed for it (especially because we all paid to be there). Beyond that, I felt the art was disrespected, because rather than viewing it with reverence, or introspection, or dialogue, or context, it just became about a digital image to post.

    Perhaps there should be something akin to the “quiet car” on commuter rails, or “adult swim” in the local public pool. Maybe for art lovers or serious people, a “no photo” time can earn it’s place as well.


    • First, I so appreciate your comments. I don’t want nor need readers to always agree with me.

      It’s a shame that you had this experience. Personally, I feel like museum is at fault for allowing some visitors to disrupt the experience of others. That sort of thing is never a positive for the museum in the long run.

      I love your idea of photo free days, and might even suggest it be extended to quiet days.

      In the case of American Gothic, I can see why people wanted to be photographed with it, as it is one of the most parodied artworks around. In that case, the Institute might have set up a facsimile in another part of the museum where people could pose and have a good time.


  7. Phyl D

    Love this post regarding moving forward and museums (Valerie Steele’s quote immediately reminded me of the dialogue about relationships in a favorite Woody Allen movie, “Annie Hall”)…

    Lizzie, today’s post made me consider that perhaps life is like a shark, and we all need to keep moving forward or die…well, at least, I had better do so as I become increasingly, erm, vintage!

    With your interest in vintage textiles, have you ever checked out the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, NY? I think they’re a great example of a smaller museum that truly works at evolving with the times as well as staying relevant to their local communities and you might enjoy checking out their archives which are available online:


  8. Phyl D

    Here’s the link to the Long Island Museum’s Collections Archive


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