Museum Photo Policies in the District of Columbia Region

By Trevor De Rosch

The Gallaudet University Museum has a "no photography" policy. Many visitors have asked, "Why?"

As the Assistant to the Curator, I spend a lot of my time in the Chapel Hall Gallaudet at 150 and Beyond exhibit covering the front desk.  Many of the visitors to the museum have numerous questions they relay to me.  Who was Douglas Craig?  What is the Rat Funeral?  What are the meanings of the "G" and "H" after people's names?  I answer them as best as I can, and enjoy the interaction with our visitors.  However, much of my time is spent observing visitors, making sure they follow our photo policy.  At each entrance to the Chapel Hall exhibit there is a sign that states "No Photos/Video Equipment Allowed", with "no photo/video" symbols (think no smoking, but with a camera and video recorder instead).  Despite this, many people miss these signs, and start trying to take photos of the exhibit, room, painting, etc., and I have to chase them down and request they stop.  A few times, I have received resistance to this.  One woman asked why we didn't allow photos, when other museums allow them?  Her line of thought was "This information should be free and open to the public."  This article is a response to that, and an examination of other museum policies towards photography and video recording in their exhibits.

I started off with a list of all the known museums in the District of Columbia region, using Wikipedia's "List of museums in Washington, D.C." as a basis for my search of List of Museums in Washington, D.C. This list included 79 museums in DC, from Smithsonian and other National level museums to small university art galleries.  It also included visitor centers (Capitol Building), national monuments (Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial), houses (Decatur, Dumbarton, Woodrow Wilson), and numerous other styles of museums.  I then proceeded to visit each museum's website, scrutinizing "Plan your Visit", "Visitor Information", and other pages for their photo policies.

Of the 79 museum websites I examined, forty-two (49%) failed to specify a photo policy.  These included museums such as U.S. Navy Museum, the Woodrow Wilson House, the Saint John Paul II National Shrine, the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, and others.  I was actually surprised at how many museums failed to mention whether they had a photo policy or not.  Unfortunately I did not have time to visit these museums and see what their policies are, and they must remain unknown for now.  Another three museums are currently closed, and therefore no policy exists. The remaining forty-one museums (48%) had some kind of policy listed on their websites.  The fourteen Smithsonian museums that appeared on the list had a mutual policy of permitting still and video photography for noncommercial use, unless otherwise posted.  This is probably due to their status as a well-known national institution, recognizable to many who would view these photos.  In addition to the Smithsonian, one other place (2%) permitted unrestricted photography: the Lincoln Memorial.  This makes sense, due to its very public and open style, and the lack of any artifacts, images, or text that needs copyright protection.

The next most common style of policy I found allowed photography, but limited the format in which recording could be taken.  For example, numerous places forbade flash photography, such as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, the International Spy Museum, the Kreeger Museum, the Library of Congress, and the Newseum.  The banning of flash photography is a common policy, as it is believed to harm artwork and degrade pigments in artifacts due to exposure to ultraviolet light from the camera's flash.  Multiply that by thousands of flashes a day, and it sounds terrifying to any museum employee charged with keeping an exhibit safe.  This belief has its critics, but the risk seems too great (please refer to this article for a discussion and criticism of the harm of flash photography to exhibits: "Does flash photography really damage art?").  However, another explanation for the banning of flash photography is to keep the crowds moving and reduce disturbances to a visitor's experience.  In addition, flash photography in a place like the Library of Congress would be extremely distracting to people there to study and use the library for academic purposes.  Some of these places also forbade video recordings, such as the Dumbarton, Newseum, White House, and Scottish Rite Temple, which also forbids audio recordings.

Another set of policies I found regarding photography in museums is a restriction on the type of equipment used by visitors for taking their photos.  The Anacostia Community Museum forbids tripods and monopods, as does the International Spy Museum and the Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The Holocaust Museum also bans lighting equipment.  These are probably due to the disruption caused by tripods blocking the flow of museum traffic, as well as being tripping hazards.  In addition, the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens and the Holocaust Museum ban selfie sticks, probably for the same reasons. The next photography ban I found was on commercial or promotional photography.  Regular visitors seeking to take photos to help them remember their experience were encouraged to do so by the Dumbarton, International Spy Museum, National Building Museum, President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home (though only outside), Scottish Rite Temple and the Holocaust Memorial Museum.  However, all specified that commercial photography, or photos taken for the purpose of advertisement, promotion, or purposes other than memory, were forbidden.  A musician wanting a photo of a painting for his or her next album would not be permitted to do so; nor would the politician for a political campaign.

The last photography ban I found was an all out ban.  This ban prohibits any and all forms of photography in the museum.  The International Spy Museum has this for parts of its exhibit, where signs are posted prohibiting photography.  The National Archives has a flat out ban of photography, probably to protect the more than two hundred year old documents it displays.  The National Geographic museum has a rotating photo policy, which depends on its exhibits themselves.  Some exhibits are open to photography, others are photography prohibited.  The Newseum has two sections where photography is prohibited: the News Corp. News History Gallery and the museum's theaters.  President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home prohibits photography inside its buildings.  The last museum structure to ban photography is the United States Capitol Building and Visitor Center.  This bans photography inside the Senate and House Galleries, but allows photos elsewhere.

As seen above, there is no one overarching photo policy for all museums, though I was surprised at the amount of leniency towards photos in many museums; for example, the National Gallery of Art.  However, the Gallaudet University Museum is not alone in its limited photography and video policy.  Our ban on photos of the content of the museum seems to be unique (at least, publically).  Many museums don't offer an explanation for why photography may be limited or banned in the first place, just a statement saying it is.  Our ban on taking photos of the Gallaudet at 150 and Beyond Exhibit content stems from protecting our integrity and work.  Many of the images in the exhibit are borrowed from the Gallaudet University Archives; however, some come from outside archives and news companies, such as ABC News, The Washington Post, The Library of Congress, and the Andrew Foster Family Collection.  Others are from various Gallaudet departments, such as the Office of Public Relations, the Office of Enrollment Marketing, and the Athletics Department.  The Gallaudet Museum owns less than a handful of the images there, though we have rights for reproduction on all the images, as required for the museum exhibit.  Because we are the owners of only a small minority of the images, we have banned the taking of photos and videos of the exhibit content to protect our contracts with these various organizations, and therefore our integrity.  We do allow panoramic shots of the entire exhibit, photos and video of the president portraits, and selfies, which focus not on the exhibit but on the people visiting it.  However, this policy is too involved to put on a small sign.  Therefore, we have a straight forward "No Photography" sign (actually, one at each of the four entrances, and more at the information desk).  When asked, I explain the intricacies of the policy. In essence, when visiting any museum, do not assume a museum has an open photo policy.  Keep an eye out for signs announcing areas with a "no photography" policy.  If in doubt, always ask the front desk or security guards before taking photos, to make sure you are following their rules.  I guarantee the rules are in place for a reason.  I remember in one exhibit I visited back in the summer of 2014, a display of medieval armor called "Knights!" at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, I didn't see any signs stating a photo policy.  As an amateur war historian, I was itching to take photos of some of those weapons.  However, due to the number of security guards, and based on my experience in the Gallaudet University Museum, I knew that was probably a no photo zone.  Sure enough, after leaving the exhibit and looking at the museum maps for another exhibit to visit, the armor exhibit was labeled "no photography allowed.

"Unlike the Worchester Art Museum, the Gallaudet University Museum does not have security guards working for us, able to step in and stop people from taking photos or touching exhibits.  Normally one person is at the desk, ready to answer questions and politely enforce the rules.  However, as that one person, I often feel like I need to devote my entire attention to visitors as they walk around the exhibit.  Today, we spend a lot of time with our phones in our hands, ready to answer calls, texts, emails, etc.  Thus I can rarely tell, without constant surveying, if a visitor is merely holding their phone in order to reply to friends, or if they are ready to take photos of the exhibit, which requires me to cross the room, explain that photos are not allowed, and then ask them to delete the photo from their phones.  This proves difficult with a tour group of 30 or more visitors, half of whom have their phones out the moment they enter the museum.

I hope this survey of museum photo policies has proved informative, and has shined a light on the way various museums handle their exhibits and the public's viewing of it.  The variety of policies goes to show that while history is public and available to all, we still need to be mindful of ownership and rights.  If we want museums to continue to provide us with information and entertainment, we must respect their policies, and assume they have a reason for them.  Support your local museums by donating, visiting, and respecting their rules, and they will continue to provide entertainment and information for many years to come.

Circle red cross out Camera, circle red cross out video recorder, and circle red cross out food & drinks. (It means no photographs, video recording, and food/drinks allowed.