Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Museums, paranoia, draconian copyright laws and more

Last week Rachel and I went to London and while we were there we visited several museums. I came away feeling disappointed and slightly angry at my experiences. Let me explain:

It seems that no matter which museum we visited, they all had a problem with our camera. It's a Canon point and shoot camera (not a fancy SLR) and takes pretty nice outdoor photos...however, taking photos in museums is a different story.

First of all, museums are typically dark places, certainly dark enough to warrant the use of flash. But using flash in a museum is bad for two main reasons:
  1. Most exhibits are inside glass cases. When you take a photo and the flash fires you end up with a lovely picture of the flash reflected back at you off the glass instead of the object you're trying to photograph.
  2. Flash washes out the subject and can create shadows. If you're too close you'll get most of the flash reflected back at you, if you're too far away the flash won't make much difference and you'll get a blurry photo.
So, the solution would be to take something in for your camera to rest on while you allow for a longer exposure. Something like... a tripod.

But no! Tripods seem to strike fear and loathing in the hearts of museum staff. I was told several times "You can take your camera in but not your tripod."

Why?

I cannot figure this out. All a tripod does is hold the camera at about chest height and keep the camera steady. It's no different to me holding the camera in my hands, except my hands are more likely to wobble, thus resulting in a blurry photograph.

Some museum staff members claimed tripods were a "health and safety" issue. I can't think why - my tripod is very lightweight, highly visible and takes up less floorspace than a pushchair or a wheelchair. I never leave the tripod unattended and it folds up nicely as I walk from one exhibit to the next.

The Victoria and Albert museum confiscated my tripod as I entered the building - they obviously didn't trust me not to use it as I walked around. Bizarrely, they said tripods could be used if I had called them in advance. What's the difference? The museum was quiet, if I had called the day before they would have presumably let me use it, but because I turned up unannounced they said I couldn't.

I believe the real reason tripods are banned has nothing to do with health and safety, but has everything to do with their perception that anyone carrying a tripod is a professional photographer. It makes little difference that my camera is a £150 point and shoot, rather than a £1500 SLR.

This leads me on to another gripe of mine - copyright.

The first question I have is "Why shouldn't I be able to take a photograph of something I can see with my own eyes?"

At the National Maritime Museum we were told we could take photographs of exhibitions on the main section, but not in the side galleries. There were also several "No photographs" signs around a beautiful ornate ship. The ship was guarded by a very zealous lady who eyed everyone's cameras with suspicion. You were allowed to photograph other exhibits nearby but if your camera moved towards the ship she would let you know this was not allowed.

I cannot think of a reasonable explanation as to why this is so. I could see the ship right in front of me. If I close my eyes right now I think I can remember roughly what the ship looked like. But as I wasn't allowed to take photographs I won't be able to show you what it looks like, nor will I remember what it looked like this time next month, probably.

The Queen's House museum, next door, won't let you take any photos inside, not even with a mobile phone. There are so many paintings in there, yet it's a case of "look with your eyes, I hope you have a good memory!"

Again, I have several problems with this. There were several paintings which I really liked, and I would like to look at again now I'm home. I can't. They didn't have any books to sell me containing photographs of the paintings, I cannot find photos of the paintings online, I was not allowed to take any photos while I was there.

Journalists are allowed to quote parts of copyrighted material for "fair use" purposes. For example, if a journalist wants to review a book then he/she is allowed to quote part of the book as an example, or to better illustrate what they are saying. They are not allowed to reproduce the whole book, of course, but it's fine to reproduce a sentence, a paragraph or even a whole chapter so long as it is deemed to be "reasonable" to do so.

I believe there are also allowances made in copyright law for "educational purposes" too. A good example would be a teacher making a copy of something (a book, a song, a painting) in order for students to study the work.

At one stage Rachel whipped out her camera to take a photo of a military uniform which was enclosed in a glass case. A member of staff immediately and firmly said "No photos please". He didn't enquire what the photo would ultimately be used for. We were on his territory and we'd better comply!

I would be very interested to hear if anyone knows what the legal position is regarding these works.

First of all, every museum we visited was free to get in. We didn't have to pay a penny - I assume the museums are funded from private donations and public money. If it's public money then that implies its owned by the public?

Secondly, I was under the impression that the copyright on a piece of work only lasts a certain length of time. The copyright on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books have expired, for example, which means I can download a copy for free off the internet, print it off, or make it available to others.

If so, then surely the paintings and the many artefacts we saw are no longer under copyright?

I almost forgot. The museum's powers extend beyond telling you what you can and cannot photograph - they also have rules about you not making marks on a piece of paper.

There is a sign in the museum which states
Non-commercial sketching is permitted in the NMM galleries and grounds. Sketching refers only to pencil and charcoal drawings – no painting or pen drawings to be undertaken without prior permission from both Collections Services and Collections Group staff.
That's the icing on the cake. Even courtrooms, which don't allow photography, don't go as far as banning people from drawing.

Do the museums think that even a decent drawing, or a photograph taken with a mobile phone, would be passed off as the real deal?

Using the same logic, perhaps we should ban people from whistling, or singing, or even reciting stories, in case we deny revenue to the record or movie industry.

I have another big problems with museums but perhaps I'll leave that rant for another day.

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