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Is Instagram Ruining Art? One Museum Is Trying ‘Photo Free’ Hours

9 minute read

“This one is going to be tough,” a woman said on Wednesday evening, with her phone clutched to her heart like a missionary holding a Bible.

She was at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, and there was a stunning bouquet of flowers ten feet away. But in order to photograph them, she first had to get through a crowd of other museum-goers all jostling for elbow room to do the same thing. Some people couldn’t move in the crowded gallery. Others bumped into fellow patrons with bags and arms as they angled for a shot. “You can’t even see anything,” one museum-goer at the back of the pack complained.

The cause of this frenzy was Bouquets to Art, an exhibition that has become one of the de Young’s most popular annual events. For the 34th year, florists have been asked to create bouquets that respond to particular pieces of art on display, ranging from ancient carvings to contemporary sculptures. A tower of baby’s breath imitates a frothy waterfall in a nearby painting by Gustav Grunewald. Red flamingo flowers and neon-blue sticks echo a surreal portrait of a woman by Salvador Dali. It’s entrancing and also extremely Instagrammable, to the point that it has become a problem.

As some people have started to document their every experience with smartphones, other people have started to accuse them of ruining things. This includes weddings, concerts and sidewalks, as well as Bouquets to Art. In recent years, the de Young received more than a thousand complaints from people who had flocked to the “annual floral takeover,” saying that the rabid photo-taking, and general cell phone usage, had tainted their experience.

It’s an issue that institutions of fine art around the world are facing, as the desire to take photographs becomes a huge draw for museums as well as something that upsets some of their patrons. And so the de Young has responded with a kind of compromise: carving out “photo free” hours during the exhibition’s six-day span from March 13 to March 18 (a short run due to flowers’ perishable nature).

Some people “want to maintain that reverence in a museum, and we need to be respectful of that,” said Linda Butler, the de Young’s head of marketing, communications and visitor experience.

On Wednesday, these hours were not in effect, and it’s easy to rag on the behavior that ensued (even though most smartphone users find themselves guilty of the same sins at times, this author included). As thousands of people squeezed into galleries to see the flowers at their freshest, bottlenecks were common. Many visitors essentially waited in disorganized lines to snap pics of pretty pairings. People in wheelchairs had to wait for breaks in the hubbub to get a glimpse at all. The rare patron even got distracted enough to accidentally lean into the artwork on the walls.

“Why do you need photos of everything in the show? Are you even going to look at them? Is it just like an addiction?” said Judy Sweet, a longtime fan of the exhibit who stopped coming because of the mania and only returned after the museum first started experimenting with photo-free hours in 2016. In the ongoing debates about whether Instagram is “killing our museum culture” — and the worth of exhibits that seem to be set up with selfies in mind — this is a common complaint: People seem to be missing out on experiences because they are so busy getting evidence of them on their photo rolls. An oft-cited study suggests there is some truth to this; it found that people who took photos of an exhibit rather than simply observing it had a harder time remembering what they saw.

But this issue is more complicated than kvetching, especially for professionals who are running museums and trying to appeal to diverse audiences. Butler acknowledges that not everyone wants to open a door to a museum and find “a selfie playland.” Yet a lot of people do, and her take is that the de Young is in no position to assert that one motivation for buying a $28 ticket is more valid than another — whether they’re sketching for an hour in front of a painting or taking five seconds to put a picture on social media and moving on — especially when the desire to “showcase our experiences” is such a widespread one in the culture. “If we removed social media, photography, we would risk becoming irrelevant,” she said. “At the end of the day we would become dinosaurs and become obsolete.”

This year, for the first time, the museum set up an area especially for people to take photos of themselves in the main foyer. Happy, multi-generational groups gathered in front of a “selfie wall” ringed with flowers and decorated with a #bouquetstoart hashtag, which both helped minimize the amount that this was happening in cramped galleries and also advertised the event. “Every museum is toying with how do you integrate [smartphones] and when, to what degree? And then when do you omit [them]?” Butler said. She explained that curatorial decisions about what to exhibit are not shaped by this question, but decisions about how to execute those exhibits certainly are. In her view, the holy grail is to find ways for technology to add to the visit “without taking away from the physical experience.”

Anyone who has ever enjoyed an audio tour can understand that technology has the potential to make the museum experience better and more accessible, even if it rankles purists who want to contemplate brushstrokes in silence. A startup called Cuseum, for example, is piloting an augmented reality app: swing your phone around a gallery and bubbles pop up on your screen showing the name of the artwork and the artist. Tap on them to hear context that is too robust to be displayed on a label. Crucially, founder Brendan Ciecko explains, this can be programmed to happen in any language that a visitor happens to speak, which raises an interesting question: If you learn more about a piece of art by allowing your screen to mediate the experience, is there a net gain?

Meccas of fine art have historically had audiences that skew old, rich and white and Ciecko sees criticisms of smartphone usage as “kind of being elitist or having your nose to the sky with anything that is breaking tradition.” If technology somehow draws people into these places, “the world can only benefit from that,” he said. Consider a related question: If people’s desire to get likes on social media essentially funds the purchase of new artwork, has the museum had a net gain? Or is that just wishful thinking to justify what’s happening regardless?

If this is a battle, signs would seem to indicate that the pro-smartphone crowd has already won. On Wednesday evening, the majority of people seemed to treat the photo bonanza as the new normal. Many politely waited their turn and got out of other people’s shots. “Everyone is being so respectful of everyone else taking pictures,” marveled Morgan Holzer, a millennial who was not very interested in taking photos. When she approached bouquets to read the accompanying labels, which identify the florist and specify which piece of art the bouquet was inspired by, she found herself holding up the process. But rather than expressing frustration about this awkwardness, she said she felt guilty, as if she was the one defying convention. “I felt bad blocking everyone’s photo,” she said.

Another case in point is the fact that the de Young set aside a mere 150 minutes on Friday morning to be photo-free, rather than the other way around. The experience was wildly calm compared to Wednesday evening. Part of this was no doubt because it was the middle of a workday but people’s behavior was also different. Visitors quietly flowed from one pairing to another, uninterrupted by the constant stop-and-shoots. Guards wore badges clearly indicating that photography was not allowed and intervened when people whipped out their phones. Like-minded visitors, such as Judy Sweet, purposefully made the trip to the de Young so they could freely take in the exhibit.

Not everyone was happy. Butler said that every year, the photo-free hours have themselves yielded complaints. “People come here and they don’t know about them and they’re expecting to take photos and they’re very disappointed,” she said. “You can never appease everyone.” That’s part of the reason that these hours remain experimental. Perhaps they’ll be extended to other exhibitions; perhaps not. Those decisions will be informed by research the de Young is doing about what motivates people to come to the museum in the first place and how they use their smartphones when they’re there.

“Everyone who walks through the door is looking, from their perspective, to gain a certain type of experience,” Butler said. Places like the de Young “can be a place of solitude and contemplation for individuals who look at the museum as a cathedral. Other times it’s very much a social engagement … [Some people] want to capture it and share it with the world around them.”

It would be wrong to dismiss everyone taking photos as being superficial or absent. It can be a creative exercise or an emotional, memorial one. It can also be productive. Take Melissa Wortman, a theater designer who visited the exhibition on Friday and was “tortured” to accidentally find herself at Bouquets to Art during a time when she could not make a record. “I want to be able to take them with me,” she said of the artfully arranged ranunculus and roses that she uses for inspiration in her own work each year.

Wortman said she will never delete the photos she has taken of previous exhibitions because she gets “a bigger experience” and sees something new each time she scrolls back through them. She sometimes goes back to compares years, expressing fascination at the way the same painting of a powerful waterfall can inspire a florist to create something “brutal” one year and “gentle” the next. There are more than 120 pairings, from as many florists, in all. “It’s just so much,” she said, “to take in at one time.”

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