Why You Should Stop Taking Pictures in Museums

You’re remembering less, not more

Ilike to visit art museums. If I’m taking a trip to a new place, I’ll visit the local art museum — big or small. In fact, I almost prefer small museums over the large ones. Even though they tend to have a lot fewer exhibits — and rarely get work from artists with household names — they’re also a lot less congested. You get the chance to actually examine a piece without being shuffled along with the crowd.

Last year, I went to The Met. It’s an intimidating place to be — you’re surrounded by so many people and enough art to drown in. I only had the opportunity to spend a few hours there — not nearly enough time to cover even half of it. Their most popular show at the time was a Michelangelo exhibit, and I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see the original creations of one of the world’s greatest artists.

We were in the midst of some of the greatest artwork ever, and nobody was really looking at it.

Their collection of his portfolio really was amazing, and even included a smaller reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. But, even though the collection was massive — and covered probably three or four rooms — it was difficult to really look at anything.

A swarm of people constantly surrounded me — toddling from one piece to the next. Getting a close-up view of anything included bumping into strangers and throwing a few elbows.

I couldn’t help but notice that as many people as there was, nobody was really looking at the art. Most people were looking at it through the lens of their iPhone camera.

Almost everyone there was taking pictures of the art — cataloging each painting, sketch, and sculpture they saw to reflect on later. There wasn’t anything particularly special about the pictures and I’m guessing if you lined up all the photos, you wouldn’t be able to tell who had taken what. There was a certain pattern to it all: stop, snap a picture, move on, stop, snap a picture, move on.

We were in the midst of some of the greatest artwork ever, and nobody was really looking at it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered these kinds of people, although I could argue that it’s the first I’ve seen so many of them at once. I refer to these people — the ones who take pictures of art in museums — as “Camera Tourists”.

Camera Tourists come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them don’t really care to see the art. They just want pictures to post on social media so they can say, “Look what I got to see today.” These kinds of Camera Tourists experience things to say they’ve experienced things — but they don’t actually learn anything.

The other kind of Camera Tourist is the one who really does want to see the art. In fact, they want to see it so bad they take pictures of everything so they won’t forget anything. They want the artwork to be seared into their brains so they snap as many photos as possible.

I’m much more familiar with the latter kind of Camera Tourist — probably because I used to be one. I used to visit art museums with the mentality that I had to take pictures or I would forget. Anytime I saw anything remotely interesting, I’d snap a photo. I was the person mindlessly walking from exhibit to exhibit, taking pictures.

It took me a while to realize it, but on the visits where I took a lot of photos, I actually remembered less about the trip. The artwork I’d seen seemed to blend together into a big jumble.

And, later on, I didn’t even really care to look over the fifty or a hundred photos I’d taken. They were all supposed to help me remember my visit, but there was nothing interesting or unique about them — they were just images of art. I didn’t feel connected to any of it.

The more photos you take, the less you remember

According to Psychologist Linda Henkel, there’s a psychological reason why you remember less when you take more pictures — she’s dubbed it the “photo-taking impairment effect”, and even tested it out in her own experiment:

For her first experiment, Henkel recruited 28 undergraduates for a tour at the university’s Bellarmine Museum of Art. Pausing in front of 30 objects, the students were randomly assigned simply to observe 15 artifacts and photograph the other 15.

In a second experiment, 46 undergraduates went on a similar tour of the museum that focused on 27 objects. These students were randomly assigned to look at nine objects, to photograph another nine and to take pictures of a specific detail like the head or feet of a statue on the remaining nine.

The following day, students completed a verbal and visual memory test about the objects they saw on their visit. When the students took photos, she found, they remembered the actual objects less well. There was an exception, however. People who took a zoomed, detailed shot of a particular detail on a certain artifact or artwork did indeed better remember the object as a whole. — Rachel Nuwer, Smithsonianmag.com, 2013

People who take a lot of photos in museums — or in any other kind of sight-seeing spot — use their cameras as a crutch to remember what’s happening around them. They don’t have to worry about retaining information because they have the photo to return to later. They end up focusing on their phones rather than being present. They’ll keep the photo, but lose the magic of the moment.

You don’t need all those photos

Although my example mostly pertains to museums or sight-seeing, this speaks to a much larger issue in our society. We, unintentionally, spend a lot of time snapping pictures. We take pictures of food, friends, family, sunsets — all to reflect on later or to post to social media.

I’m not saying that photos are a bad thing — they’re not — but sometimes it’s better to simply enjoy our surroundings rather than whip out our phones.

Since I’ve realized that museums visits where I took a lot of photos were less memorable, I’ve enacted a new rule for myself: no taking photos in museums.

That might sound a little drastic, but it’s actually worked — not only do I focus on what’s transpiring around me, but it’s less stressful because I’m not worried about capturing the perfect shot.

And, really, let’s be honest here: why do you need a picture of an art piece or museum artifact? Do you really think that the low-resolution photo you took on your phone is better than the professional shots you’ll see on the museum’s website? You could very well google almost any piece of work you want to see so there’s no reason you need your own personal copy.

If you are a Camera Tourist, I encourage you to try visiting at least one museum with a phone-free policy. You might be surprised at what you remember, and you’ll probably feel a lot more emotionally connected to your surroundings when you’re not looking at it through a camera lens.

When I’m not writing, you can usually find me hanging out with my cats. pricelindy@gmail.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store