At Too Many Museums, It’s Check Your Camera at the Door

When I walked into the museum in Boca Raton, Fla., the first thing I noticed were the signs warning visitors not to take photographs, and instructing us to check our cameras at the entrance.

I had my Leica and two lenses with me and had no interest in checking them, so I tucked my camera in my bag, bought a ticket and began wandering about the place.

Not Responsible for Checked Items

About an hour into my visit, a security guard approached me.

“Excuse me, sir. Is that a camera in your bag?” she asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“We have a very strict policy about photography equipment — no exceptions,” she said firmly. “You cannot continue unless you go back and check your camera.”

I gave in and walked back to the entrance where the checkroom was. Behind the counter were two signs. The first, of course, reiterated that all camera equipment had to be checked. The second sign, just below it, said “Not responsible for checked items.”

I got my money back and left.

Too Many Lawyers

Unfortunately, too many museums have these kinds of restrictions on photographers. It’s like their boards of directors are made up entirely of retired lawyers.

Right near my home in West Palm Beach is the Norton Museum, which is a nice facility. But when I inquired about their policy regarding cameras, I was told that photographs were only allowed outside in the sculpture garden — not inside the museum.

“You mean flash photography is not allowed, right?” I asked.

“No, all photography,” I was told.

It made no sense to me. I could see how flash might be a problem inside the museum; over the long term, it could negatively affect the paintings and drawings. But to permit photography outside and forbid it entirely inside — where’s the logic in that?

A Popular Target

Photographers are a popular target when it comes to making rules forbidding things. Restricting photographers in museums is particularly ironic; you’re putting the clamps on artists who are admiring the work of other artists.

Could you imagine Van Gogh having to get a permit to paint a drawbridge? How about Henri Cartier-Bresson being forced to check his camera so he could look at his own photographs?

What’s interesting to me is that while so many museums have these restrictions, the greatest art collections in the world do not. The Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery of Art all permit photography on their premises (although sometimes flash is forbidden).

The photograph above was taken a few years ago in the Louvre. I bought my entry ticket, walked past a sign that said flash photography was not allowed, and I was in. I spent the next few hours photographing the people visiting the place. No one bothered me.

If It’s Good Enough for Rembrandt

A few weeks ago, I visited the National Gallery. At the entrance, a guard welcomed me. He looked into my camera bag for security reasons and then let me through. That was it.

The National Gallery has probably the finest collection of art in the United States. Everywhere I went, there were tourists with their little pocket cameras snapping pictures of their kids, the paintings and anything else that got their attention.

These people were not taking pictures of the work of lesser-known artists, like what appears on the walls in Boca Raton. These rooms were filled with Rembrandts, Van Dycks and Bruegels — the mother lode of art.

And yet, the National Gallery had no restrictions. Even flash was no problem.

Until I walked into one room, where a guard approached me.

In this room, the guard told me, photography was not allowed.

“Why not?” I asked.

He explained that the room contained a visiting exhibit. Because the National Gallery did not own the artwork, they could not allow pictures.

“Lawyers,” I grumbled.

Photo © David Saxe

24 Responses to “At Too Many Museums, It’s Check Your Camera at the Door”

  1. I was told that it had a lot to do with copyright. The world is going mad copyrighting everything, right behind RIAA, and the adoption of ACTA isn't helping.

    They'll have fun forcing people to check their phones at the door, methinks...

  2. I totally understand the point, but, on the other hannd, I have known of artists photographers that had their work stolen by other photographers that took pictures of their work and sold it as theirs.

    So ... it's definitely about logic, but also about respect for other people's work.

    Reproduction is the other issue, that's why in many museums they do not allow photos taken with a tripod.
    Not long ago I was lecturing a class of American students visiting Italy and we were touring a nice little town close to Florence that has a beautiful archeological site, at the entrance a sign showed that photography was allowed, but not with a tripod. I asked where could I leave mine, there was no wardrobe to store the tripod, therefore I entered with the students, a bunch of cameras and the tripod.

    Tripod photography was considered by the board of the museum as a synonymous of professional photography, not allowed without a written permission.

    Next time I'll ask for the permit.

  3. I would say it isn't logic or reasonable to use the possability of reproduction as a reason to ban photography. For one, many pictures that hang in galleries are already reproduced in books, and would be far easier to scan from there. Secondly, if the mere posssability of a crime is reason to ban something, surely guns and cars would be outlawed by now!
    One of the most ironic bans I found was at an exhibition by Magnum. You can read more on my blog:

  4. Society has become what it most feared in George Orwell's 1984. We have become a society of big brother, I take my camera everywhere and have been approached,talked to and even threatened to have the police called, all because of a camera. I am very careful to watch what I shoot and where, I avoid taking pictures of people because I am uncertain of how they will react. Museums have become like entering some fascist state, their rules or else, but the funny part of it is, most of the time they have some high end exhibit and they insist no Photography, well guess where it ends, in the gift shop full of photos, books and other crap from the exhibit. I have been party to this thinking though, recently in Toronto when I saw the King Tut exhibit I noticed a lady pull out a small camera and take a picture of a golden mask (no flash) and then put the camera back into her purse. I wanted to find a guard to toss her out, but I lost her in the dark. I found myself wishing she got caught. Maybe I was jealous of not being able to take pictures, or maybe I was caught up in the mind control of the museum.

  5. Sadly, it's not just museums that are afraid of cameras. Hell, I got hassled at Disney World by security guards for taking pics on a tripod. The unbelievable stupidity of the world seems to be growing.

  6. The Art Institute of Chicago also allows photography for all their permanent collections (though the do prefer no flash in some rooms).

    But as with your experience, the visiting galleries often are no photography.


  7. I wonder how much of it is that they don't want flash used and most people don't know how to turn off the flash on their camera.

    For the last 3 years I've attended my niece's recitals that have all required no flash photography during the performance. Every year this is ignored by a few people. Last year, in spite of 2 reminder announcements between performances, one doofus kept it up until he was told that he would have to leave if he didn't cut it out.

  8. Very good article. This is happening all over the world. I am in The Philippines now, and security have a field day when I try to go into a shopping mall with my camera (it goes everywhere)

    Again, surrender it to the check in desk. No responsibility for equipment everywhere. I leave.

    I've even had guards follow me out across the public road and say I can't take a photo of the building. This is where I lose the plot, and say it's a public road, go call the cops.

    In museums I am afraid I would have to agree to a point. Many paintings can be damaged by flash. (so I am told)

    Even when asked to turn off flash, many tourists seem incapable of controlling this camera setting. Hence the blanket ban.

    At a site in Poland I came across the system of penalty fees for flash photography where by you sign off that you will pay 5 Euro per photo if you used flash. Not a bad idea.

    But, I don't think many Museums have the capability of implementing this with 10,000 boards of directors to beg approval of ...


  9. @Wheeler Images

    The question of flash photography at performances is another question entirely. Too many people have photosensitivity that can trigger migraines and/or seizures. In large groups, particularly in dark environment, that is a major issue. And yes, people just don't know how to turn off their flash 🙁

  10. Thank you for this post. As a student of rhetoric and composition studies, I like documenting the interaction with art work and the use of exhibition space.

    As stated before, the Art Institute of Chicago is a very good place to photograph both their permanent collections and the people who view them. It is safe to say that flash should never be allowed because of the potential harm to both viewers and art works themselves. Flash over time could harm the paint, paper, canvas, etc. Yet, with the exception of a special exhibition, why prevent people from taking a picture of Hopper's Nighthawks in available light? Moreover, with the advent of more sophisticated cameras in cell phones, how do other museum/galleries think they can enforce that one? I mean really, if Job's says the new iPhone is like a Leica, who says they won't one day have a special deal going that truly combines the two?

    The happiness I witnessed when people took pictures of themselves in front of Wood's American Gothic goes beyond any charge of copyright infringement. We all own these works to one extent or another through taxes, donations, or memberships and entry fees; therefore, we should be able to reasonably take pictures in available light for either enjoyment, memory, or reference.

    Strange about the policies at places like DisneyWorld et al. I recall that Toys R Us also had/has a giant sign when entering that said no photography was allowed. Today, with cell phones that read bar codes, how are they going to keep people from comparing prices now?

  11. As a photographer and a museum worker, I found this article intriguing. I think the article and response missed a crucial point though- people are really inconsiderate in museums!

    Photography doesn't lead to the best behavior. People crowd around well known works of art to take pictures of it blocking other people from enjoying, they goof off around the painting which endangers the work and they don't pay attention to what is around them. How many times have we seen a person looking through the camera and backing up slowing to get a better shot? That carelessness can lead to bumped art or other visitors. And many people ignore the no flash room, whether intentionally or not. This disrupts from other people experiencing the museum and ruins the art work.

    Maybe the problem is not with museums not allowing cameras, its with peoples desire to view everything through a 2" x 2" camera screen/phone screen and not actually experience anything in the moment. As a photographer, I carry some form of camera with me at all times. But I also understand there is a time and I place for it. If I pay money to experience a museum, I want to experience it!

    I am all for cameras being banned from museums! While we're at it, I think cell phones should be banned too. There is no reason visitors should have to listen to Mary Sue recount her date last night on the phone while they are trying to view a Remebrandt.

    Most museums are a place to experience artifacts and that's what visitors are paying to do. Harsh, but true.

  12. If museums do not want their artwork to be photographed - even by exsisting light using no flash - that is apparently their prerogative.

    However: Merely retaining physical possession of your camera and lenses is NOT photographing. What's next? Are they going to start going thru people's pockets looking for Sharpie markers that MIGHT be used to deface the artwork??

    If a museum will not guarantee the safe return of ALL of a person's camera gear, they have no right to demand that it be surrendered upon entrance - period.

    "Welcome to our museum, sir. Please leave your thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment with our coat check functionary who has no security training and is being paid mininum wage. Of course if your equipment "disappears," (perhaps to supplement our minimum wage employee's poverty level wages) we cannot be held responsible for our negligence in securing your property."

    Yeah, right. I'll get right on that.

  13. yeah, total bullocks. art always builds on the past

  14. For an update on the topic of flash photography in galleries, please read: "Amateur photographers in art galleries: assessing the harm done by flash photography" at:

  15. Would this have to do with Museum foot Traffic? I'm thinking that if people take photos of the exhibits, (better than P & S) some people would just resort to admire them from the comfort of their homes and not actually walk into a museum, therefore decreasing museum financial gains since all the museums in Florida have fees to enter....I'm thinking that the museum in Boca might not be getting enough foot traffic, and they are probably afraid that if photos show up online their foot traffic might decrease even more. Considering that people who live and visit Boca definitely don't live/visit for the "Museums" around.

  16. Just a comment as to the use of tripods in museums and places like Disney World. While sometimes it is a matter of being leery of "Professional Photographers", more often than not it is a concern about people in the museum or at the park tripping on a tripod leg and then bringing a personal injury claim against the museum or park. While the photographer may think the tripod is "open and obvious", the people in the museum, et al, don't expect a tripod and their attention is focused on the art or the color of the park, not on a tripod. I am a photographer, but I spent 40+ years as a casualty claims adjuster, and had to deal with such claims, and yes, one of my clients was a famous museum that banned tripods.... at my advise.

  17. I understand your frustration about not being able to take photographs in many smaller museums, while being able to in many larger ones. The reason for this is typically a copywrite concern. Many of the pieces owned by museums are still under copywrite to other people or places. In the museum where I am employed, there are a number of pieces in our permanent collection that we are responsible for paying royalties for in the event that the images are used. This does not tend to be an issue for the larger establishments, who generally have a significantly larger budget. Royalty fees for the reproduction of a piece without the permission of the museum can be an unreasonable cost, especially in the current economic environment. Also, when a collection is a mix of pieces with and without copywrite issues, it is often more important to preserve the integrity of the flow of work. It would not be appropriate to show the galleries in chronological order, for example, and then have an additional gallery with a sign stating "no photography" that held random pieces throughout history, because of copywrite issues. Museums are also here to preserve the integrity of the artwork.

  18. The copyright laws are generally so confusing, seldom tested by the law courts in the context of amateur photography in museums, galleries and libraries, and vary from country to country, that it is difficult to know precisely where one stands. It does seem, however, that "copyright" is often merely a smokescreen for curators and directors to hide behind when they wish, for one reason or another, not to have anyone taking photographs within their fiefdom.

    While respecting the fear of litigation that a gallery might face if a reserved item was to be photographed illicitly for commercial purposes, surely it is not beyond the wit of lawyers to draw up enforceable agreements that those wishing to use cameras in galleries would have to abide by.

    In some European countries I have found that one is expected to buy a camera permit at the museum's admission desk. These permits often have conditions printed on them. I would like to suggest that a legal agreement, appropriate to each country, could be created. Anyone wanting to take photographs would have to read this agreement (it should be in large print on a poster near the ticket desk) and when they buy the permit they would have to sign that they had read and agreed to abide by the conditions. They would be expected to leave their name and address on a list. The conditions would emphasize that visitors who took photographs could claim no copyright themselves. The copyright would always remain with the artist or owner or exhibiting gallery. The visitors' photos would be solely for their own private use and could not be made public in any way, including a ban on uploading them to internet sites.

    This arrangement is already in place in some museums and should take care of most situations. If a museum's lawyers decided that the agreement should be made more enforceable, then proof of identity could be demanded: anything from a passport or national ID card, down to a driving licence or similar. If payment for the permit was restricted to payment by credit card, then the museum would have additional leverage on compliance. The text of the permit agreement could include the condition that if it was found that the visitor had used the image other than for their personal interest, then appropriate copyright and reproduction fees could be deducted from that credit card.

    Entirely separate agreements would, of course, be in force for photographers who needed to obtain images for commercial purposes: sale as art photos, or book/periodical illustrations or even for use in advertisments.

    Earlier this year I surveyed the rules about photography at ten museums and art galleries in or near to Cambridge (England). It was astonishing what a range of rules there are. Even among the museums that are part of university departments there is absolutely no consistency. I have summarized the regulations on the Wikimedia Commons web-site at:

    This is a web-site that is intended to be helpful to travellers visiting museums and galleries in localities where they do not know the rules. I would encourage all photographers with an interest in gallery photography, either as amateurs or as professionals, to contribute their own knowledge to this web-site.

  19. So, completely aside from copyright issues, photography in museums is still inappropriate. I agree with the above comment that there is a time and place for everything, and inside a museum where others are trying to have a quiet, contemplative experience is not the time or place to be having a photo shoot. I find the sense of entitlement among people to be completely unreasonable. I really don't understand why my overall museum experience should be tarnished by your inconsiderate behavior. I am 100% for the ban on photography.

  20. I love to shoot in museums - not to copy art, but because of the beautiful, almost clutter-free spaces, the interesting light, the various ways people are or aren't interacting with art and, well, because I love museums. Like the author I can understand the restriction on flashes - apart from the (doubtful) damage they may do to the art, they're a great annoyance to people who just want to enjoy the art quietly. Also like the author, I'm concerned with leaving a four digit-euro load of equipment with an busy checkroom person who might easily confuse one black rucksack for another.

    I think many museum aren't doing themselves a favor here. Firstly, guards should be able to keep an eye on the art, and not be distracted because they have to jump at any innocent visitor who may suddenly produce a cellphone or a compact from his pocket. Secondly, they might cash some extra buck by selling a photography permit, a privilege for which I'm more than happy to pay.

  21. Asesnick said:
    "inside a museum where others are trying to have a quiet, contemplative experience is not the time or place to be having a photo shoot ... I am 100% for the ban on photography."

    Then I guess that you would also want a ban on educational visits by school groups. While some kids might be attending to the teacher, I find that too often a few are out of control, rushing about playing tag or testing the different echoes in various galleries. Much worse than photographers
    for ruining a contemplative experience.

    On the other hand, in a museum of, say, engineering or geology, or even modern "Art", I don't think that any of these activities matter much.

  22. I've worked as a gallery attendant. My mother is a photographer, and initially I thought it was great that the exhibit I was working for allowed photography. However, my opinion quickly changed. In an age where everyone (children included) has a camera on their cell phones, allowing photography to the general public causes issues. Guests not taking photos complain that the majority who are taking taking photos are crowding around artifacts, pushing themselves in front of other people to get their photo, taking up time and space posing with artifacts, changing settings and evaluating their digital photos while standing in front of artifacts, and generally ruining the experience for others. Also, you would be amazed how many people do not know how to turn of the flash on their cameras. While I feel for those who are passionate about photography, I would like to see gallery guest appreciate just being present in front of an ancient masterpiece.

  23. I am a photographer and also a museum director (small museum), and, to be honest, I also wonder sometimes at the broad range of rules on this subject. I have also been known to bend a few of the rules.

    I do not know why all museums that do so ban photography, but I know why my museum does so (a rule that pre-dates my tenure). Our museum is in a house and, as such, has numerous bottle-necks. All tours are also guided and have a strict time limit. For the most part our rule against photography has nothing to do with copyright or flash, but is strictly a practical matter of trying to get groups through the house in the time allotted without having to slow down while some people take photos.

    Before anyone asks, why our tours have to be so carefully timed, it is because the house is large, there is a lot to see, and after touring the house people tour the gardens (where they are allowed to proceed on their own, unguided, and are allowed to take photos). The total tour takes over 2.5 hours, which is about as long as anyone wants to stay.

  24. It is places like this that violate the law by prohibiting electric eye glass (computerized seeing aid), and usually these are the places that have lots of surveillance cameras == they prohibit sousveillance while conducing surveillance. This one-sided veillance is really at the heart of the problem.

Leave a Reply