Click. Flash. "Oops."

“Curators, journalists, art-lovers and museum directors have been telling each other this (that flashes damage art) for years, and many gallery visitors concur.”

Click. Flash! “Oops.” We have all heard the inadvertent trigger of a phone’s automatic flash in a museum when a well-intentioned visitor attempts to capture a picture of their favorite piece of art. This faux pas is most likely followed by quick admonishment from museum staff, reminding the user that flash-photography is not permitted. As an art-lover, I always send the “rules-breaker” a sideway glance of disapproval, while giving a thumbs up to the museum staff, feeling in-cahoots as an arts-and-culture defender, saving the world from the tyranny of too much light.

Well, according to Steve Meltzer in his article “Does flash photography really damage art? The persistence of a myth.” it turns out that I – and museum staff- might have been wrong all along. Meltzer proposes that we have been trained into believing that flash-photography has lasting effects on artwork, when in fact it may not- and in fact this belief may have been propagated due to motivations that have more to do with museum profit, and less to do with scientific fact. Interesting perspective, but is it true?

Flash photography has long been believed to be an enemy in the preservation of art. But how much does a single flash of a camera actually affect a work of art? Can it harm it permanently? Is the UV source generated by a small flash from a considerable distance strong enough to be cause for great concern?

Photography has reached new levels of popularity with the addition of cameras to all cell phones, and the age of digital allows users to take an infinite amount of pictures of a single subject. While these phone cameras may not be the most malleable of tools, they are certainly capturing the everyday life of our times. Faster processors and more sensible lenses have certainly progressed  wonderfully, so that now, in many cases of  natural light, flash is not really needed. However, the dark ambiance found in many galleries and museums intended to help viewers concentrate on the subjects at hand, indeed do require a flash. And this is where a good intention meets clumsy users.

Concerning the actual, meaningful affects of flash photography on works of art- it seems the jury is still out. And while Meltzer makes some very interesting points, claiming that flash does not significantly affects the preservation of art, it is my argument that he didn’t really think his position all the way through. What is “significant” damage anyway?

The study conducted by the National Gallery in London from which Meltzer quotes, actually did find that flash photography ultimately harms. In the study, a piece of fabric with lines of various color was set in front of two flashes- each flash set 3 feet in distance away from the canvas- one flash retained its UV filter, while the other did not. 

The flashes were each triggered over 1 million times. The results: slight fading of the entire fabric as shown through the minimal, yet obvious results of the densitometer (a device that measures the density of materials.)  In short, both sides of the fabric showed some fading. Meltzer’s argument is that, while this damage is noticeable, no one canvas would ever experience such abuse within a museum and therefore, would never fade so quickly.

But I dare ask you a relevant question: For how long are we trying to preserve this artwork? 1000 years? Forever? Because if so, with the potentially endless number of digital photos available to the everyman, how many flashes of light do you think- UV filter or not- say, the Mona Lisa will receive from now until eternity? How long are we as a society responsible for the preservation of culturally precious pieces of art? I would argue, we are infinitely responsible.

This brings me to the inevitable question for me and my colleagues: How can we at Antenna help with the ongoing preservation of such works? How can we direct patrons away from mindlessly clicking a cell phone- slowly damaging each piece overtime- and truly appreciate the pieces of art before them?

I will remind you that we at Antenna are in the business of creating experiences. Through our tours, we can help direct patrons away from the need to mindlessly record artwork with camera phones (inevitably missing the experience of being present with the artwork before them ) and as a result decrease the daily amount of “Oops” flash moments. We can help artwork to once again become a present and immediate experience, which is exactly the opposite of what amateur tourist cell phone photography does by clinging to the past through an image, while hoping for as many “likes” as possible in future social media postings.

While Meltzer does raise some interesting points about museums being interested in keeping the visitor flow moving at their institutions and the importance of the income generated at the gift store, museums are still primarily in the business of sharing and preserving art.  We at Antenna share the same ultimate goal.

As we produce better tours, institutions are able to offer their visitors a more complete experience. As we continue to create learning experiences and foster emotional connection to art, we also participate in the longevity and long term preservation of these priceless treasures. When we incorporate more complex story telling and strive for riveting sound production within our tours, we take art to a new level: to a place where a selfie in front of a famous piece of work is not the only thing patrons take away from a museum visit.

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We make audio tours, mobile apps, multimedia guides, podcasts, interactives, and superior story-driven content for the museum and cultural sector.

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