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Unreal loyalties in the museum


In the literary web magazine Full Stop, Bryony White pushes back against the idea that photographs of pieces in museums somehow cheapen or violate the works themselves. Here’s an excerpt from the provocative piece:

Photography is only disloyal to the museum if we accept that there is only one set of rules that we all must abide by in order to engage with the museum as a place. The museum has always been a space where the way we look has shifted, and where the locus of looking has been multiple. Taking photographs is one iteration or phenomenon on a vast spectrum of looking. Indeed, Jonathan Crary might call this mode of looking an “ongoing mutation in the nature of visuality.” That is, allegiances change and ways of looking which have perhaps always lain latent — or which had never before been possible — arise, constantly in flux.

The notion that photography is a betrayal is itself unfaithful to the possibilities of the museum. As Struth’s photograph illustrates, the museum has always been a melting pot of looks. Furthermore, what Woolf promotes in the first place is the avoidance of a fervent commitment to one particular mode of loyalty. Not taking photographs is an “unreal loyalty” to a projected sense of the museum as a place. In fact, when loyalties shift, mutate and change with the tide, new loyalties arise and we often find new ways to see.