Here’s what happens when the photography policy hits the experience wall.

Shelley Bernstein
Jul 26, 2016 · 5 min read

Remember when I was writing about the “right” way to do things and, yet, once “experience” comes into the mix that thing you know as right might actually be wrong? Spoiler alert: I wouldn’t assume anything about how this ends.

On my first day at the Barnes, I saw that “no photography” sign and thought, well, that’s the first thing I’m going to change. This is a no-brainer, right? After all, you are basically looking at the person who was behind a decision that almost single-handedly changed an industry when — way back in 2006 — the Brooklyn Museum changed its photography policy. The reasoning was our mission and the want to be the most friendly and best visitor experience of any museum in the area. We had been seeing the proliferation of cameras and the basic want of our audience to take photos — allowing them to do so was the right thing to do given what we were trying to achieve. This was a seismic shift in the industry with many following our example. I continue to be so proud that we made this decision in the name of visitor experience. It wasn’t about getting word out, encouraging sharing, or social media; it was about offering our visitors the best experience we could based on observations of their own behavior.

So, you can imagine what went through my head when I saw the “no photography” sign. It wasn’t until I started to do gallery observation that I realized allowing photography at the Barnes may not provide a good experience, after all.

The joy of taking photos is something we all know and expect in our museum going experience. We turned on photography taking for a recent event with CampusPhilly.

The physical space at the Barnes is a challenge. When the museum moved from Merion to the Parkway, the collection galleries were replicated inside the new building. Suddenly, we had the ability to bring more people to the museum and provide more access — all great things. However, the actual size of the space remained the same. Our gallery capacity is capped at 250 people. There are 23 rooms in the collection gallery. Our smallest room — there are roughly 12 rooms at this size — is a mere 225 square feet and, in those rooms, the space behind the line — where visitors can stand — is only 100 square feet. Combine that with the type of work we have on the walls — some of the best works by Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cézanne, Modigliani, Rousseau — and there’s great potential for bottlenecks even without cameras. Add cameras to that mix and you could have a Louvre-like situation on your hands very quickly.

The idea that we might want to allow photography is very tricky in this particular experience; those things we know as “right” simply don’t apply in this physical framework. As a result, we’ve started a series of pilots to try and figure out what happens to visitor behavior and gallery flow when you allow photography. A recent event at the Barnes provided us with a great opportunity to do just this very thing.

Piloting allowed photography at the CampusPhilly event.

Last week, CampusPhilly hosted their summer intern party at the Barnes and, as part of the event, we allowed photography for the first time. The event was limited to 250 participants, so we could see what would happen at scale. This was a good group to pilot with because we could onboard participants both before (through email) and during (through opening remarks) about the rules. Those communications included reminding people to “stay behind the line” and “our galleries are tiny, so please be mindful of your neighbors.” In addition to the normal security staff, we worked with conservation to have an additional 9 staff members in the galleries helping keep an eye out.

Some of the staff — Andrea, Barbara, Angelina, Deirdre, me — who worked to watch user behavior in the galleries. We wore “I stayed behind the line at the Barnes Foundation.” t-shirts as part of our uniform. These are actually sold in our gift shop.

As a pilot, this event was not indicative of what we might see from visitors on a normal day. Photography was the “main event” and, as such, visitor behavior was more “photography driven” — people moved faster through galleries and taking photos was a main activity. There were all the things we’d likely see: those socially using cameras to take photos of each other, a-not-so-overwhelming amount of selfies, still shots of paintings, etc.

And then there were the things that we didn’t know we’d see, but you could spot them at scale very quickly. Two types of photography cropped up that significantly changed user behavior: the panorama and the snapchat video. The panorama is especially problematic at the Barnes given our dramatic vistas and salon-style installed walls; our spaces are just begging for panos, and, in fact, I’d say the majority of what was shot that night was of this variety. This was especially true in our main entrance gallery, but also seen in even our smallest of spaces.

Most of the panos were shot in the center of the room away from works of art, but you can pretty easily see the equation.

In both cases, you can pretty much see the equation; combine small sized galleries at capacity with photography that requires you to immerse yourself in the taking of it. If more standard types of photography had the potential to create problems for collection safety and visitor flow, you can imagine what these two activities wield. I’d go so far as to say they are similar to what we would see with Pokémon GO and we are not even there yet.

This pilot was incredibly valuable to help us understand how recent developments in the technology of photograph taking have changed user behavior; also, that our spaces are particularly prone to this type of activity. During the evening, we also saw a lot of polite people trying to skirt by people who were taking photos; this was a start for showing some of the issues we may face with visitor flow. On this note, we have additional pilots planned that will look specifically at that issue.

At the end of the night, I was talking with a group of our visitor services assistants and I asked how many visitors were taking issue with not being able to take photographs in the galleries. The response was, in terms of visitor angst, the coat check being downstairs is the single biggest bit of consternation. While photography is a tough nut to crack and we’ll keep up the due diligence to figure it out, the coat check may have just put things in perspective. More on that soon.

Barnes Foundation

Visitor experience, digital content, and strategy from staff and partners of the Barnes Foundation.

Shelley Bernstein

Written by

Head of Product/CTO @ofbyfor_all. Digital consulting @the_barnes and others. Living in Far West Texas and loving it.

Barnes Foundation

Visitor experience, digital content, and strategy from staff and partners of the Barnes Foundation.