I visited the Thiruvananthapuram museum complex a couple of days back. Napier Museum (Art Museum) is one of my favorites and I never miss visiting it when I am in the city. I can never get tired of the marvelous ingenuity of Robert Chisolm's design and I would say that he did a huge favor to Maharaja Ayilyam Thirunal and Malayalees by going against the Maharaja's wishes. (For this post, I am ignoring the colonial hegemonic implications of the Chisolm incident, but a short version of it is provided in a comment in my Instagram post seen below. Click on the image for more info.)
Arguably, the building itself is probably the most valuable piece of "artifact" that belongs to this museum. I have hundreds of photographs of the edifice. But, as soon as you go inside, you are warned that photography of museum displays are not permitted. To make the warning stick a veshti-mundu clad lady sternly lets me know that there are cameras everywhere in the museum that will be recording my actions.
I have been to many museums all over India that restrict visitors from photographing museum collections. But why? I don't understand this reticence.
After all, the collections at Napier Museum have no copyright associated with them--most of them have limited metadata, provenance research when conducted are in its very early stages. And most of the collection is from nineteenth century or earlier, except for a few pieces of furniture and Kathakali miniatures. Few of them may even be light-sensitive but as it is, there are no protective enclosures for any of these to mitigate that problem. (There is no HVAC and other moisture control systems either.) So the typical issues because of which museums restrict photography are non-existent.
In her book Participatory Museum, Nina Simon points out the reasons for dissatisfaction of publics with museums and ways for institutions to recover:
All of these points are starkly relevant to Indian museums but above all and unmentioned here, is the lack of a museum-going culture in South Asia. There are no statistics available to provide an accurate understanding of this deficiency but the mostly-empty museums all across the country is a readily visible phenomenon. In this situation, it is important that Indian museums take advantages offered by participatory activities that can bring in new visitors.
The act of taking photography is ubiquitous to all public spaces now. With the advent of the smartphone and what is being called the "mobile revolution" in India, it is near-impossible to execute a strict no-photography policy. Then, why can't museums embrace photography and use it as a tool to make it a participatory experience? For example, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts encourages visitors to take pictures with their permanent collections materials and host it on social media. A 2013 Pew Research Center report points out that 97 percent of art organizations they polled in North America reported sharing images and using social media. This allows for more online visibility, something that is crucial to revenue generation. As importantly, such participatory exercises improve museum-going experiences.
For (an anecdotal) example: you see on the left, the really bad photograph I took of my sister next to one of the Pollocks at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) a few years back. We took it while on a visit to the modern wing with our cousin, and my cousin and I thought she matched the Pollock painting next to her. (There could be a highly psychoanalytic discussion hiding in this photograph.) This, of course, as it always does, spawned a debate that night of whether monkeys can paint a Pollock, with my sister and I firmly on the side of Pollock's drip works. A few months later I went by AIC and bought the Pollock jigsaw puzzle as a gag-gift for my cousin, the perpetrator of anti-Pollock sentiments in the family. Now, a visit to AIC around Christmas has become a family ritual, courtesy this photograph. We have visited multiple galleries since then, have argued about our likes and dislikes, and we have come to the conclusion that only Monet prevails above all arguments.
But for a more concrete example, a presentation from the National Gallery of Denmark tells how visitors' photography and social media increased their museum's reach by 2500%. (Not kidding, that's a real statistic.)
I'll end my post here with a summary conclusion: If Indian museum administrators or people who can influence them are listening, there is no advantage to withholding photography in museums spaces anymore. In fact, such restrictions are detrimental to institutional development. However, there is one thing that museum personnel will need to take care of before letting visitors photograph their collection--dust!