Thesis Spotlights – Mediated Seeing: Unpacking Visitor Photography in Art Museums and Galleries

Issue 44: Opening Up Sociology Wed 5 Feb 2020 0

Chien Lee, PhD candidate, UK

Email: chienofjune [at] gmail.com
Institution: Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
Time: January 2015 – Jun 2019
Supervisors: Mike Featherstone, Monica Sassatelli

Photographic recording has gained a key role in shaping contemporary experience – everyday and extraordinary. When brought into the art museum space, the taking of photographs may challenge the institution, which has historically privileged quiet contemplation and appropriate manners. How do art museums now accommodate two types of seeing – photographic and direct? How does the performance of the first type configure the visitor’s encounter with the artwork? Visitor photography is treated in this research as a potentially destabilising factor inside the art museum: it re-shapes both the experiential space and visitors’ relations with the exhibited artworks. To explore this topic, ethnographic studies were carried out at four London-based art museums and galleries, as well as interviews with visitors and museum professionals – curators, educators, visitor experience managers, and invigilators.

This research examines, first of all, how art museums are offered as spaces for experience. This was approached through the study of their various dimensions, including their architectural arrangements, the selection and exhibition of artworks, their guiding and educational programmes, and visitor regulations and invigilation. Knowing the way in which the space is maintained enables an understanding of the options available to visitors and the restraints they face. Close attention was focused on the changed stance of art museums on visitor photography, reflecting a larger shift in the relationship between the institutions and the public. Following this, scrutiny centres on how visitors live their visit bodily with picture-taking. This question is twofold: on the one hand, it concerns how picture-taking is embodied by visitors through a series of movements; on the other hand, it asks how the photographic process has to be bodily accommodated or cooperated with by visitors in general, whether they are taking pictures or not. Finally, I focus on how photography mediates visitors’ encounters with artworks in art museums or galleries to reveal the consequences and possibilities of experiencing artworks not through direct seeing but through looking at photographic images of artworks; not through the conventional museum manners constituted by moving-standing-gazing but through bodily investment in the form of picture-taking.

The findings show that, on the one side, while curatorial plans still do not usually take into consideration photographic seeing, many art museums have acknowledged and responded to visitors’ demands to be allowed to take photos by relaxing their photography policies. Visitor photography has thus gradually become normalised in the gallery space. On the other side, picture-taking can be seen as competing with direct-seeing, given the limitations on visitors’ attention and time. To some degree it has become a popularly performed ritual through which visitors re-work their ways of seeing and re-establish their connection with artworks and the museum. It is suggested that this altered dynamic between art museums, artworks, and visitors requires art museums to rethink both exhibition design and their roles as art mediators.

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