Are cell phones changing the way we experience museums?

I’m not talking here about audio tours via cell phones or museum quizzes that offer clues by text. The question is a more basic one about how we take in and experience art.  It first came to mind last year during a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  After some time looking around, it seemed that an awful lot of people had been elbowing their way into my line of vision to take pictures.  Glancing up, I was startled to realize that every single person in a rather crowded gallery had out a cell phone or camera and was snapping away. Some were even walking around the room taking a photo of every single painting—plus the name cards mounted on the wall.

Fascinated, I followed a couple of the camera people through the next few rooms, where they kept up the same pace, busily snapping away and moving on. They didn’t seem to be even really looking at the artworks, just collecting their photos, as if they were on a class field trip. And the same thing happened in room after room, everyone taking photos, everyone collecting images.

Is this a new way to experience art in the digital age, I wondered?  They didn’t seem to be only tourists, so I couldn’t write it off to over-eager, time-pressed visits.  The crowd included a mix of New Yorkers and out-of-towners of varying ages. What were they going to do with all those photos? Did they plan to look at them when they got home, or just load them onto Facebook, as something else to check off their NYC list? MOMA, done.

Cameras are nothing new at museums, of course, but the fact that virtually every visitor now carries a cell phone, smart phone or digital camera  and is used to snapping and sending off photos at the slightest whim seems to have taken things to a whole new level.  For one thing, the MOMA camera people weren’t only violating museum rules left and right, ignoring the pleas of museum guards to please not use flashes—they were actually affecting my own museum experience.  Standing in front of one of MOMA’s wall-size Jackson Pollacks, I heard a man behind me sighing impatiently.  Camera in hand, he wanted to get a full shot of the painting and I was blocking his view.  He couldn’t move on because I was taking too long. Standing up close to a Mark Rothko in another gallery, I was just starting to feel the vibrating quality of the work’s color layers—the first time I’d ever actually experienced that sense of movement  so often described—when two people with camera phones bumped their way in from right and left . The moment was destroyed.

At first, I wondered if camera people were just a MOMA phenomenon. After all, I had visited on a busy summer day during high tourist season.  And they hadn’t been obvious during a trip to the Guggenheim that same week. If anything, my companion and I had noted that the Guggenheim visitors seemed apprehensive about getting too close to paintings or blocking someone’s view.  They tended to stand at a polite distance.  And I hadn’t really noticed them at the Met on previous visits.

But then, on this recent Sunday, as a friend and I wandered through the late-19th century galleries, there they were: the camera people.  A room filled with Van Goghs was getting the most workout, or at least the guard stationed there was.  In the span of five minutes, he asked several people to not use flash photography.  And then the cell-phone talker strolled through.  Asked politely to please not use his cell phone for calls while in the museum, the man looked straight at the guard . . . and kept talking, at an even louder level.

What would Vincent do? Android “Starry Night” skin

So, to a certain extent, this may just be about bad behavior concerning the most famous artworks.  (No one was taking photos in the French Art Deco exhibit we’d visited, but everyone got a shot of Vincent in his straw hat.) The same people who blithely carry on intimately personal conversations in public have become accustomed to breezing through galleries taking photos to send off with their messages, or to upload to their blogs, or to update their Facebook status—because now they can. (One acquaintance says they should be subjected to the cell-phone serial killer, an imaginary character who stalks people who loudly give away personal info.) Perhaps they wouldn’t have taken much from their museum visit anyway. Or perhaps it’s just another sign of our fast-paced, multi-tasking lifestyles: Don’t’ have time to absorb it now, I’ll take a photo and look more carefully later.  Except, as we all know, we don’t look at it later. We might rifle through the travel photos once or twice, and then file them away. We download articles that tell us more about a work, with the idea of reading them when we have more time. But that time never comes.

Museums have been wary of photography in the past, but many now welcome cell phones, smart phones and digital cameras into their midsts, embracing the possibilities of new technologies to keep the attention of wider audiences. Whether those technologies make for a better, or just different, museum experience remains to be seen. Either way, the traditional quiet hush of art galleries may never be the same.

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