Shirley Li is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture.
The august institution hopes visitors will contemplate its world-class art collection, but realizes many people would rather just take photos of themselves in front of it.
London's National Gallery has raised its white flag. The U.K.-based gallery known for its strict policy banning photography has changed its rules for the first time, allowing visitors to take photographs of the collection.
The decision came after staff realized it was impossible to stop guests from using mobile phones. It was partly the gallery's own fault—it has free WiFi, and encourages visitors to research paintings on their phones. But staff quickly discovered they could not differentiate between those doing honest research and those snapping photos of the Van Goghs and Monets.
The new policy was quietly introduced at the end of July, and art lovers slowly noticed the change. Only when the Art History News blog published a letter from a reader on the policy did the gallery release the following statement:
As the use of Wi-Fi will significantly increase the use of tablets and mobile devices within the Gallery, it will become increasingly difficult for our Gallery Assistants to be able to distinguish between devices being used for engagement with the Collection, or those being used for photography.
It is for that reason we have decided to change our policy on photography within the main collection galleries and allow it by members of the public for personal, non-commercial purposes—provided that they respect the wishes of visitors and do not hinder the pleasure of others by obstructing their views of the paintings. This is very much in line with policies in other U.K. museums and galleries.
Many traditional art lovers are not happy with the relaxed policy. "I have to say, a bit of my soul died each time someone photographed a piece or even worse, took a selfie without actually looking at it with their own two eyes," read the aforementioned Art History News letter.
Michael Savage, author of the Grumpy Art Historian blog, echoed the sentiment. "The last bastion of quiet contemplation is now to become selfie central, where noisy clicking smartphones and intense flash lights will prevail over any 'eccentrics' who want actually to look at art," he wrote. "The gallery used to be a haven where looking at pictures was prioritised. Now it will all be about taking your own pictures."
Selfie-takers have certainly infiltrated the gallery. Exhibit A, a couple posing in front of a Van Gogh:
Exhibit B, a lone guest posing in front of the same Van Gogh:
Yet most photos appear to be stills of the paintings themselves. A photo from Wednesday morning taken by an Instagram user focused only on the Monet being admired:
Another, again of the popular Van Gogh, showed the swarm of guests gazing at the painting...
...while one took in the view of an entire hall:
Sure, it's impossible to get a sense through these Instagrams of what it's like to be surrounded by people taking photos of paintings instead of looking at them. But such photos are harmless, Bendor Grosvenor, an editor of Art History News, told The London Evening Standard.
"Much of the criticism seems to assume that galleries will now be bombarded with flash and 'selfies,'" he said, "but these are public galleries, and the taxpayer who has shelled out to support them has a right to enjoy them however they please."
This post originally appeared on The Wire, an Atlantic partner site.
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