Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No Pose! Photographic Dialogues with Artifacts, People, and Places

Today we went to the National Museum, where Olga Palagia talked to us about 4th- 3rd century BCE sculpture. I got in trouble with a guard because I hadn’t checked my backpack; as we haven’t been visiting many museums these days, I had forgotten about the Dreaded Museum Guard.

Museum Gaurd in Crete, hard at work. He may look relaxed and comfy in that chair, but he's waiting to pounce on unsuspecting tourists.

There is a rule here in Greece: you are not allowed to pose with objects in museums, unlike in the States, where I guess in some cases it's encouraged. This rule is fairly new and, if I recall correctly, was not in place the first time I came to Greece in 2000; I have asked around and Jack Davis told me that the rule is only a few years old.

My bad, Mr. Museum Guard! Some person who I won’t name standing (not posing!) with a statue of Caesar that looks just like him.

Museums naturally need lots of rules, to keep morons from rubbing their hands all over David and breathing all over Mona Lisa. I’m okay with this, of course. Here in Greece, museum guards must always be present with you when antiquities are around, and if you're the only person in the museum, they will follow you from room to room in a very disconcerting manner. They have learned to say their most important phrases in multiple languages; they admonish ‘No Touch!’ and ‘No Flash!,’ glowering with angry faces that say quite plainly that you've wronged them as seriously as if you'd just run over their grandmothers.

You know what, Museum Guard? Sometimes my flash goes off on accident. I know that flashes harm antiquities, especially painted ones, but sometimes a button gets pushed unintentionally as I race from object to object, and whoops, there went the flash. But before I can even get out a sheepish apology, you’re up in my face. Gawd. Okay, I know most tourists are hellacious and annoying, and obviously museum guards are at their wits end, but I still don’t like being yelled at.
I tried to take a picture of Eric with the Nike of Paionias at Olympia. Not only did the Guard yell at me, but he rushed me as well. That's his hand blocking the photo.

But nothing baffles me more than the 'no posing' rule. Although I don't know if this is true, the going explanation is that this rule was instigated in order to ensure proper decorum in museums and, most importantly, proper respect for the antiquities. Theoretically, this should give people a greater sense of reverence for these objects, so much so that they might reach the symbolic heights of the Acropolis, which is called, in modern Greece, ‘the Sacred Rock.’

Of course, you’re allowed to pose with the Parthenon. I wonder: if they could, would they stop allowing people to pose with buildings? (For more on modern Greece and its relationship with antiquity, see this.)

Whoops. Kiersten 'accidentally' got in the way of my photo, I promise.

What I find interesting about this rule lies not in the act of posing with the object, whether its done proudly, derisively, or goofily, but rather the photograph that is left behind. People travel to places to see things, and once they’ve made it there, they want their picture taken. It's thought, perhaps, that there’s something more powerful and permanent about photographs. They are solid proof that, yes, you were there. Telling stories about visiting a place just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore; you’ve got to have that slide show when you get back, or pass around the photo album, or post them on Flickr.

In fact, given the ease of the internet and digital photography, many tourists engage in a photographic dialogue with other picture takers. We’ve become so used to seeing people in front of certain landmarks and monuments that when it’s our turn, we want to do it, too. Perhaps there’s even something (dare I say it) ritualistic about the whole process. For some, if they don’t get that photo op, the trip hasn't gone right, they’re disappointed, everything gets jostled and upset. I have seen people walk right up to a monument, get their picture taken, and leave. Immediately. Without having actually looked at the thing!

But for some, the tourist picture is much more self-conscious and is a way to link oneself to a photographic tradition, to share in a long-standing experiential continuum. It’s part pilgrimage, part play and part nostalgia.

My Uncle Jim got his picture taken at the Eiffel Tower in 1964. The picture hung on the wall in the hallway for years, so when my cousin Joel went in 1995, he made sure to get his own picture to put on the wall, too. (All other Eiffel Tower shots from Google search.)

But in Greece the museum policies have made this impossible. It may be that they’ve destroyed that sense of satisfaction a person gets from showing their friends and family pictures with the Mask of Agamemnon, or the Artemisian Zeus, or Athens 804. There will never be a photographic tradition built up around the objects in Greek museums, with pictures collecting and pooling on thousands of Flickr and Facebook accounts. Visually, the objects will never develop a relationship with people. The authorities have completely removed Greek antiquities from the dialogue. Sure, you can still post pics of famous statues and vases, as long as there are no people in them. In other words, this policy has ensured that the antiquities will remain works of ‘art,’ existing on their own, divorced from humanity and the pilgrims that come to see them.


Jeff Mazurek said...

Travel photography has always been a bit about ownership--or rather, the production of one's own souveniers. What else would have propelled me to cartwheel before 20-some-odd famous places (most of them in Italy)?

Sometimes I think it's among the most obnoxious things I've done, but I always think it's better than a postcard-picture of something (a postcard picture being a technically good photo minus the people who make it unique and worthy of conversation or anecdote).

Surprising, then, that any institution would ban posing beside or around it's possessions. If they wanted to stop people from musing or posing jokingly around works, they can hang a sign on the door and direct everyone to digital databases with pretty pictures.

It could be argued, though, that our generation, or those a few years younger than us, empowered by digital photography--the ability, that is, to take many pictures at any time, and thereafter decide which one's to keep--pose more loosely than people with only as many chances to pose as remains on their roll of film.

Rebekah Nathan, in her book "My Freshman Year"--an anthropologist's take on the undergraduate experience--observed that most photos on dorm room doors function more to announce oneself as spontaneous and fun-loving than anything else.

Given a blog, Facebook, or other interactive, visible places to do what one did on a dorm room door, it follows, I think, that this sort of picture-taking now happens more than ever, which is also to say that the performances that produced those moments also occur more often. Happening too, without the limits of being in a dorm for just a year or two.

Another way to put it is that the posing is catered to or follows the venue of sharing.

All of this is a long way of saying, I guess, that picture-taking may have shifted enough to piss off the people who work in the places people take pictures at. But it can't be banned, especially when before long, the people there to study the work and take slides (powerpoint pictures) are the same people who have no qualms about standing cross-eyed beside a bronze Zeus.

Good post, Katie. ... I'm never so worried about keeping my balance as when in a museum.


Anonymous said...

I stumbled onto your blog post after experiencing the "no pose" rule at the Archaeological Museum this past week. The policy appears to have evolved somewhat: We were permitted to appear in photos standing next to the art, but no goofy poses.