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Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519)
Portrait of Mona Lisa
Photo courtesy of Musée du Louvre

Da Vinci Code Readers Disappointed?

Whatever the confidential deliberations were, the members were more than ready to do something to stop the maddening flashes going off at all times. The Board’s ban was not to be enforced immediately throughout, however. Only the heavily overvisited parts of the Museum, the Denon Wing, would be photo-free—in other words, the part leading to the giant Crowning of Napoleon, the jewels of the Crown in the Galerie d’Apollon, and, of course, the Mona Lisa.  (Enforcement is light: there is no punishment more stringent than an expulsion from the museum.)

Many Da Vinci Code enthusiasts will no doubt experience a momentary pang of disappointment at not getting their own shots of Da Vinci's portrait, or of themselves in front of it—although there must be Dan Brown fans not hooked on the photograph. The novel has already brought new visitors according to the guides, and the new Tom Hanks movie should produce even larger crowds. Thus, the Board’s timing could not have been better, if anyone is to actually enjoy looking at the painting.


"For the rest, the Board would take its time deciding, after studying the results", said Aggy Lerolle of the initial ban. And apparently, they are still studying, as no extension beyond the Denon Wing has been decided. Thus the rest of the Museum is open to picture taking, with an enticement not to use flashes. 

Is Such a Restriction Legal?

Perfectly legal. Of course, the works in the Louvre are all in the public domain, and so the decision to allow or forbid photos is not in the hands of any heirs, as is the case in museums of contemporary art. No heir to Da Vinci or Veronese can have a say in banning the photographs by visitors. The Louvre Museum itself can ban the activity of taking photos. (As for private collections exhibited in the Louvre, there appears to be a copyright invoked by the lenders, and photos are almost always forbidden.)

The broader question is: Does humanity have the right to take photos (with or without flashes) of monuments of world culture? If they are outdoors, the question does not come up. The "heritage of humanity" buildings, such as Angkor Wat, or the Parthenon, are photographable, even for professional use. Unesco—somewhat surprised by my question—sees no legal right to ban photographs of these treasures on the grounds of copyright law, but it does concede the right of the owner of a piece of art—the Louvre owns the Mona Lisa, for instance – to prevent photos inside a building, if the building is a museum, and the artwork is owned by the museum. However, if permission is granted to photograph, then the museum has no copyright since the artwork is in the public domain.

The officious reason for the ban is therefore to ensure the proper viewing and studying of the artwork without disturbance and hindrance. A personal photo is not considered a necessary vehicle of art appreciation and study, given that the entire collection of the Louvre is available on the Web and is downloadable. This is the Louvre’s thinking, and this is said quite officially. The Louvre  is consistent in its educational approach: it was pratically the first large cultural institution in France to put itself on the Web ten years ago.

However the Louvre adminstration allows professional photos, and even filming, on a case-by-case applications basis. There are fees for commercial endeavors. Reasonable educational and journalistic requests are granted, and range in price from nothing to a few hundreds euros. Filming rights are obviously charged : apart from The Da Vinci Code movie, a less famous French movie, Belphegor , told the tale of the ghost of the Louvre. Once again, the Louvre does not hold copyright of its art, and so a photo or film can be exploited commercially without royalties going to the Louvre. So to conclude, it is fair to say the Louvre has no monetary goals in banning or allowing photos by the masses. The ban is against the act of photographing, not the image produced.

Are Photos Truly Annoying?    

The first day of the ban, banners were put up at the feet of the Winged Nike of Samothrace, a statue of great renown and the first one encountered on the way to the Mona Lisa . Two guards tried to dissuade picture-takers; by late afternoon they were pooped out and told CK that people did not really know they were not allowed to flash away. Same story at the Mona Lisa. One month later, the Mona Lisa had a guard in front of it facing the public, and a "no photos" banner placed 5 meters from the painting. The ban had reduced the photographing by at least 80% from the pre-ban situation.

The guards, exhausted in the early days, have now learned to live with the ban. After six months, the guards gave up enforcing a ban around the Winged Nike of Samothace, but beyond the statue, there are banners with symbols of cameras that are crossed out. By the time one reaches the Mona Lisa , the once-incessant flashing is altogether gone—a real relief to those who would appreciate the work. (A rare cheater holds up a mobile phone camera over his head, in a puzzling attempt to fool the guards, and bring home a substandard photo of a sea of heads and an out of focus Mona Lisa .)

The reader who thinks that the flash is not a bother need only experience the galling disruption in front of each work, to realize that unrestricted touristic photographing is a scourge. Compare with the Winged Nike which has been handed back to the flashes, or the Venus de Milo , which is not yet off-limits to cameras. The free for all there is like for a movie star… who never moves.

Or consider Hammurabi’s Codex , where flashes go off from all angles of this monolith, taken not by Mesopotamian experts, but by tourists taking pictures of all the artifacts highlighted in a guide—or worse still, tourists shooting any imposing item that other people are shooting! An archaeology enthusiast who would examine the back of the Hammurabi Codex monolith is constantly flashed in the face by those photographing around in the front.

Worst of all are those who have themselves photographed in pairs in front of the piece of art, looking at the public in the face! They block the artwork, you have them staring in your direction, you get their flash, and then other people follow suit, as if they were posing in front of the Grand Canyon.  With 45,000 visitors a day at the height of the season, you have but the first hour from opening time to avoid the disturbance.

Is Photography Truly Damaging to the Works?  

Was the ban on flashing a technical necessity? Not really. Flashes do not harm statuary, but can eventually harm canvas and frescos—although some curators who have conducted tests suspect that the damage may be much less than is widely thought. Still, no museum authority would wish to take the risk of possibly discoloring a painting.

The Louvre’s administration is a more people-friendly place than before. Henri Loyrette, the president and CEO of the Louvre Museum, is open to corporate sponsors, both French and foreign. He wishes to extend signing in English "and in Spanish", he adds. To be fair, there are information boards, large as trays, systematically and withtout fail in French, English, Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese, in all rooms of the museum. These are eroding the all-French,  Ministry of Culture feel of the Louvre. The Amis du Louvre, and the American Friends of the Louvre, are two distinct associations that speak their minds to the Louvre, though not systematically. Neither was consulted on the photo decision, but both told CK they thought that if the partial ban improved visiting conditions, then they were definitely in favor.

What About the Bottom Line?  

From a purely monetary point of view, the total banning of photos is no loss to the Museum coffers. The budget was not altered, however exhausting the guards found their new duties. The sales of postcards and reproductions may have gotten a boost. The improved conditions of a visit by any cultutrally oriented person would be well worth the trade-off in lost photo opportunities of oneself in front of Napoleon crowning Josephine.

Would fewer tourists be likely to visit with the ban? No such reaction has been noticed. The amount of visitors continues to soar and 2006 looks likes it will be no exception. The reputation of excellence of the Louvre has not been touched, and no one is accusing the Museum of anti-tourist snobbery. The French erudites are still there. Foreign art lovers would certainly have nothing to complain about. Nor would the archeological types. The Mona Lisa looks more authentic without someone posing in front of her under a hail of flashes.


                                   Back to Louvre Camera Ban, Part I


Harold Hyman is a Franco-American journalist, based in Paris, specializing in foreign affairs. He has worked for Radio France Internationale, Courrier International, and Radio Classique (news section), and now works for BFM-TV.

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