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How the Louvre Came to Ban Flash Photography



By Harold Hyman

PARIS, 29 April 2006—Flashes going off every 3 seconds are no longer considered civilized at the Louvre Museum. The administration of this timeless institution, born under the Bourbon Monarchy and reborn during the Revolution, has had a change of heart. The 7 million visitors per year (7.3 million at latest count for 2005) are no longer allowed to riddle the Mona Lisa with photo flashes 6 days a week.

Since 15 September 2005, there is a ban on not only flashes but all photos in the area of the Museum which is the most visited, which is the Galerie d’Apollon and all the painting galleries of the first floor of the Denon wing (Italian, Spanish and French painting galleries).

The initial urge to ban photos was born of the complaints of those visitors concerned enough to fill out the suggestions sheets. To these sheets must be added e-mails (in France, e-mail is perfectly widespread contrary to myth). The main complaint is the lengthy lines in front of the toilets, the line to get in, the all-French signs, the admissions fee, and in fifth place (as of summer 2005) the incessant photos taken with or without flashes by the ever growing numbers of visitors. The French visitors are more critical than the foreign ones, according to the Louvre 2004 annual report. Let us suppose that these critical French visitors are of the culturally elevated type, and can be seen in the museum as they sometimes converse eruditely in front of the works. They never take pictures.

A Little Recent Louvre History

These erudite people have always existed. They managed to psychologically survive the construction of the Pyramid, which was a cultural shock to them, perpetrated by President François Mitterrand. When the Louvre reopened under the pyramid of I.M. Pei in 1989, the extension of the Louvre was far from finished. Gradually all of the premises are being rearranged, collections moved and regrouped, and special wings created. Walls are built, woodworks renovated to perfection, and in the case of the Mona Lisa, a standing wall built out of nowhere to display nothing but that one painting.

Sociologically, mass tourism continues to grow, and museums have become major attractions, where the Chinese and Russians have now replaced the Japanese as the mindless photosnapping group tourists of the age. The numbers of tourists in museums have doubled in the past 15 years. People all have the ability to snap photos today, with their mobile phones and of course with digitals which have huge capacities. Therefore, museums are not what they used to be. There is no more the feeling of privacy and quiet that once existed. Nowhere is this more visible than in the major museums, and nowhere more so than in the world’s biggest, the Louvre. If something significant were to happen, it would necessarily be here.

The Board of the Louvre took the bold step, without advertising it. The Louvre told Culturekiosque (CK) that the whole idea was not to advertise this change. The public relations pitch, I was told by Louvre communications director Ms. Aggy Lerolle, was to answer questions but not to go out seeking to be noticed on this photo restriction. No public debate, a two-line mention in Le Monde buried in a five-part series on the Museum, and a small article in Paris Obs, the very up-to-date weekly supplement of the Nouvel Observateur center-left weekly of reference. 

"We chose to introduce these changes gradually," said Lerolle, "and not to slam down a complete ban overnight."

Six months later, such an approach seems to have worked—the ban is holding fast, without hardly a grumble from anyone. Museum history has been made, and in a land of controversy, with a deafening lack thereof. The French government has not been involved, and no intellectual or neo-free-market thinker has got his or her hand on this event. Banning photos of La Joconde ! One would have expected a reaction, an approval, a noise…  but nothing.

Yet the ban is real: the new Floor Plan leaflets of the Louvre announce, in a postage-stamp sized message, the prohibition. The leaflets come in a dozen languages. Who can pretend not to know?

From an administrative standpoint, all this was simple. The Louvre museum was  made into a semi-autonomous "public establishment" a dozen years ago (1993). Its governing board (Conseil d’Administration) takes all its own decisions, since the mid-90s. Before that, the Louvre Museum, as the flagship of the National Museums, was under the oversight of the Ministry of Culture’s administration, which even then tended to let the Louvre’s management handle most things. Nowadays, admissions fees, opening hours, redecoration, exhibitions calendars, concessions to foodstands and other shops, all this is in the hands of the President of the public establishment, Henri Loyrette. The Museum even owns and operates the Galerie du Carousel – a purely commercial underground mall. The Ministry of Culture gives no orders to the Louvre on how to run this museum business (the concesssions, stands, rentals for special events, and salons and fairs) as long as the operations retain some link to culture (a perfume shop is OK, but a hardware store is not).

In late spring of 2005, a board meeting was held, and the issue of photos brought up… better said: the communications department reported to the Board the complaints. Surprisingly, the board decided to simply ban photos on 25 June 2005.

How was this done? In one session, the decision was taken. The Board was most impressed by the complaints list. An Italian professor sits on the Board, the only foreigner, though the issue of nationality is of no import according to the Louvre. It is he who mentioned the restrictions in effect on photographing in the major Italian museums. This fact was a powerful argument, as it was a precedent. The Board seemed also to believe that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had banned photos —in point of fact, a ban only applies to flashes. As for the ban on photographing special exhibitions, it works perfectly well all over the world, as the Board well knows.

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