A few weeks ago I came across a sign outside a temporary exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, one of my favourite museums in the world. I was a bit surprised by it and asked if I could photograph it:
I am very used to prohibitions on photography, but this was the first time I’d registered a No sketching sign. This may be because I’ve only been sketching regularly again for a year or so. What I found a bit bizarre was that the sign was outside an exhibition of Paul Strand’s photographs, and couldn’t quite grasp the logic of the sign. Visions of people painstakingly mechanically reproducing prints created in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction … what would Walter Benjamin* have thought of it all?
Apparently the V&A first introduced this sign at their Bowie exhibition back in 2013 and was based on concerns of congestion as the exhibition was very popular.
But the phrasing of the sign – the juxtaposition of No Photography together with or sketching, without any explanation, felt like a smack in the face, an assault on a visual approach and sensibility, and biased in favour of the word. As things stand, I can still go into an exhibition and contemplate any of the artefacts by standing in front of it. I can also pull out a notebook and make notes, without any time restrictions. What if my notes were to contain an iconic sign? Where is the boundary between writing and drawing? Could I make a little diagram with arrows? What if I wrote with a pencil?? Would that be provocative?
The infringement of copyright is one issue, where lenders have certain agreements with institutions. I can also appreciate a prohibition on using flash photography. The congestion issue seems a bit arbitrary. I am perfectly capable of sketching quickly – in one minute, less time than it would take to read up some notes on an artefact. If one can contemplate the aura of an artwork by staring at it for 5 minutes, why not permit quick sketches? If space is the issue, I could sketch in a small notebook – why not specify a size limit, such as no bigger than A4?? Like many others who regularly go to life drawing classes, I am used to timed sketches. This can be as short as 30 seconds or 1 minute. If the issue is one of congestion rather than copyright I think it would be helpful if there were times or sessions where art students and drawers could have the opportunity to sketch. It is generally part of the ethos of the V&A to allow artists and students to sketch within the the main body of the museum, where non -flash photography is also permitted.
Here is a recent 1 minute drawing I did of Carla Tofano:
I was so affected by the sign that I tweeted the image to The Moon and Nude, who run community-driven life drawing sessions around London (where I did the above drawing). Since then I noticed that Oliver Wainwright also wrote about this sign in The Guardian the other day, and it inspired me to get a few thoughts down. Wainwright talks about photography prohibitions resulting in people furtively taking photographs with their phones so as to avoid being admonished by the museum guards; he is spot on about this clandestine behaviour. Funnily enough a few months ago I was terribly tempted to take a selfie at The Tate Modern’s 2015 exhibition The World Goes Pop and told the guard I was having trouble resisting the urge; the guard was so taken by my honesty I was told to go ahead! The work in question was Jana Zelibska’s 1969 piece Kandarya-Mahadeva:
I’ve also read in the press that the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has come up with a campaign that encourages guests to sketch rather than photograph of its works of art. Sketching in London is now so popular that certain sessions that were previously ‘drop-in’ are now bookable events that become sold-out in advance …
Here are a few diverse images of sketchers I’ve taken:
Shibari drawing session with Bliss Theadora at Salon Exotique:
Young sketchers in temple grounds in Japan:
Mature sketchers in Japan:
Sketching up a tree in Kenwood:
Painting on Hampstead Heath: signs prohibiting cycling and barbecues, but visual expression and creativity is safe!
- Walter Benjamin wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in 1936