I wish every gallery and museum could follow the example of Rijksstudio, the new online gallery of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. When I’m visiting a gallery in a place I’ve never or rarely visited, I take photos of particular works (if photography is allowed) not because I’m trying to make perfect reproductions for nefarious purposes, but to flag them in my own memory, so that I can remember what I really liked; the photos are mental triggers. And if I want to do that, I have to do it while I’m walking around the gallery; the alternative of buying a postcard in the gallery shop at the end doesn’t usually work, because most of the time they won’t have that specific image.

That doesn’t mean I want to join the crowds flocking to take their own personal snaps of the Mona Lisa. (When I was in the Louvre, I snapped the crowd instead, with Mona out of shot.) The paintings I’m trying to photograph and remember are the surprising ones, the ones that aren’t widely known beyond the regular visitors. Sometimes they’ll be lesser-known paintings by famous artists; sometimes they’ll be exquisite works by painters I’ve never heard of, who will never get their own printed gallery catalogue. Those also tend to be the ones that don’t have a crowd in front of them, so photographing them is rarely disruptive.

If a gallery shuts down that opportunity by banning photography, they turn a visit into something different: it becomes not an experience and a resource, but just an experience. Sure, you can spend over the odds on a gallery guide with reproductions of their major works, which I’ve done my share of, and that’s no doubt one of their reasons for banning photography—but it won’t have all the work, and it probably won’t have that beautiful little thing you found tucked away in a side-room in a less-visited wing. It’s not that visiting a gallery as an experience is a bad thing; many gallery paintings still burn brightly in my memory, years later, and the vividness of those physical visits is why any kind of reproduction will never be a threat to the relevance and attraction of visiting the galleries themselves. But shutting off the possibility of the visit being more than that is a shame.

If all the works are online, though, a visit can be free of all that. You can wander around the physical gallery without taking photos, and then explore the virtual one to find out more about the particular works you liked. If you’re carrying a smartphone, you can even do both in parallel. But it only truly works if the virtual gallery is comprehensive.

When I was in Zürich a few weeks ago, I visited the main gallery there, a place with the most Giacomettis I’ve ever seen. In the first half of the visit I took a few photos, having seen someone else doing so, until a guard said keine Fotografie and I had to stop. But because of those few photos of paintings and their labels, I’m now reminded of a Swiss post-Impressionist I’d never heard of, whereas my memories of the rest will mostly just drift away.

Adapted from a post at Metafilter.

15 November 2012 · Art