The unpleasant aspects of the museum-going experience are pretty obvious: dealing with bad weather, traffic jams, parking, standing in line, trying to get an unobstructed view through crowds, having your feet stepped on, having the guards tell you not to get so close, backache from bending over to read descriptions three feet off the floor, and questionable-but-expensive food. What’s good about going to museum? Or, asked in a way pertinent to the subject of this post, if high quality books and magazines are available, what will be the reasons to go to museums?
To be in the presence of the object. Some people place great store in observing the actual physical object created by the artist. This probably is more important if the objects are singular, as is the case with painting and some sculptures, rather than if the objects are one of a set, as is the case with photographs, etchings, woodcuts, cast sculptures, etc. it’s hard to imagine people placing great stock in viewing the original image if the objects are produced by a purely mechanical process such as ink jet printing.
To enjoy the environment. At some museums, the architecture is as big a draw as what’s on the walls. It is exhilarating to be a in an inspired and inspiring space, especially if it’s not crowded.
To see large images. Images in books are limited in their size. You can observe the book from a closer distance than an image on the wall of a museum, which compensates on a purely optical measure. However, there is something striking about being in the presence of a large object.
To participate in social interaction. Openings, parties, and walk-around lectures enrich people’s lives.
To be educated. To the lectures mentioned above, add docent-led tours, seminars, and artists talking about their work.
To save money, if the comparison is buying a book. One or two visits to a museum will be cheaper than purchasing a high quality art book, if you don’t consider travel and lodging. In addition, visiting a museum will allow a greater variety of images to be viewed that could be presented in a book. However, the fair comparison is between a museum going experience and going to a facility, say a library, and viewing the works in a book.
Of these reasons, only the first one is affected negatively by the decision to exhibit a copy rather than an original photograph. So, from a social and psychological perspective, the hard-to-pin-down human desire for eyeball-to-object contact with an original work of art is the only remaining reason to forgo the better appreciation of the work that would be available from a well-lit copy.
There is one legal impediment to exhibiting copies. Owning the physical image doesn’t mean that you own the right to reproduce that image. Unless otherwise specified, the photographer almost always retains that right. Usually, artists give up the rights to reproduce images for catalogs and advertisements, but not for exhibition. So, even though the photographers would benefit from having their work displayed to better aesthetic advantage, museums would have to convince each one individually of this. In the case of dead photographers, museums would have to find and convince whoever owns the rights, and that may not be such an easy sell.
One way for museums to get started with exhibiting copies might be for them to show the reproductions in addition to, rather than instead of, the originals. Say there’s an important, beautiful, small, old, rare, unstable print that a museum wants to show the public. They could go ahead and show it as usual, under glass, lit with yellowish light with the intensity of two candles. At the same time, nearby they could show a large (but not so large that the size won’t support the level of detail present in the original) well-lit high-quality reproduction of the same work, and pay attention to how many people go to each print, how long they stay, and what they have to say about the two experiences.
Even that small step will require a change in the way that most curators look at the world. I’m not holding my breath.