Yay/boo: Smithsonian reaches out, still bans photos of the flag

Photo courtesy of
‘Old Glory’
courtesy of ‘Tyrannous’

Ahh, the Star-Spangled Banner. It symbolizes a great many things about our country and our city: freedom, war, resurrection, preservation, complicated photography policies …

Often the subject of discussion among the DC photo rights crowd, the Smithsonian’s ban on photos of the Star-Spangled Banner was put in place in 2008 after the renovation of the American History Museum. The flag got a shiny new home and display case, and tourists got a shiny new rule. The Smithsonian is a generally photo-friendly place, so when it does break out the ban-hammer without explaining why, speculation can run rampant. (Among the crazier theories: the renovation was expensive, and the need to sell postcards so great, that they couldn’t let people create their own memories, not when there were trinkets to sell!)

Megan Smith over at the Smithsonian has stepped in with a reasonable explanation, finally, and it’s pretty much what we thought: flashes and the dependable stupidity of tourists:

Many times people with auto-flash on their cameras and phones don’t even know how to turn it off. Preventing everyone from taking a photo is the only realistic way to fulfill our obligation to protect the Star-Spangled Banner while keeping it on view for all to see.

And to calm the profit-driven conspiracy theorists, they’ve posted a bunch of free photos to their Flickr page.

I don’t necessarily agree with the policy, but I understand why they felt the need to institute it.  (I have to wonder, though, if guy-who-can’t-turn-off-his-flash is the level we’re gearing policies toward, what’s next?) But it’s a huge leap to assume that all 10,000 people a week who visit the flag are really that stupid. “Hundreds of flashes going off in the space of a few minutes?” Smithsonian, have a little faith that the people who visit your museums are smarter than that. Why not test it for a week to find out? Relax the policy, post some interns, and give the tourists a chance to surprise you.

What I DO applaud the Smithsonian for is reaching out and engaging their visitors in answering a longstanding question. Smith posted a link to her blog post on a Flickr photo where some discussion had taken place about the ban, and the post itself was realistic about people’s frustrations. More museums and institutions in DC and beyond could learn a great deal from that approach. So, Smithsonian, good job on reaching out to your fans. Bad job on making the rest of us suffer because you don’t think tourists can be trusted to find the off switch on their cameras.

Erin McCann

Erin takes pictures. Lots of them. And then she tweets about them.

9 thoughts on “Yay/boo: Smithsonian reaches out, still bans photos of the flag

  1. Are you kidding me? This rule is great. Today everyone thinks they are a photographer. I am so sick of people and their cell phone cameras at concerts, museums, etc… I would like to just be able to enjoy something every once and a while. And you give these people far too much credit. Most people don’t know anything about photography. That’s why you see people using flashes from nosebleed seats at concerts at FedEx field. People walk into the flag exhibit and there is almost no light. They think “Hmm, it’s dark, I definitely need to use my flash.” Then everyone there gets blinded by the flash and their eyes have to adjust again. Sound like fun! No thanks, I’ll stick with the postcards.

  2. As much as I want to agree that people can be trusted not to use their flash, I know they cannot. I know this because when I went to the Smithsonian to see the Star Spangled Banner flag and passed by literally 3 signs that said “no pictures”, 2 people still tried to take pictures of the flag. So if people can’t even read the sign that says “no pictures”, which would mean don’t even bother getting your camera out, I certainly can’t believe they’d be able to read or pay attention to a sign that says “no flash”. Its too bad for us that can read but a necessary evil.

  3. …Except the National Archives did just that. They allowed pictures, but not flashes. It didn’t work, because the visitors were indeed unable to switch off their flashes. I agree, it would be great to take photos of all our nation’s beloved treasures, but it’s more important to keep them around for the next generation.

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  5. I do have to say i was very mindful to turn off my flash in the above picture…. proving to monty that i do know something about photography

  6. People definitely think that the rules don’t apply to them, and will try to take pictures despite “No Photos” signs. People also are generally too lazy to think about turning off the flash, much less actually knowing _how_ to turn it off. As mentioned by another, you are definitely giving the average tourist too much credit by thinking “they can handle the responsibility.”

    No. They can’t. And this is why we can’t have nice things.

  7. I take a lot of pictures, I use natural light whenever possible, and sometimes when I change my settings I still forget to turn off the flash. “Never make mistakes” is not a viable strategy.

  8. So, I went to the Einstein planetarium at the Air & Space museum a little while back. Also a “no photos” location (for obvious reasons, duh). BUT PEOPLE WERE TAKING PHOTOS! Flash photos (because, uh, they didn’t know how to turn off the flash probably!). It really ruined the show to have the flashes going off every few minutes (and, of course if people took a second to look at the photos they’d of seen that taking flash photos of a slide show isn’t gonna give you a lasting memory). I’m ok with the no photography at the Star Spangled Banner, it does build a sense of awe about it.