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.