What makes a great museum photo?

2016-06-27 11.48.33.jpgThe ‘Art Fund Museum of the Year’ final is rapidly drawing to a close and the five finalists have only a few more weeks to see if they will win the £100,000 prize. For my part, I am 100% behind the Bethlem Museum of the Mind, and the reasons why it should win are self evident in a blog I wrote on its reopening back in February 2015 (Bethlem Museum Blog). Bethlem Museum is so much more than a museum, it is not only about the past; how mental health has been perceived in years gone by, it is also about the here and now, and the future too. It has a crucial role to play in breaking the misconceptions about mental health and the work of a modern day mental health hospital.

This blog is not simply about the Art Fund finalists but looks at museum photography and the photography competition that runs alongs the ‘Museum of the Year’ decision. The photographer Rankin has shortlisted five photographs from members of the public, taken at each finalists’ location. The public can now vote for their favourite, and you have until 29th June to have your say (http://www.artfund.org/prize/photo-competition).

It was looking at these photos and following a live web chat on the Guardian website with Rankin that made me wonder – What makes a great museum photo?

I take hundreds (actually it is probably more like thousands) of museum photos. Camera phones that can hold thousands of memories have changed not only the way we take photos but why we take them too. We don’t have to be sparing, we can snap away at anything that takes our fancy and I certainly do.

Every year at Christmas time, I meet up with an old boss, she always asks me if I have a picture of my three kids so she can see how much they have grown. I get out my phone but I then have to skip through loads of museum photos before I can even find a picture of their smiling faces. So why do I take so many museum photos? I have been looking at the types of photos I take and broken it down into a number of categories.

  • I take pictures of objects in museums, things I like aesthetically, or objects where I like their stories. Something I want to remember and share later. The example below is an articulated manikin from the Science Museum, it was made in 1582 and will be part of the Robots exhibition opening in 2018.

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  • I like to document my activities, photos of my hands touching and seeking the work I do, whether it be an archive hunt, a conservation project or an outreach event. The pictures below were taken at Bromley Museum, where I was making a padded hanger for an original Peggy Spencer dress.
  • Things that make me laugh, because they are unexpected, or wrong, things that you don’t normally see in a museum. I have taken quite a few pictures of mannequins and scary museum dolls and they definitely come under this category.

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  • A moment, a quick snap, people engaged, lost, in awe, in wonder. A moment that if you don’t catch it, it is gone forever. Many of my favourite photos are these one. They are often photos of my kids…. unsurprisingly in museums. The photo below is a really badly taken photo, but is from 2013, my youngest son came to a section of glass floor in the Museum of London where, underneath, you can see archaeological finds. He was too petrified to walk on it and tried to climb in to the space not realising there was glass there. He just kept trying and trying to get in there it was so funny. I miss those moments, little ones grow up so fast.

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  • Photos that I stage of the kids for use on the blog. I don’t like to put there faces up, I try and keep them out of it a little, so often I take one picture of them smiling at me and then get them to turn around and talk a picture of their hands or the back of their heads. The picture below was taken at the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the Science Museum. Often it is just getting them to repeat something they have already done. Sometimes I ask them to do something that I think will make a good photo.

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  • The last category is arty abstract photos, normally of museum buildings and spaces, something that catches your eye. Museum spaces can be so beautiful without even beginning to look at the objects inside them. They can be welcoming, inspiring but also intimidating. The picture below was taken in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern.


  • Of course most of the pictures I take are for my blog and they can fall into any of the categories above. Part of the problem is I don’t always know what I am going to write, so I take pictures of everything just in case. It seems such a waste, even with all the photos I take, there is aways some point I want to illustrate when I come to write and I never seem to quite have the photo I am looking for. The pictures below were taken at the V&A Undressed press day.

So looking at the Art Fund photos, do they fit into any of my categories?

V&A is by Leah McIntosh – Posed or a moment in time. it captures the beauty of the V&A building, the architecture, the space. With the wind blowing, the hair blowing in the wind and the ripples on the water make it active and fresh in the grandeur of an historic building. I think it says new and old to me, just like the objects the V&A holds.

V&A photo by Leah McIntosh

York Art Gallery by Adele Karmazyn – Unexpected and fun it is about interaction. Rankin’s comment highlights why he chose this particular picture – “I really believe interaction with art is important – it helps make it accessible and lets us understand and feel its full power.”

York Art Gallery photo by Adele Karmazyn

Arnolfini by Colin Moody – Again there is humour, a moment quickly captured, take too long and it is gone. For Rankin this idea of accessibility is key – “I have always believed art should be democratic – it can be enjoyed by all: adults, children, even animals”.

Arnolfini photo by Colin Moody

Jupiter Artland by Graeme Hutton – This photo is alive, there is action, a moment caught beautifully. Rankin is right when he says – “The ability to interact and breathe your own existence into a museum is a valuable thing – these are ever-evolving beasts and we should be able to play our part in that.” I like how this photo represents how we all interact in different ways to museums, artefacts, exhibitions and spaces. This is what keeps them fresh and relevant. Of course it also means they have to welcome in everyone. If you have an inclusive museum you have a more varied engagement, reaction and interaction from your visitor.

Jupiter Artland photo by Graeme Hutton

Bethlem Museum of the Mind by Jodine Williams – Perhaps not the most technical or arty photo, but it has a message, and an important one. For this museum place is as important as what is inside and I think that is why this photo has such a vital message.

Bethlem Museum photo by Jodine Williams

It has been great fun looking back through my photos for this blog and it has got me thinking about why I took them and how I used them. So finally I have come up with my favourite 5 photos from the thousands I have taken since I started this blog.

1 – Horniman Museum – Child on the step – 

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I love this photo, it is a moment captured in time. A little girl using a toddler toilet step to see into the aquarium. It says a lot about accessibility and the role of the Horniman as a family museum and also how easy it can be to take simple low cost changes to make a difference.

2 – Roman glass

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This is one of the first photos I took when I started volunteering and blogging. It was really tricky to take one handed with a camera phone to focus in. I loved looking through the Roman glass, it felt that if I tried hard enough I could see into a Roman world. It reminds me of my volunteering beginnings and my love of getting hands on with objects.

3 – Stripes and curves

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This abstract photo from the beautiful Tate Britain is a favourite because I love the light, lines and curves. There is so much beautiful art in the Tate Britain and yet I was caught by this sight on the stairwell. Shared and tinkered with on Instagram it proved a popular photo.


4 – What does the future hold?

Tate Takeover Day

This one my husband took when we went on a Twitter Takeover at the Tate Modern. The hoarding was all about the future of the Tate and the new Switch House then many months away and now newly opened. The photo is completely staged, they can see nothing through the windows there is paper up at them but it looks like their natural curiosity has got the better of them. It reminds me of all the places I have taken them to because of the blogging and the fun experiences we have had together (even if some of them are a little staged!)

5 – Museum magic

Picture 1.jpgFinally a picture of my daughter, a quick snap trying to capture a moment. She is blowing dry ice as it spreads out on water making gorgeous patterns. It is taken at our first autism early morning visit to the Science Museum. The first time the kids had ever visited, it is a photo that conjures up all the magic and excitement of that day.

I have shared some of my favourite museum photos, if you want to send me yours I am happy to add them to the blog. Everyone loves a great museum photo!


Please visit the Art Fund Museum of the Year Photography Competition by Wednesday 29th June 2016 to vote for your favourite entry


The winners of the Museum of Year will be announced on 6th July 2016, with thanks to the Art Fund for allowing me to use the finalist photos.

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