Sunday, April 24, 2016

No sketching allowed? Really?

I'm beginning to find it more than a little tedious that some sketchers are turning into the drawing equivalent of the cyclists who always run the red lights - as if the rules of the road are for everybody else but not for them.

Why such an extreme statement you may say?

Sketching in Art Galleries and Museums

Well the fact is that
  1. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen mass confusion and diatribes about what a "no sketching' sign actually means.
  2. Yet again somebody has seen fit to be alarmist in a newspaper! (See Oliver Wainwright's article in The Guardian - 'No sketching': V&A signs betray everything the museum stands for).  
  3. Yet again we have seen guerilla sketchers on the warpath.
The article has one of the most sensational summaries I've heard in a long time.
No visit should be complete without tripping over a skinny-jeaned student clutching a sketchbook. This draconian diktat denies visitors their art education
I'll give Oliver Wainwright the benefit of the doubt and assume it was written by some sub-editor whose pay is determined by the traffic he generates for articles.  Draconian diktat indeed!

So at this point it seems relevant to post my sketches done in the Victoria and Albert Museum of
My sketch of Constable's "Boatbuilding near Flatford Mill"
11" x 16", pen and sepia ink and coloured pencils
copyright Katherine Tyrrell
Spinning Around in Gold Hot Pants
from the "Kylie Minogue: Image of a pop star" exhibition
at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2007
Note: My pen and ink sketch is of Kylie's infamous gold lame hotpants from the Spinning Around Video which revealed rather a lot and achieved iconic status as a result. They have been on display - in their very own perspex box - at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I popped in and did a sketch on a recent visit when I went to see the exhibition of her clothes (amazing!).

The Victoria and Albert Museum Policy on sketching

This is a quotation from the Victoria and Albert Museum website (my underlining)
Photography and sketching
Photography and sketching are permitted throughout most of the Museum, except in our temporary exhibition spaces.
and a policy statement Guidelines for Using the Galleries (which, as it happens, is inaccessible on the V&A's new website - you have to know it exists to find it!) which clearly states
"10. Sketching is not allowed in exhibitions"
So that's about 95+% of the area of the museum and its contents which can be both photographed and sketched! The ONLY areas which are off limits are the temporary exhibitions.

Let me repeat that for all those who scan read and miss the point completely


As the article recognises - but way beyond the point at which the scan readers will have switched off....
The V&A has been quick to point out that sketching is still welcomed in the rest of the museum, and that the rule only applies to temporary exhibitions
The article makes the point that the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A in 2012 was the breaking point when it came to sketching in exhibitions.

Long queues or sketching?

The fact is the Victoria and Albert Museum puts on some blockbusting exhibitions associated with style icons. They have HUGE numbers of people wanting to visit - and generate big queues as a result.

The area given over to temporary exhibitions is not huge and it's not easy to mix people sketching and keeping the flow of people moving through the exhibition to minimise the waits for those queuing to get in.

Liabilities or sketching?

Plus, like any other organisation which admits the public to its premises, the V&A MUST have regard to
  • health and safety issues and
  • the conditions of its insurance for third party liability.
According to Oliver Wainwright tripping over a sketcher is a small price to pay for allowing people to keep sketching!

Speaking as one who has a disability who spends a lot of time trying to avoid falling over I naturally take a very different view! I also take a very dim view of museums and galleries which don't manage risks to the public.

Loans or sketching?

There is also another reason why sketching is sometimes not allowed in temporary exhibitions - and that's because of the conditions applied to loans.  Some owners are very keen to maintain complete control over images of their artwork within the public domain.

The simple fact is that we would see an awful lot less than we do if museums only displayed art and artifacts which were loaned with no conditions.

If the choice is "I get to see the object - and no sketching" - as opposed to "not being able to see the object at all" then I opt for the former!

Compliance with rules on sketching or no sketching?

I have sketched - without a problem (using a rollerball and coloured pencils) in virtually every major gallery in London without any problem at all - but I doubt if the scan readers will note this!

I'd caution people about flouting rules and causing problems for museums and their visitors and the reason why is this.....

In the last ten years I have photographed my way around the Musee d'Orsay in Paris twice. Since my last visit the museum has changed its policy and has now banned photography completely because of the advent of the mobile cameraphone and the way in which this ruins enjoyment of an exhibition or a gallery of artwork for others.

So - you only need people causing a problem and the policy changes..........

More comments on 'no sketching in Museums'

In general I find people often fail to draw a distinction between 'exhibition' and 'museum'.

Three other comments on sketching in museums are:
  • James Gurney - Bans on Sketching in Museums (23 April 2016) - a response to the Oliver Wainwright article - but it fails to make explicit that  the limitation is just confined to temporary exhibitions and that you can still sketch in the rest of the museum.
  • Janice Skivington - No sketching allowed! (12 April 2012) - commenting on the Art Institute of Chicago's ban on sketching in temporary exhibitions
  • Franklin Einspruch - when drawing art is outlawed, only outlaws will draw art - another comment on another temporary exhibition.
Back in February I also wrote about How to draw and sketch in an art gallery or museum #1

Sketching on private property

The other favourite of the guerilla "I'm entitled" sketcher is a whine about not being allowed to sketch on private property - including sketching within retail centres, offices and leisure complexes.

"Anybody can sketch anything, anywhere and anytime" is just not true!

  • There is no god-given right to sketch anywhere you like. 
  • You only have the right to sketch in the public domain - which is NOT the same as the places that the public are allowed access to.
  • Those who represent the owners of private property are also allowed to ask you to leave if you remonstrate saying things such as "I'm an artist and can sketch anything anywhere and anytime".  
The only thing that has changed recently is risk management related to terrorist attacks.

Within the context of terrorist attacks - and the fact that sketches have been found on terrorists - a number of the more high profile properties are naturally taking a very cautious view of ANY sketching.

That's very sad - but quite understandable in the context.

Similar concerns in the past has meant that there has also been a ban (in some countries and some areas) on making images of military installations. Some photographers in the past have only found this out after they landed themselves in prison.

However as one London Urban Sketcher demonstrated when we were sketching at Canary Wharf (very high profile and completely private property) in January, it is possible to be civil to the private security people, show them what you are doing - and allay their concerns - by showing this is not an isolated activity - you have lots of other sketches to show them too! At which point they walked away satisfied (and my fellow sketchers got lots of sketches done).

TIPS: Sketching on private property/land is NOT a right.

Unlike the High Street, shopping centres are invariably commercial enterprises where the land and buildings are in private ownership.

Signs are very often used to remind people that a property is NOT in the public domain e.g. no public right of way.

We might not always like the rules relating to private property but we do need to recognise the owner's rights and obligations in law.

Owners have:
  • The right to decide whether or not people can visit, photograph or sketch within the property.
  • A public liability duty of care to the people visiting their property. Whether or not you can sketch is very often guided by professional advice about crowd management, risk management and assuring the health and safety of visitors. The prevention of terrorist activity - particularly within high profile sites - is also very important. Guidance on activities not allowed may come from the police. Security staff are often used to make sure a place is safe and that people stick to the rules e.g. don’t cause an obstruction or otherwise cause a problem. 
Rather than getting into a dispute about what should be allowed it’s a better idea to look at ways we can live in harmony.

If planning to sketch:
  • Check the website in advance for the policy on photography. This is a good guideline for whether or not sketching might be a problem.
  • Write and ask permission to sketch. If you get permission this means you have a statement in writing to show security.
  • Keep a low profile - a cafĂ© is often a good base for sketching.
  • Avoid large groups of people sketching together.
  • Don’t create obstructions or health and safety hazards.
  • Be respectful of people doing their job.
  • Remember that security people have a job to do and are only telling you what they have been told.

Have your say

So what's your take on sketching and the notion that people should be able to sketch anything, anywhere at any time?

You can comment below - so long as you are civil. :)


  1. It's the same in most museum's. Temp/paid exhibitions are off limits, but permanent displays are perfectly ok. I visited the Sargent exhibition last year and it was packed as you can imagine. If someone had decided to stand/sit and sketch there would have been a pedestrian nightmare! I love to sketch and have never had an issue at any Museum other than one power pumped security guard at the Imperial War. Carry on sketching people, but be considerate of others. Thanks for the article Mark

  2. Thanks Katherine for sharing this and for your thorough and indepth understanding of the issues involved. With regard to temporary exhibitions and loan agreements the V and A visitor experience officer explained this yesterday afternoon on Radio 4. Warm regards Lizzie

  3. I was surprised to learn recently that the National Trust will not allow sketching/painting of their properties. I'm sure many people will not be aware of this.
    I can't find anything on their website to confirm this but several people have told me that they have been asked to refrain from sketching or painting a view of local historic NT buildings.

  4. Again - people don't always pay attention to what is actually being said.

    There are a number of properties which prohibit any kind of easel or tripod or monopod - because of obstructions. They usually make it explicit on the website.

    I've sketched for pleasure at any number of National Trust properties for years and never had a problem. Mind you I make sure I am out of the way and I don't do anything to draw a crowd - quite the reverse, I make sure I don't!

    The simple answer is to ask the person concerned to be explicit about where the statement is made.

    If you tell me which properties are involved I'll tell you what the National Trust ACTUALLY says.

  5. A very balanced and well reasoned response to the "banning" of sketching. I'm quite happy to negotiate my way around keen visitors to pubic exhibitions, provided they're either well supervised (as in school parties/ students) or mingle in pairs/trios with other visitors. Having had many an unsatisfactory viewing experience, having parted with hefty entrance fees, I completely agree with the ban on sketching in temporary exhibitions.
    I'd even go so far as to ban photography in lots of circumstances. If you've been to Amsterdams Rijksmuseum recently, you'll have been hard pressed to get anywhere near to the Rembrandts or Vermeers where tourists flock to take selfies with tablets and phone cameras. There are many reasons why cameras are unsuitable- similar to the reasons for a sketch ban- with the added degradation of the artwork caused by thousands of camera flashes, despite requests not to use flash!
    Once again, thanks for the thought provoking response. Janet

  6. Thank you for the due diligence, it does seem that fact checking before publishing is a thing of the past.

    But more interesting to me is that I frequent two cities regularly (populations of 1.8 mil and 2.9 mil – I fact checked on Wikipedia) both with first class museums. And I have never encounter anyone sketching in them? (besides myself very anonymously)

    Maybe this is just not a major problem?

  7. Now that's what I call really worrying! :)

  8. Do read this comment on the Guardian article by somebody who does know what they're talking about

    "Apparently none of the other commenters have ever been a member of staff at a blockbuster museum exhibition.

    No-one is more sympathetic to the frustration of limited tickets and limited space than the member of staff who has to placate visitors who aren't enjoying a crowded temporary exhibition as much as they hoped they would.

    Now try telling ten+ disappointed ticket holders that if they want to see the star exhibit they will have to wait for the one person who has parked themselves in front of it to sketch for an hour to finish, all whilst anticipating another 100 ticket holders to arrive on the next 15 minute time slot.

    Different rules apply to temporary exhibitions for a reason."

  9. Once again sensible and balanced comments about sketching in a dignified and unobtrusive manner, as artists we are probably less of a problem to others than mobile phone users.

  10. While I understand the reasons why people may not be allowed to sketch, and agree with many of them, I wonder if it's getting a little uncomfortably close to controlling all behavior? Especially in stores, restaurants, and malls. I mean, will there be signs that say, "No note taking?" "No writing?" "No remembering?"

  11. Let's not get silly about this!!

  12. Yes Katherine, you have well noted the reasons for policies like this to be put in place. It is like anything else. It always starts first with a group who creates the problem, then the policy has to be added, changed or amended. Then the same (self-entitled) group complains and rebels against it.
    I have been to many special exhibitions where the crowds are the same as those from the comment from the member os staff above. It is true there are so many wanting to see the exhibit they release groups every 15 minutes. That means each group only has a limited amount of time to see each piece then move on or it becomes a mess.
    Even those less crowded there are still enough people that standers, sketchers, photographers get in the way which ruins it for the rest.
    It really is about basic civility and respect whether it's indoor exhibitions or outside in public places, or un-public public places (private property).
    Unfortunately not everyone has civility and respect for others so we then have to govern behavior.

  13. Thanks for a generally well-balanced discussion of the issues. However making a comparison to cyclists running red lights is unfortunate: why stigmatise cyclists? Perhaps you could have mentioned car drivers exceeding speed limits, or reckless electric wheelchair users speeding on pavements?

    As societies we are becoming so rule-bound that people are effectively denied the opportunity and freedom to learn for themselves. It is simple: act considerately. There is no need for written rules for behaviour to be posted everywhere. As a teacher I never gave 'class detentions': to punish all for the bad behaviour of a few is a mistake - and will make the bright well-behaved pupils into your worst enemies!

    Would I be allowed a 10sec sketch with pencil and small sketchbook? No. How about me standing for 3min in front of an artwork? Yes. How about standing obstructing a picture queueing to see the next picture? Yes. How about sketching on a rainy winter weekday afternoon when the gallery is almost empty? No. Would an early-onset Altzheimer's patient be allowed to sketch? No.

    Petty rules have a way of becoming bullying and hedge us round with injunctions not to do the things we would never dream of doing.

    Issues with lender restrictions is another matter. Only those items should be labelled 'no sketching or photography' and museums should only accept these items if vital for the exhibition. Of course I can sketch the item from memory.

    In general it is a serious matter when harmless activities are curtailed in the attempt to deal with a minority of inconsiderate people.

    It is not right in general to always obey rules. I would say it is only right if you consider the rule reasonable (there are many sad examples in history of unjust rules - targeting minorities for example).

    You may say - get used to it - this is the world we live in. However this is why right-thinking people need to speak out when innocent freedoms are curtailed.

  14. It would be wonderful if everybody would be considerate!

    The cyclist example arose because I was very nearly run over by a cyclist as I was trying to cross the road at a pelican crossing last week. The cyclist apparently deemed red lights as not applying to it.

    I think you'll find it's not unusual for people to reference the last 'horror story' they were a victim of! :) Plus I know those living in London (ie most likely to visit the V&A) will know exactly what I mean about cyclists ignoring traffic signs.

    In general if an exhibition was quiet, I'd agree with you. However, the temporary exhibitions where the V&A ban sketching are typically very busy every day of the week and at all times of the day - and that's one of the reasons why they have the ban!

  15. This is a fantastic summary, thank you very much for this. I made a formal complaint today about the Wainwright article. I hope you don't mind but I put a link in to this as part of my complaint as it outlines the issues so clearly.

    I work for a comparable institution and was shocked at the vindictiveness and lack of research into the issue. Whilst I agree that there is a genuine article in there about the conditions that are set down by those who are rich enough to buy such artworks, and the increased capitalist nature of the art world; to just say that the V & A has created a diktat is simply ignorant of the issues. I would really have expected better from a writer of his position and standing.

    Thanks again!

  16. Interesting debate. I sketched in the British Museum Viking exhibition a couple of years ago, with no problems. It was absolutely packed and it was so busy, attendees were being admitted every 10 minutes. I was allowed to take in a sketching stool (I have a back problem and cannot stand for long without acute back pain). Every time I stopped to draw, I tucked myself into a corner beside a display, so I was not obstructing anyone. What I sketched was dictated by my vantage point. No-one grumbled at me, and I was not moved on my staff. I have sketched in most big exhibitions (e.g. Rembrandt at NPG). I think the critical factor has been that I am compliant with the rules and don't make a big deal of my sketching - I draw in pen, in an A5 book. I wonder whether being a middle-aged woman on my own also helps.

    I often have a friendly chat with the staff asking questions about the artworks, and find them well informed. Building relationships with staff is worthwhile, and has given me good leads for further specialised queries (e.g. with the textile curator at the Burrell Collection in Scotland).


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