The V&A is wrong to ban sketching

Since the early Renaissance, artists have honed their skills by sketching the works of earlier masters. Donatello spent years studying and sketching the sculptures of classical antiquity in Rome; later, the young Michelangelo became obsessed with studies of Donatello’s work; and, in turn, Bernini was greatly influenced by sketching Michelangelo’s statues. And so the baton has been passed through the centuries to today’s budding artists.

So when the Guardian’s architecture and design critic Olly Wainwright tweeted a picture of a sign at the V&A’s Undressed exhibition instructing the public not to sketch or photograph the exhibits, there was understandable uproar.

Founded in 1852, the V&A was set up with the express purpose of opening up the world of manufacturing and design to the public and inspiring the designers of the future. But now it seems that students and hobbyists who wish to gain a deeper appreciation of exhibits by sketching them come second. 

The V&A’s justification for the prohibition on sketching was that it would ease congestion in their big exhibitions – the ban, they said, does not extend to the rest of the museum. But such rules are prone to creep over time. Just as the spurious belief that flash photography significantly fades art works ultimately led to many galleries banning photography outright, we should not be surprised if bans on sketching and taking one’s time to consider an artwork also begin to grow.

While increased public interest in the arts is to be celebrated, national museums and galleries now primarily measure their success through annual footfall. This is misguided. Blockbuster exhibitions, with their conveyor-belt sensibility, allowing visitors just a few moments to take in each piece before being herded on, have become increasingly popular in recent years, and have been a boon for museum finances. But by encouraging a superficial appreciation of their exhibits, museums only serve to undermine their own purpose and their duty to the public. They become mere tourist attractions to tick off your bucket list, rather than places to engage deeply with art, taking time to gain an appreciation and understanding of it.

Exhibitions should be designed to allow visitors time to consider and even sketch what they are looking at – even if this means reducing the number of tickets allotted to popular exhibitions in a given hour. While it may seem counterintuitive, restricting access would actually allow museums to serve their duty to the public better. And if national institutions were to extend their often meagre opening hours, everyone who wanted to see an exhibition would still get their chance, sketchers and all.

Russell McCarthy is a writer based in London.

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