Reflection vs. Collection: A New Report Looks at the Effect of Picture-Taking on Remembering the Museum Experience


“To what extent does capturing one’s life events with a camera shape what one subsequently remembers?”

Linda Henkel, from Fairfield University, evaluates this question in her new study featured in Psychological Science.

In previous posts we’ve discussed photo policies in museums and the value of being allowed to capture a moment or experience for posterity. I’m a part of that club – and many of us are. In fact, if you’re like me, you’ve even snuck a few shots in areas that are clearly marked “NO PHOTOS ALLOWED” (in overbearing all caps typeface, of course) or “Photography Prohibited”.

I admit that I have been that awful visitor who breaks photography rules in the name of a keepsake photograph. I’m guilty.

Well…  Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the amount of pictures we take at museums.

  • 1-5?
  • 5-10?
  • 10-20?
  • I never put my phone or camera down.

We take pictures so we won’t forget, but a recent study suggests that taking pictures actually makes it harder to remember.

Henkel conducted a photography and memory experiment with undergraduate students at the Bellarmine Museum of Art, on the campus of Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Students were given a tour of the museum and instructed to take note of certain objects (photographing or simply observing them) and the following day their memory of the tour and the objects was tested.

As it turns out, Henkel’s findings suggest that snap-happy visitors might actually do better for themselves by putting their cameras away. Like so many other areas of our lives, technology “has our back” and in so doing, becomes a crutch – used as the external harddrive/ back-up of our “real time” lives in support of our memories and experiences. Henkel calls this the “photo-taking-impairment effect”:

Despite the added time or attention required to angle the camera and adjust the lens so as to capture the best shot of the object in its entirety, the act of photographing the object appears to enable people to dismiss the object from memory, thereby relying on the external devise of the camera to “remember” for them.

Henkel’s data shows:

  • Participants were less accurate in recognizing the objects they had photographed compared to those they had only observed
  • Participants weren’t able to answer as many questions about the objects’ visual details for those objects they had photographed

So we should put those cameras away, right? Not necessarily. Interestingly enough, Henkel’s data also found that taking a photograph of a specific detail on an object seemed to preserve memory for the object, and not just for the part that was zoomed in on, but for the part that was out of frame, as well. Perhaps zooming is the key to memory?

Henkel says, “These results show how the ‘mind’s eye’ and the camera’s eye are not the same.”

Interested in reading more? Here are a few articles covering and discussing Hankel’s study:

Henkel’s study will continue; currently, it doesn’t cover what happens when museum visitors revisit their photos after a long period of time. But honestly, how often do you revisit your old museum photos? How often do we reflect versus simply collect (especially in the age of digital cameras and smart phones)?  And, once we check-in or share an “experience” on Facebook or post an Instagram filtered dinner plate photo – what happens next?

6 thoughts on “Reflection vs. Collection: A New Report Looks at the Effect of Picture-Taking on Remembering the Museum Experience

  1. Great post! That study actually makes total sense when you think about it. Why bother remembering something when its forever stored on a memory drive? It makes you wonder why you’re taking the photo in the first place, especially in the age of Instagram/Facebook/Foursquare – are we taking these pictures just to prove to some arbitrary website that we were, in fact, there?

    Ed Rodley actually just blogged about photography in museums, you should check it out if you haven’t seen it yet!

  2. I, too, am guilty of the occasional museum-visit photo, but never when I’m told explicitly that I can’t/shouldn’t.

    That being said, I assure you that despite Henkel’s research, I will never forget the visit to the museum where I took this photo it remains a powerful reminder of the visit.

  3. I actually think the phenomenon of not recalling details of their museum visits is less about people using the phone as a “crutch” for memory as people taking pictures on their phone are much more present to their phones than they are to the object being photographed. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that when people are simply present to the art – without trying to manipulate technology, frame shots, make sure the shot turned out okay – that these people have a much richer, and more memorable experience of the art. The picture-taker’s experience is that of manipulating their phone – which they do hundreds of times a day and so it is not a memorable experience.

  4. Thanks for posting this. When we photograph a detail, we’re fitting into a context we’re created – maybe one with an emotive connection as well as an intellectual one? The context – the story – makes it easier to remember the thing photographed. If the shot isn’t a stronger part of the story, it’s less memorable.

  5. Pingback: Photographing public artworks: signs of ‘affiliation and affection’? | Public Art PhD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s