Visitors take photos at MOMA; image Brian Kelly

For some time, art museums have been expending considerable amounts of energy and other resources on a broad campaign of public engagement designed to establish a stronger bond between themselves and the public, and thus cement the museum’s place as an essential—even indispensable—component of public life. Social media promotes their programs and addresses the public in other ways, “crowdsourcing” guides them in their acquisition and exhibition decisions, and “crowdfunding” helps pay for them. All manner of events and programs are put on in hopes of making the museum an appealing, even hip destination. Last year, one institution—the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts—even invited an adolescent to curate an exhibition. So far this campaign seems to be paying dividends. In September, The New York Times reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is now New York’s most popular tourist destination, having welcomed some 6.5 million visitors in 2012.

Yet, like a Trojan Horse, there is something in their midst that threatens to undo the museums’ efforts. This is the near-universal use of smartphones and tablets to snap pictures inside the galleries. Flash photography has long been banned owing to the damage its blasts of high-intensity light can inflict on paintings. Smartphones and tablets pose a less visible but potentially graver threat. They disconnect the visitor from the art on display and imperil the museum in other, very real, ways. For this reason, if the museum experience is to continue to mean anything, these devices, like flash photography, need to be banned.

Photography has long been a part of the museum experience. In the pre-digital age one would see individual visitors snapping a favorite work of art, or groups of tourists getting out of a bus, walking up to, say, Michelangelo’s David, taking a picture, then reboarding for the trip to the next destination. Though it could be distracting to those around them, this type of photography was largely benign.

But the design and technology of smartphones and tablets has brought about a sea change in museum photography. Now incorporated into the portable phone, the camera has a ubiquity and ease of use unknown in the days of the bulkier single lens reflex, with its multiple lens attachments. It has become the ultimate point-and-shoot, capable of taking high-quality pictures anytime, anywhere, that are then instantly available and that can be just as instantly shared.

The most revolutionary innovation of all, however, has been the inclusion of a second, inward-facing lens. It allows a person to hold the device at arm’s length, frame the image in the viewfinder-screen and snap a self-portrait—a “selfie.” The result is the introduction of a new culture of photography into the museum. Rather than contemplating the works on view, visitors now pose next to them for their portrait. In pre-digital photography the subject was the work of art. Now it is the visitor; the artwork is secondary. Where previously the message of such images was “I have seen,” now it is “I was here.”

I first noticed this tendency a few years ago on a visit to the Museum of Modern Art. Soon I was seeing it nearly everywhere and trying to parse its significance. Then this summer I came to understand just how thoroughly these devices have altered the museum experience when, on a visit to Paris, I stepped into the epicenter of this phenomenon: Room 6 of the Louvre’s Denon Wing, locus of the Mona Lisa.

It’s no secret that its outsized fame has always made seeing La Gioconda a challenge. There is always a crowd, a thick band of people in front of it straining to catch a glimpse or snap a picture. And the painting itself, smallish to begin with, is kept at a safe distance for security reasons. This time there were few SLRs in evidence; almost everyone had a smartphone or tablet. Indeed, I’d never seen so many in one place. Many were being held aloft for an unobstructed shot of Leonardo’s painting. But there was one new feature to the usual Mona Lisa frenzy: the remarkable sight of visitors turning their backs on the painting they had traveled such a long way to see to have their portraits taken with it.

No doubt there are museum officials who look upon this new culture of photography with satisfaction, seeing it as proof that their public engagement programs are working and that, by extension, they have overcome the perception of patrician elitism that dogs their institutions. Why else would the Metropolitan Museum have built an entire promotional campaign around it? In 2009, a series of ads began to appear that featured portraits Met visitors had shot of themselves posing with works in the collection accompanied by the tag line, “It’s Time We Met”—pun intended.

Yet far from being an occasion for optimism or self-congratulation, these developments should be seen for what they really are, as a cause for alarm. For the museum that allows the indiscriminate use of smartphones and tablets in its galleries is one that has lost control of its collections. The first casualty is the art experience itself.

What do I mean by “the art experience”? Let me offer an example. Several years ago I was on the shuttle from New York to Washington to review an exhibition at the Phillips Collection. After a while I found myself in conversation with the passenger next to me who, after learning the purpose of my trip, told me about his first visit to the Phillips. He had grown up in rural Virginia, he said, firm in his art-is-for-sissies belief. So it was with a notable lack of enthusiasm that, one day in middle school, he learned of an upcoming class trip to Washington’s museums. His previous attitude quickly fell away once the group arrived at the Phillips and he saw Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Suddenly, he said, he realized he was standing where the artist had stood when he had put paint on canvas. This is the essence of the art experience: a direct, personal, revelatory encounter with an artwork as an aesthetic object.

The new culture of museum photography banishes the art experience. It transforms the work of art from something to pause before, explore, admire, and reflect upon, into a “sight,” like the Eiffel Tower or the White House. A fascinating, complex, multi-faceted product of the creative imagination becomes just a piece of scenery, one worth lingering in front of just long enough to have one’s picture taken with it, either just standing and smiling or by making a face or playing up to the object in other ways, like those tourists who pose beside the Leaning Tower of Pisa so that in the finished photograph they appear to be propping it up.

Non-photographing visitors aren’t immune from the effects of these new attitudes. Coming upon someone posing in a gallery, your impulse is to turn away; you feel like a voyeur. In front of the Mona Lisa the day I was there, the profusion of smartphones and tablets being held aloft created a strange meta experience. To see the picture, you had to look past a bobbing frieze of digital reproductions competing with the original. I have had similar experiences with works of art in American museums, albeit with smaller numbers of people.

This transformation—one might better say evisceration—of the work of art has wide implications for the museum and its mission. If visitors now regard a museum’s treasures as mere “sights,” they might come to regard the institution itself in a similar vein—not as a place offering a unique, one-of-a-kind experience but just another “stop” on a crowded itinerary, and as such interchangeable with any other. At the very least, it’s hard to see how this new culture of museum photography can fail to undermine the kind of long-term visitor loyalty to museums toward which so many of their public engagement efforts are directed. On the one hand, the visitor who makes an emotional connection with a work of art is likely to return. On the other hand, I can’t imagine there are many tourists who, having once had themselves snapped propping up the Leaning Tower, feel compelled to do so again.

All this is, admittedly, so much speculation. One thing that isn’t is the very real threat these new attitudes pose to the safety of the museum’s collections. A visitor conditioned to regard a painting or sculpture as but a prop in a personal drama isn’t likely to demonstrate due regard for its welfare as an irreplaceable work of art. In one of the galleries on my way to the Mona Lisa, I and others nearby watched in horror as one visitor reached across the low barrier separating the art from the public to grasp the gilt frame of a Renaissance masterpiece, then turn to strike a pose for a companion with a smartphone. This was the propped-up-Leaning-Tower shot moved into the museum. It only ended when a guard came barreling through crowd shouting at her to step away. Even then, the visitor seemed to have no idea what all the fuss had been about.

Is the genie, now, completely out of the bottle? Is smartphone and tablet photography so thoroughly entrenched in the public’s mind as integral to the museum visit as to make it politically impossible to ban it? Absolutely not. A few days after visiting the Louvre, I went to the Orangerie, the museum dedicated to Monet’s water lily paintings. Signs are posted throughout prohibiting photography and requesting a respectful silence. The result is an atmosphere utterly different from that of the Louvre or, for that matter, many American museums. The mood was hushed and the visitors’ attitudes (there was a good-size crowd) ranged from quiet contemplation to rapt attention. Deprived of their devices with their attendant distractions, they were able to freely enter Monet’s floating world, linger there, and in due course move on.

I should stress that the public is not to blame here. Nature abhors a vacuum—visitors are just responding to the conditions around them. Were it otherwise, I might have seen those in the Orangerie displaying signs of withdrawal, staring distractedly into the distance and twitchily fingering their sequestered camera phones. Instead, they were so absorbed in what was before them that it was as if such devices simply didn’t exist.

It’s axiomatic that museums are custodians of our cultural heritage, preserving, researching, explicating, and presenting the record of man’s aesthetic life. Yet they are custodians of something else as well: the art experience. It isn’t a given; it can’t be taken for granted. It is the product of a particular set of conditions unique to each institution. These range from the character of the physical plant and the quality of display, to the overall tone set by the museum in discharging its mission. Creating an environment where the visitor is invited to stop, look, and take something away from the experience is the museum’s first duty to its public—not shops, restaurants, or public engagement programs. If these institutions are going to fail on such a fundamental level—as they are now doing in permitting, and even encouraging, the indiscriminate use of smartphones and tablets in their galleries—one is left to ask: What are museums for?