Guess Who! Museum Portraiture – the why’s and what for’s?

Guess Who! Museum Portraiture – the why’s and what for’s?

It might seem a slightly odd choice of service… to deliver high standard modern professional portraiture for museum staff and volunteers, but it is something I offer.  Why?   Well, Why not? 

In this post I hope I can explain why I started museum portraiture and what I believe it achieves, apart from looking great!

Duncan Shields Heritage Photography

I love taking portraits. It’s a form of photography I continued from my wedding shooting days.   The simple reason is that I love taking them. I find they have more in common with object photography than documentary work. For example, it takes exacting lighting and knowledge of sharpness and composition that comes directly from object photography.   I enjoy working with light to achieve a prescribed idea of how an image should look and think there are many creative possibilities in portraiture that can help in other aspects of my work (like object photographs).

I also believe that portraiture can have a beneficially effect for the museum and heritage space be that in the gallery itself or on your website’s contact page.   It’s partially the same reason many commercial places of work display portraits of their staff, be they banks or train stations or fast food restaurants. It gives a human face to what could otherwise feel like a very cynical space.  Now I am not suggesting museums or heritage buildings are cynical spaces but the Museum space can also feel dehumanised and lacking in friendly welcoming warmth.   In years gone by, the museum space was designed to invoke a feeling of authority and power… think of the British Museum’s classical colonnade, or the National Gallery’s imposing stance over Trafalgar Square.   Much effort recently has been to take away this conservative demeanor from our Museums and introduce a more inclusive and accessible front.   Portraiture can be a small design feature that can help with this effort, and one embraced by many museums on their website or in their entrance ways.   By providing a human face to your organisation, you are giving your visitors an accessible and friendly welcome, one in which people are centrally placed in the mind… after all aren’t all of our museums about people in one way or another? This is particularly true in the digital age. Most museums have a website page introducing their staff, and giving contact details. However not many museums use this opportunity to display high quality imagery that can help present a modern, forward thinking or friendly face. I believe this is a missed opportunity. High quality portraiture on your website or in your building is the best way to convey your museum’s personality to your visitors. We can design a package together that presents your staff or volunteers how you wish to be seen. Challenge the assumptions about ‘dusty old museums’ with high key vibrant colour portraits or check out my wet plate work if you have a photographic collection that may tie in with this historic process or just want to have some fun with the medium… all things are possible and this is your chance to create a new and long lasting, exciting legacy for your museum.

Museum Volunteer Portrait

I have also found that it is a great way to introduce particular objects. For example, staff, volunteers or donors can be pictured with their favourite objects and really highlight the manner in which your museums values the interplay between people and collections. It also gives an opportunity to describe the object in relation to person’s reaction to it; with human emotion.   Many of our collection objects are static and can feel beyond human interaction now they sit within our displays. But with a portrait, the object can be reconnected with its human use.

I have also found that with volunteers especially, by photographing them you are demonstrating your commitment and appreciation of them. This increases volunteer retention and improves volunteer morale.   Many of our museums rely on the good nature and knowledge of their volunteers. What better way to thank them and display your appreciation than to introduce them to your visitors with a portrait.

Museum Staff portrait

Portrait packages depend on the number of portraits made, but are typically one day long, and can include up to 20 staff and volunteers.  Wet plate portraiture also has additional material costs, however at the end of the day you receive a gorgeous glass plate ambrotype or tintype that can be included in your collection or kept personally, and a high resolution scan, for your webpage. Please get in touch in you would like to discuss your portraiture options or include a portrait package in one of my other services to receive a discount.