In my never-ending search for illumination of things nineteenth century-ish , today I visited Leeds’ Abbey House museum. It was a pleasant, interesting experience, and the museum displays, which are of the reconstructed “Victorian street” variety, are good.

But my overwhelming impression was one of gloom. The exhibits are surrounded by a gloom that is so dense as to be sepulchral! At the same time one is not allowed to use flash, essentially ruling out hand-held photography. This is explained as necessary because of “conservation” requirements.

The Victorian period was as dull or bright as any other. Of course, at night, and without modern electrical lighting, streets and interiors were less well lit than we are accustomed to, but during the day, unless light was deliberately restricted, rooms would have been as bright as today. Sadly, the schoolchildren with whom I shared the museum (and perhaps most visitors) will come away from this museum believing that VIctorian times were universally dark, miserable and dingy.

And would flash photography damage the objects on show? The general consensus is no. It would require millions of strong UV flashes at close range to damage sensitive museum exhibits such as watercolour paintings. Small camera and phone flashguns are not going to do any damage, The Abbey House museum is visited by mere scores of people on a winter’s day, only a few of whom will use flash. The flash photography issue is apparently a self-perpetuating curatorial myth!

Of course, flashguns popping everywhere can annoy and disturb other visitors. Every photographer should take care not to lessen the enjoyment of others. However if the ambient lighting was increased, then it wouldn’t be necessary to use flash anyway. Perhaps over many decades this light might damage the pigments in objects, but these are not one-off national-treasure artworks. They are mass-produced “everyday” objects often created to brighten people’s lives, not hide in some ill-lit, shadowy corner. Surely we deserve to see these objects as they were meant to be enjoyed?