Old building, not usually open to the public? Check. Original 1920s and 1930s architecture and interior design? Check. Public transport nerdery? Checkety check check check.
The visit, however, was marred by some rather bizarre rules about photography.
The DSLR ban
When I bought the tickets I had noticed the Aldwych Terms and Conditions pdf included the following:
No professional audio visual or audio recording equipment may be brought into the venue without the express permission of London Transport Museum. No digital SLR cameras will be allowed into the station.
At the time, I guessed that this was down to them not wanting people to take photos that could possibly be used commercially afterwards. But why specify digital SLRs? Did that mean manual SLRs were OK? What about a Panasonic Lumix, or an Olympus PEN – not SLRs, but “professional” quality cameras?
The only point and shoot camera I have is my Fujifilm Finepix S6500fd (I haven’t owned a compact camera since my Pentax Optio broke on our honeymoon). It’s a big camera, though, and has been mistaken for an SLR before. I didn’t want to get to Aldwych and find that they were banning all large cameras, for whatever reason, so I went onto the London Transport Museum website and filled in their online contact form:
I’m coming to the event at Aldwych tube station on 4th December and very much looking forward to it.
I am not a professional photographer, but I was hoping to take some photos at the event. I noticed in the T&Cs that “No digital SLR cameras will be allowed into the station”. Is this true for everyone, even amateur photographers who have no intention of using their photos for any commercial purposes?
I don’t currently have a compact camera, but if I can’t bring an SLR (I’m assuming manual SLRs are also banned?), I’d like to be able to bring my old camera – a Fuji Finepix S6500fd. This is not a digital SLR; it’s a “point and shoot” camera – although it has a bulky body which may look like an digital SLR to some people. Please can you clarify whether this would be allowed, before I get to the event? I don’t want to bring it along and then be unable to take any photos because my camera looks “too professional”!
Many thanks for your time. I hope to hear from you soon.
I got a reply a couple of days later:
My name’s Lyndsey and I’m organising the event at Aldwych. First of all – thanks you for taking note of the Terms and Conditions! Unfortunately we cannot allow any digital SLR cameras in the station. This is something that London Underground have been very strict on.
Your Fuji Finepix camera should be fine – I will let the staff working the event know you have contacted to ask about this ,and perhaps you could print out this email, just in case you get asked any questions.
Public Programmes Manager
London Transport Museum
I took the line “This is something that London Underground have been very strict on” to mean that the museum staff themselves were not responsible for the ban, and that it had been imposed by London Underground. This, I supposed, was why they hadn’t answered my query about manual SLRs, or given any further information about the reasons behind the ban on DSLRs. Fair enough. Silly? Yes. But not their fault. I was just grateful that Lyndsey ‘had my back’.
On the day
On Sunday, we arrived at the event to see a sign [Photo: Tim Allen]: “Due to their combination of high-quality sensor and high resolution, digital SLR cameras are unfortunately not permitted inside the station”.
The London Transport Museum had obviously been asked about the ban a lot and had decided they had to come up with a reason to give to their visitors. But how on earth is “high quality” a reason? What effect does the “high-quality sensor and high resolution” have on Aldwych Station, or the event? It didn’t make sense. They might as well have said “Due to their combination of sexiness and clippy-cloppy sound, high heeled shoes are unfortunately not permitted inside the station”*. It was clearly not the true reason for the ban and didn’t explain anything at all.
Standing in the queue, reading the sign, we laughed… but I was uneasy. Event staff were obviously taking the ban seriously. I made sure the email from Lyndsey was on my phone ready to show to anyone who asked.
Then a young man in a suit came bounding over to us. “Mrs Wright?” (I’m not sure how he knew it was me. The woman who took our names on arrival must have pointed me out.) “I just wanted to say: thank you SO MUCH for emailing us about your camera. We’re really grateful that you emailed us and asked about it in advance. It’s really helped us out. So – thank you! I just wanted to let you know that no-one should ask you about your camera today, because we know all about it. And if they do… well, my name’s Jason – so if you have any trouble, come to me!”
I stuttered a bemused “thank you” and he bounced off again, back into the station. I didn’t really know what to say. I’d helped them out? I still don’t know how that works. The rest of the queue looked at me with interest. I stayed baffled.
Then we were called in and had our 30 minute tour of Aldwych Station (and you can see the photos – high noise level and all! – in my Aldwych Station Flickr set).
The real reason: time
On 6th December, two days after I’d been, a statement appeared on the London Transport Museum website that finally shed some light on the real reason behind the DSLR ban:
London Transport Museum Statement regarding restriction on digital SLR’s at Aldwych – 6 December 2011
Terms and conditions for the recent sale of tickets to visit Aldwych Underground station clearly stated that digital SLR cameras were not permitted, as these are classed as professional equipment.
There was not a ban on taking photos during tours. However, there were restrictions on professional cameras and tripods because we were concerned that people using them could delay the tours for others, as it was a very tight schedule with more than 2,500 visitors going up and down a spiral staircase of about 160 steps to get to and from the platforms.
We wanted to make the tours as enjoyable and safe as we could for everyone. With the huge public interest in seeing the disused Tube station it was better to have the event with this restriction rather than no visit at all.
We apologise to visitors who wanted to use this kind of camera during tours to the stations.
It wasn’t down to London Underground at all. It was London Transport Museum wanting people to hurry up. They’d obviously had trouble with photographers taking their time… and had decided that this was down to them being “professional photographers”. And, needing a metric to weed out “professional photographers”, they’d decided upon “camera type: DSLR”.
There’s a lot about this that’s totally nuts. I mean, I can understand their frustration, but banning DSLRs – and especially giving so many inconsistent reasons – is not the way to go. In fact I’d argue it’s done their reputation more harm than good.
(It’s also counter-productive, if my own experience was anything to go by. I spent longer taking photos with the Fujifilm – experimenting with the ISO, finding surfaces upon which I could rest the camera to take longer exposures – than I would have done if I’d had the Canon with me. With the DSLR, I’d just have stuck my 50mm portrait lens on a wide aperture and not have had to worry about it.)
So what else could LTM have done?
I think London Transport Museum could manage people’s expectations better. Don’t say “no digital SLR cameras will be allowed”; instead, explain that it’s a history tour, not a photo opportunity. Explain from the start – in the Terms and Conditions – that time will be very limited and that you won’t be able to spend time composing shots.
It’s hard to take photos of an “abandoned” station when it’s full of people taking photos, so a few people were hanging back each time the group moved on to the next area… And, of course, they were going to do this whatever sort of camera they had. This wasn’t something that was going to be solved by banning DSLRs. (Fewer people on each tour would have made this better – but wouldn’t have earned LTM the same amount of cash, of course.)
It was very apparent that most people there wanted to take photos, but at each point of the tour, the group was first obliged to hear an LTM volunteer give a history of the station before wandering off to take photos. Interesting though it was (and all credit to the volunteers, who clearly knew their stuff), it was clear to me that most of the group would have preferred more time to explore. So why not cut down on the talks? Or make them optional?
Aldwych Underground Station is an interesting mini-museum and there are some fascinating old posters and signage. But herding hundreds of people an hour through the place at £20 a pop doesn’t give anyone the chance to appreciate it. I would probably pay more to have a couple of hours’ exclusive access, especially if I knew I would get time to compose and take some great photos. Unfortunately, if the next set of tours they do there is like this one, I probably wouldn’t recommend it.
(*Yes, high heeled shoes were also banned, but that was for obvious health and safety reasons!)