just say no?

by Grant Snider, courtesy of Incidental Comics

When one of my friends (a former art museum co-worker) emailed me the above comic,  it made me laugh, but for several days afterward, I could not get it out of my head.  Mr. Snider’s accompanying blog post stated that of the museums he visited, the biggest similarities did not include impressive collections, friendly staff or tasty restaurants; it was their “draconian rules.”  Yikes.

a quick, informal survey

I gathered information from a small sampling of art museums across the U.S. (30 in total) and found the following words/phrases were most commonly used when communicating preferred visitor behavior:   do not, cannot, not allowed, no, don’t.   The rules often included additional stringent restrictions for group and family visits and were largely organized under the following headings:

Museum Rules (the most popular)

Things to Know Before You Go

Museum Etiquette

Plan Your Visit

Museum Rules and Manners

Preparing for Your Visit

Frequently Asked Questions


Of the 30 museums I researched, two led off with a welcoming statement, emphasized education and cooperation, avoided condescending tone, suggested allowing children to make decisions about their visit and provided online tools to assist visitors in familiarizing themselves with the museum.   In fact, they did not call them “rules” at all, but framed them as suggestions for making visits as successful as possible.  The remaining 28 provided a decidedly mixed message: Welcome to the museum but don’t ruin our stuff.   We want you to visit but in approved configurationsWe invite conversation but only in hushed tonesNo wonder visitors are confused!

what museums seem to say

  • You obviously can’t control yourselves, so just keep at least three feet away from everything.
  • We don’t like non-scheduled groups but keep in mind that approved groups have priority, so stay out of their way.
  • If you can’t figure out how to turn off the flash on your camera, are you even smart enough to be here? We’d rather you not take pictures at all.
  • The unpredictable nature of children frightens us.  If you must bring them, please strap them down and for goodness sake, don’t give them anything they can throw at the art.
  • We are the authority on how to visit.  Just do as we say and everything will be fine.

what museums really want you to know

  • Our mission is to preserve art for future generations so these guidelines apply to staff and visitors.
  • We want you to enjoy your visit and return often.   Working together, we can make sure there’s always something awesome to see.
  • If you run in the museum, you might hurt yourself or someone else or get lost.  We want you to be safe too.
  • Lots of ordinary things can damage art: food, drinks, gum, ink, a large purse or bag or even the oil and dirt in our skin.
  • We love that you want to preserve your memories but the flash on your camera causes art to fade over time.  If you can’t disable your flash, covering it with your hand works in a pinch.
  • We know it’s a lot to remember.  If you’re unsure about anything please feel free to ask, and we promise to keep our reminders as gentle as possible.

My research, while informal at best, points to a disconnect that is frustrating but not impossible to conquer.  Because I said so is no longer sufficient.  Museums must invite visitors into the conversation while communicating the reasons behind the “rules” in a simple, engaging and friendly manner.    It is terribly important to explain the why along with the why not and work in partnership with visitors to preserve art for the ages.

After all, as one museum explained in its tips, “Your great-great grandchildren will thank you.”


How does your favorite museum explain its rules? Have you ever been reprimanded for breaking them? 

8 thoughts on “just say no?

  1. Pingback: on view: museum manners | Cabinet of Curiosities

  2. Nice thoughtful blog. I have a staff member who is drafting a new gallery guide for our main exhibit. We started with another presidential museum guide which I hated because it was almost hostile, so we began changing the tone. I am passing this on to my staff to ponder on when we make signs and brochures for our guests.


    • Thank you so much! I realize it is very challenging to create those materials, so kudos to your staff for undertaking them in a new, engaging manner. I would love to see the end results if you are open to sharing them.


  3. Thanks for sharing this. I enjoyed reading the comic. It is a fun yet effective way of portraying what goes on in museums. Some museums are rather stiff and does not invite a friendly atmosphere. I do agree with you that museums should be more inviting to their visitors in a much more friendlier manner.


    • It seems really logical, but it’s harder to implement than you realize. It definitely involves a culture shift in the institution.


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  5. WOW. Really thought-provoking post. Working on a web site update now and wading through *reams* of copy. This is great inspiration on writing friendlier – thanks!


    • I’m glad you found it helpful. It can be very challenging finding the balance. As someone who has read, edited and re-written web copy, I know it is not an easy job. But taking a less authoritarian tone in this area definitely pays off in the end!


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