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
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 configurations. We invite conversation but only in hushed tones. No 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?