Museums: What Not To Do

Earlier this year I celebrated four years at the Roswell Museum and Art Center, and seven years working in museums. I may not be an old-timer, but I've been in the field long enough to notice universal patterns in terms of museum etiquette, so this month, I'd like to address some of these issues.

I'll start things off today by going over the things we shouldn't do in museums, but do anyway. My point here isn't so much the what, but rather the why of why we should refrain from these behaviors.

1. Touching

I have seen people touch artwork at every museum I've worked at, and at just about every institution I've ever visited. You know you're not supposed to do it, you were probably told about it when you bought your ticket, and there were signs posted throughout the galleries telling you not to touch, but you did it anyway. Maybe you had an instinctual reaction and forgot, or perhaps you wanted to challenge authority. Whatever the reason, you touched the art.

And you know what? I understand. Some art objects are made out of really cool materials and you want that tactile experience. Maybe it's a Mayan feather hanging you want to caress, or one of Nick Cave's soundsuits. Believe me, I live with that temptation every day.

Let me tell you about my worst non-touching experience. When I was a graduate student in Williamstown, we had an installation by artist Tristin Lowe in commemoration of Moby Dick at the Williams College Museum of Art. You know what it was? A life-size, inflatable, felt whale:

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Imagine a cross between a stuffed animal and a bouncy castle. Sounds awesome right? Now imagine being told you couldn't touch it. Not even once. Oh the agony! Every time I walked by that thing I wanted to run in and jump on top of it. It was especially hard leading tours with elementary students, because we all wanted to hug the whale.

But we didn't, and here's why.

The reason you're not allowed to touch is because we want to prevent damage to the objects on view. We've all seen those videos where someone touches a glass piece and shatters it, or accidentally knocks over a statue. These are dramatic examples, but believe it or not, even seemingly harmless caresses can cause damage. The oils in our fingertips are slightly acidic, and over time our impressions can stain or wear down an object. Even one touch can manifest as a stain years after the fact. Museums want to preserve objects for future generations, and minimizing touching is the easiest way to do that.

Example of localized polishing. Note how repeated touching has altered the patina by the "You Are Here" button. Image courtesy of

So unless you're willing to explain to your descendants why your desire to touch an object overrides their opportunity to see it at all, please keep your hands to yourself.

2. Flash on camera/Selfie Sticks

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You may notice that you're allowed to take pictures, but without the flash. I know, some spaces are dark and need flash in order to show up at all, but we're not trying to spoil your photographic fun. We're actually trying to prevent light damage. Works on paper are especially prone to fading, hence why they're only on view for short periods of time and kept in darkness when not in the gallery. Basically, museums have to strike a balance between keeping collections safe (i.e. in dark storage away from all people) and giving visitors the opportunity to view and enjoy great works of art. Minimizing external factors like touching and flash is how we compromise.

As for selfie sticks, this is another safety issue. We don't want you accidentally whacking a visitor or a painting while trying to strike your perfect pose.

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Frankly, I think we'd be better off if we put the cameras away and just looked at the art, but that's my opinion.

3. Food

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Restricting food comes down to pest management. Food attracts insects and other vermin that also like to munch on paintings and other objects. Obviously nursing babies are a different matter, they can and should eat whenever they want, wherever they want. When it comes to older kids and adults though, you shouldn't be eating in the gallery unless it's a special event or occasion and the staff has told you that it's okay. A lot of museums these days have cafes, restaurants and other spaces designated for food consumption. Please do everyone a favor and eat there. Nobody wants to listen to you munch on your Snickers while contemplating a Van Eyck.

4. Noise

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The idea of museums as temples of wisdom, while charming, is antiquated. These are living, active spaces. We want to hear people having discussions and sharing ideas. We want families to have fun and not be intimidated by art. We want to hear you have a good time.

At the same time though, we ask that you respect the space and aural needs of others. Viewing a work of art in silence, or as close as you can get to it, is a powerful sensory experience, but cell phones, crying babies, and loud conversations can really disrupt that head space. I'm not asking you to press the mute button on yourself, but rather to be mindful of your surroundings.

5. Horseplay

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As I said earlier, we really do want you to have a good time at the museum. A lot of places do late night now with drinks and games, and yoga in the galleries is becoming increasingly common. There's more than one way to move in these spaces nowadays, but that said, please don't do cartwheels or run through the galleries. Museums are still full of art, after all, and we don't want to have holes punched into our paintings or statues smashed to powder. Have fun, but remember it's not a gymnasium. As with #4, be mindful of your surroundings.

Okay, those are some of my biggest peeves, but I hope you understand why I feel so strongly about these things. Ultimately, we're just trying to protect the art so that you and yours can enjoy them for many years to come.
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Next week we'll take a look at donations.