I recently attend an exhibition at the National Library of Australia called The Sell: Australian Advertising 1790s to 1990s. I noticed the way that the people in the exhibition behaved and how it affected my experience and possibly others’ as well. This post isn’t to belittle or create a set of etiquette rules for museums, but to remind people that there are others who visit museums as well and these are some things that might be worth thinking about when you next visit an exhibition.
You might be in a fantastic mood and want to whistle or sing to your hearts content, and good for you. It just might be a better idea to save it until you at least get to the gift shop. Exhibitions are designed for a particular experience. Every single element that you see, hear, and feel (and maybe even taste in some) are purposely chosen for the experience the curators want you to have. Even silence is a deliberate decision. Whistling, unless done by a hired performance artist or a recording, is not a part of this experience and risks annoying those around you.
I’m not saying you have to be completely silent until you get to the end. Of course you can talk with your friend about what you’re seeing, but make in minimal and make it hushed. While I was trying to read a placard, a woman next to me was reading out a different placard to her friend, who was perfectly capable of reading herself because I saw her reading something else and then calling across the room to her friend to tell her what it was about. If you’ve ever tried reading a book while someone is talking to you or the TV is on, you know how difficult it is to tune out words and stay focussed. If you would prefer listening to reading, just get the audio guide (if available).
Another situation was a woman who looked at each object for a few seconds, zigzagging over the room quickly, and talking very loudly to her friend who tried to keep up with her. “Oh, look at that!” “Oh, this is Tasmania! I’ve been there!” “Oh, I remember this ad!” “Oh, look at what that woman is wearing!” These are thoughts that we all do not need to hear. Maybe save them for when you’re sitting down for a coffee and can freely talk.
- Cutting people off
Good exhibitions are designed in such a way that it’s easy to see which way you should go and what you should look at first. I know that everyone moves at different speeds and it can be super annoying waiting for someone slower than you to finish reading so that you can get a look and move on. However, if you need to overtake, do so, just don’t cut off the person so that they then have to wait for you. I had just finished reading a placard and was moving on to the next when the person who had been behind me moved to the exact position that I was going to move into and started reading, so I had no choice but to overtake them and go to the next one until I could take a step back to see what I had missed.
- Voicing your opinions
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that there isn’t anything worse than looking at a painting and hearing someone completely break it down according to what they think and feel about it. Everyone reads art differently and instead of voicing your own, you should allow everyone who views it to make up their own mind about it. On the flip side, I love it when I happen to hear something factual about the piece or the artist that I didn’t know about.
So having read all this, how should you behave in a museum?
You should enter with an open mind, a willingness to learn, and a keenness to explore. Museums are wonderful places to be and there is so much to experience. Go with excitement and no expectations and let it surprise you.
You should debrief with your friend in the café. There’s nothing like seeing a great exhibition and having so much to talk about it. The best part is when your friend adds something new, something you had never thought about, and then that sets you both off in a whole new direction.
You should go alone. If your friend isn’t available, don’t let that stop you from going to a museum alone. Your experience with someone will be completely different to your experience alone, and both experiences are great. When you’re alone, you can decide on your pace and what you see without worrying about anyone else.
You should consider the other people in the room. We all know how to be considerate of others. Just be aware that you’re not alone and everyone else in that room are there for the same, or similar, reason as you are.
With that said, go to a museum! They are wonderful places and always have so much to see.
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