art museum etiquette: the unwritten rules every visitor should know

Tuesday, December 11, 2018



The quiet atmosphere holds the artworks in place. Paintings of the Royal Family hang peacefully on display. Hushed conversations linger in the silence. Small, quick footsteps approach, and two yelling toddlers burst into the room. A man’s phone rings and he shouts a “Hello?!” to repress their screams. The noise loudens, the chaos builds, and Queen Victoria sits on her throne, shooting a strong, disapproving glare.

Traditional to modernised, historical to contemporary, there is now a great variety among what we call art museums. From the conventionally quiet, like the Louvre Museum of France, to the exciting and interactive, like the ArtScience Museum of Singapore.

But be it a hidden alleyway gallery, or a grand chateau with expensive pieces of heritage, art museums never stand without a proper set of rules. Rules that, as visitors, we are obliged to properly follow.

In whatever country we find ourselves, simple rules like “Don’t touch the artwork” or “No food and drinks allowed” are most likely the common courtesy. But spending time in these galleries involves a lot more than just knowing not to bring a hot dog into the room. Rather, there are a few unwritten guidelines one should consider before and during an art museum visit.

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1. Indoor voices

Beyond just paintings and artworks of many different forms, what art galleries truly offer their visitors is solitude. Keeping voices down is the least one can do to respect that intention.

Different from a library, not all museums may require absolute silence, but one might be surprised at how easily a ringtone can ruin the experience of everyone in the room. Aside from keeping our audible tone at a minimum, it’s good to silence our phones and answer calls outside instead of in.

2. Don’t stand too close to the artwork

The sign might say we couldn’t touch it, but it also doesn’t tell us to get “as close to it as we can possibly get.” Most artefacts or sculptures are rather fragile; it’s better to keep a safe distance from them if they aren’t glass-protected.

As for paintings, even though one often has the freedom to get as close as they want, we are likely to be blocking someone’s view if we’re only inches away from the canvas. For a closer look at those brushstrokes, Travis McElroy, host of a manners & etiquette podcast, suggests that we step forward, take a few seconds, and then go back. A good rule of thumb for what counts as “safe distance”? Simply make sure that the gap is enough to keep us from falling onto the artwork if we were to suddenly trip.

3. Respect personal space

When a particularly well-known piece is showcased, it often forms continuous crowds gazing at the artwork. In case this wasn’t mutually understood: One must never, ever shove to get to the front of the group.

It’s an oil painting, not an A-list celebrity. We can relax and have a little respect; it’s not going anywhere. No person is going to stare at it for 60 minutes straight. So when positioned at the back of the crowd, we can inch closer to the piece once the people in front of us start to disperse.

Outside of crowds, though, museums offer plenty of space; there is no reason to stand too close to a stranger while looking at the same artwork. Unless we’re striking up a conversation, it’s best to avoid making other people feel uncomfortable. If they can hear us breathe, we are probably too close.



4. Do enough research

It’s a good idea to give the museum’s website a quick look prior to our visit. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for example, provides complete guidelines and tips for visitors in their website, as many established galleries do.

For instance, check the museum’s attire policies so you can dress accordingly. Being aware of the bag size rules beforehand will also save a lot of trouble. Additionally, policies regarding cell phones and recordings should also be taken seriously. It wouldn’t hurt to make sure the museum does allow cameras before you plan to take your heavy DSLR.

If the rules couldn’t be found online nor at the entrance, simply find a staff member and ask them if your camera or bag would be allowed. It only takes that extra bit of time to be polite and respectful towards the museum’s policies.

5. Reconsider taking your kids

A fair warning: Unless you’re entering one of those game-filled, futuristic, interactive spaces that some modern museums have, bringing hyperactive kids inside might make things harder for you. Especially if they’re too young to even read Mona Lisa’s name. If a nanny or a playground aren’t an option, however, simply keep an eye on the nearest exit, just to be prepared in the case of a sudden tantrum.

6.              Tuck your phone away (your Instagram can wait)

In her article for Travel + Leisure, Mariah Tyler writes, “It’s pretty much impossible to experience an exhibit fully if you’re busy picking a filter and writing a caption.”

As tempting as it sounds to take a picture or video of everything in the room, the best and most rewarding way to enjoy an art museum is to actually look at the art.

Being a decent visitor is all about appreciating what has been presented. It’s understandable; visiting art museums make you look cultured and artistically inclined. But social media can take away a lot of focus, and Da Vinci didn’t spend four years painting the Mona Lisa just to have it posted on a 24-hour Instagram Story.

Consider that maybe experiencing the museum with your own eyes would be more enjoyable than through a phone screen. If something catches your attention, document it, and carry on. You can wait until you’re finished and have finally exited the museum to check messages or update friends about your recent visit.

And there is no need to take your followers journeying through the museum with you; upload selectively.

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It’s certainly worth being aware that people aren’t usually fond of tourists, and even less fond of those who disregard proper etiquette. As a patron or a guest, it’s only fair to treat the museum you’re visiting with high regard. This means reading the scene of a room before entering it, and conducting yourself appropriately. So whether you’re walking in alone, or with a massive group of people, everyone can benefit from a good sense of simple manners.

One will find that works of art deserve to be fully cherished and admired, that a museum can offer plenty of knowledge to discover, and that there are always plenty of things to do than simply taking selfies.

And NO.

Not with a selfie stick.

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This piece was written as something I'd try submitting to travel columns or media outlets for a listicle idea, but nevertheless, working on feature, light articles like these still just give some good practice.

Share with a friend who overshares about their time in art museums. Or share with a family member who always insists on touching the canvas to "feel" the art. Or share with anybody.

Hope you enjoyed this piece and wishing everyone a happy holiday!

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From the girl who normally spends a very long time in art museums,









2 comments

  1. "And there is no need to take your followers journeying through the museum with you; upload selectively." Haha, yes to that line. I'm all for sharing stuff on Insta Stories, in fact I post more things there than on my actual Instagram feed but the thought of posting every single moment of an experience seems exhausting to me. How can you truly enjoy the experience if you're documenting every inch of it? I feel like it's better to stay in the moment and enjoy whatever it is your consuming. Share a couple of snaps and stuff but remember to stay in the moment. I do understand that people are different sooo... Lovely post Joanne! xx
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