We Do Read the Comments

In college, I took an oil painting class. I was pretty awful at it, and in my opinion, the class was kind of awful. The teacher didn’t seem to be at all good at or comfortable with teaching people who didn’t have a natural aptitude for art, which was tough, because it was an introductory class. One thing he said really stuck with me, and made a difference in my life, but it wasn’t about painting. He was suggesting that we go to art museums and study painters’ techniques, but to pace ourselves, because “after a while you get museum back,” he said, pantomiming a backache. I had never realized that this was something that happens to a lot of people. I think I thought that I just didn’t have the attention span to look at lots of art, and the fact that I was often tired and achy by the time I left a museum was incidental.

I write a lot about museums, and I know that a lot of my readers are not museum professionals or aspiring ones themselves, and this post is addressed to you. It’s a request, in fact. When you go to a museum and it doesn’t meet all your needs, or you come away in some way dissatisfied, let them know. Leave a note in the suggestion box or the guest book, or make a comment through their website, or fill out a survey if you are offered one. Comment here too, for that matter – although I wouldn’t have a say at the museum you have in mind, part of the point of this blog is for me to learn and to share with others.

Many of us have an idea that visiting a museum, especially an art or history museum, is an intellectual thing to do, and as such, it’s on the visitor to be appropriately appreciative of the culture being imparted. Why should I want more opportunities to sit down while looking at paintings? I should be eagerly ignoring what my body wants because I’m lost in contemplation of great works. The idea comes from popular depictions of museums, from that one snooty professor we had in college, or from that one regular customer who always insists on telling us about their life with an air of superiority. Sometimes it comes from museums themselves.

You may have noticed, however, that in the last fifteen or twenty years (more or less depending on the museum) that there’s a trend towards museums becoming more visitor-focused. It’s not just their marketing departments. Among professionals who stay current with the prevailing ideas in museum work, at least, the people designing museum experiences no longer view their institutions as temples of knowledge or of art. They are places for people. We know that people need to be comfortable, physically and psychologically, if they are going to learn, be inspired, or have fun. The other side of the coin is that museums are almost all nonprofits or government-run (there are for-profit museums, but based on anecdotal evidence I think they don’t tend to be as good), and they are often trying to do more than their staffing and budget allows. Individuals, departments, and museums are constantly juggling priorities and sometimes have to make tough choices.
It can feel like this, but I promise in most
museums that's not the case.
Image by Scott Beale / laughingsquid.com

It can feel like no one reads what’s in the comment boxes. But if you come away from a museum feeling that there weren’t enough places to sit or to feed your kid a snack, or if you felt like your people weren’t well-represented in the exhibits, chances are there’s someone on the staff who has that problem on their to-do list. Visitor comments are one way that these lists get sorted, and your issue stays or becomes a priority. Even more importantly, visitor comments can make excellent leverage in a department meeting or a presentation to the board, so the staff member who’s in your corner is more likely to be able to act on the problem. 

No museum or exhibit can be all things to all people, and sometimes the thing you don’t like is in place to prevent a different problem, but in general, museums aren’t supposed to test you or alienate you. You shouldn’t have to get “museum back.”

P.S. I wrote this post about a week ago and haven't had the time or energy to post it. It has been a rough news week, and I imagine that some readers don't have the energy to enage with the news and also think about using their voice to ask for more places to sit in museums. If you want to speak out on issues of life and death, more power to you. Here's one article/radio clip, by Ijeoma Oluo, to get you started if police accountability is one of the issues on your mind.