Museum professionals, especially curators, are fond of likening themselves to doctors. While that remains a dubious comparison, there is one way the two professions are similar: doctors make lousy patients and museum professionals make terrible visitors.
We know how we expect museum visitors to behave and what we want from them. We want them to come in, stay behind the lines, listen to what we’re saying, and spend as much money as possible. All of which is precisely what museum folks don’t do.
It all starts at the admission counter. When it’s our turn, we walk right up to the ticket agent and ask, while handing them our business card, if there is a discount or free admission for museum professionals. Usually, they have to check with someone else, which means they need to spend valuable time on our free admission, while paying customers have to wait behind us. If there is no discount or comp for us, we turn away from the counter, grumbling under our breath that professional courtesy is being replaced by greed.
Now that we have cost the site time and money we’re free to begin our visit. Since most museum folks are bookworms, we might go right to the museum shoppe. We want to make sure we give ourselves enough time to find book titles we can purchase cheaper online later.
Once we’re done browsing, we head out into the galleries or restored village or historic house. What happens next entirely depends on the kind of experience we find ourselves in.
If we find ourselves on tour with a group of “civilians,” we hang back and don’t participate. We’re not interacting because we’re busy conducting our own impromptu visitors survey of our tourmates. At the same time we’re silently grading the guide’s ability and knowledge. In the rare cases we do participate we come dangerously close to “correcting” the guide, discomforting him or her and our tourmates. During those times when we’re the only visitor on tour, we spend more time asking about things our guide is totally unprepared to talk about, like the museum’s funding or annual visitation. We also quietly let them know we’re a museum person, which always has a calming effect on the guide.
If we find ourselves in an exhibit we’re too busy looking at everything else but what’s on display. We’re probably more curious about how the art is hung than the art. Or we’re examining the fake food to see if, in our opinion, it looks real or not. This is not always done out of criticism – sometimes we’re just looking for ideas we can steal and use at our museum.
And if we bothered to start, we stop reading exhibit labels if we find something we disagree with (we do the same thing with books, so why not labels?) If the labels annoy us enough, and we’re feeling particularly energetic, we might correct the interpretation for any visitors in earshot. We are, after all, dedicated museum professionals and we want to make sure visitors get the very best experience.
Of course there are some of us who don’t read labels at all. Some only want to see stuff. These people are curators. They don’t read because they know everything already. Others don’t read because they are busy observing visitors. These are educators, the voyeurs of the museum world.
No matter which interpretive experience we find ourselves in there are some things we do almost reflexively. Of all of visitors, we are more likely to be the ones who cross boundaries to get a better look. Thinking it will make it all better, we might be heard to say, “it’s ok, I’m a professional,” completely missing the fact that at that moment we’re ignoring our own professionalism.
As our visit proceeds we’re silently critical of the exhibits, programs, and interpretation because that’s not how we would do it. Our silence gives us time to form impressive-sounding, but likely uninformed, critiques to share later with our colleagues which say more about us than the museum we visited. Amidst all that judging, we never wonder if we simply enjoyed ourselves.
Perhaps the biggest reason we are terrible visitors is that we believe we represent the best kind of visitor, because we know how to behave in a museum.