Museum Professionals Make Terrible Visitors

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.

Can you spot the museum professional visiting this museum? Source.

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.


About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

35 responses to “Museum Professionals Make Terrible Visitors

  • Jean Becnel

    haha, quite accurate and funny as well. The best part is I never even gave it much thought – just do it without regard!

    Thanks for the entertaining and enlightening read,


    • T.H. Gray

      Yes, we are of the opinion that most museum professionals do some, if not all, of this unconsciously. We happen to be one of the few who do these things intentionally, and are all right with it.

      Thanks for stopping by! We’re glad this amused you.

  • carr spencer

    LOL! loved this! it’s hilarious and humbling to be “called out” like this. this is a funny reminder to us “professionals” to just relax and enjoy the museum experience…at least once in awhile.

  • kittycalash

    What’s worse than a museum professional visiting another museum? Two museum professionals visiting a museum together. In many ways, museums were more fun before I started working them.

    I find I have the best museum experiences when I cross genres. exhibitions about things I don’t have a curatorial specialty in, are more fun and get critiqued less. It’s a relief, really.

    • T.H. Gray

      Gad, multiple museum visitors can be a plague on our respective houses. And, as you can see in our premiere post, we believe it’s true that working in museums changes one’s view of museum work:

      As for crossing genres, we have the same reaction to historical fiction, whether it’s books or films: the less we know about the period involved, the more we enjoy the work.

      Thanks for stopping by (and for posting our museum professional-reenactor compatibility test).

  • Laura DiSciullo

    Interesting. While I was trying to establish a career as a museum professional, I would visit a different museum every week (one I had never been to before) and blog about it. As a part-time museum employee, I had enough free time to visit other museums, and I thought it was important to experience being a museum visitor elsewhere, since I mostly worked in education and visitor services.

    I worked enough with visitors to have my ideas about what made a good or bad visitor, and I was determined never to be a bad one. I don’t think asking about discounts makes one a bad visitor. It’s a valid question, and discounts might be the reason some visitors (like struggling part-time museum visitor services employees!) are able to come to the museum at all.

    But as a visitor, I tried never to do the things that I hated seeing visitors do: getting too close to (or touching!) the artifacts without express permission to do so, taking photographs when the signs say not to, sitting on the stairs and blocking everyone, wandering away when told to stay with the tour group, interrupting another visitor who’s already asking a staff person something, eating a sandwich dripping with guacamole right by an important historical artifact…

    I also found I was constantly learning new things. I simply didn’t know enough to correct labels or tour guides about everything from astronomy to Belgian architecture to military history to lotus embryos.

    I liked being able to see both sides of the equation: be a museum front-of-house staff and see how I liked to be treated by visitors, and be a visitor and see how I liked to be treated by front-of-house staff. 🙂

    • T.H. Gray

      Seeing both sides of something is good (and part of our modern museum ethos). Which is why we here at the AHS think it’s important to see the many flaws and foibles in our otherwise dedicated profession.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • Michael S. Bell

    Quite entertaining, a bit of herding cats and postman’s holiday, all wrapped in very familiar experience. Thanks for writing it…

  • Czarshaw

    Reblogged this on Special ExhiBITs and commented:
    I can admit; I make a terrible museum visitor. Whenever I am in a museum I am working. I even corrected a child’s behavior once at a museum. (To be fair, the child was behaving in an unsafe manner that could have gotten himself hurt.) Anyway, read this blog below by T. H. Gray about some of the things that go through my mind when I visit museums.

  • Matt W

    Ugh. I hate how true this is. I’ve definitely been a super annoying museum guest.

  • HHess

    In the early 90s, I worked with a team (including a curator) that produced an international exhibition of the work of 17th century Dutch master, Judith Leyster. Because we were partnering with a Dutch museum, we adopted a label writing style that they had tested and evaluated as being the most effective for visitors enjoyment, retention and learning. We also did an evaluation of what our visits “learned” in the exhibition and discovered ourselves that this label/interpretation style WAS VERY effective! Science be damned–our colleagues all HATED the style and told us so very vociferously. 🙂 I loved your article.

  • glenna

    Man, these people sound awful, ha! I hope I never get to that point. I’m only 6 months into a museum career but I love enjoying other museums and reading labels. And I certainly wouldn’t touch artwork knowing how much our own gets groped.

  • Val

    You forgot the part about taking photographs of insanely wrong labels with your camera phone and posting it on social networking (found one in the illuminated manuscripts at the travertine monstrosity that is the Getty Center a few months ago, and one conserning a “Brontasaurus” in a brief trip to the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum last Monday). And also the lurking around something interesting hoping someone might ask why you are so excited about it (Answer: because your story isn’t written on the label).

    • Katie

      Hi Val,

      I worked on the Dino Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County…which label are you referring to? I’d like to bring it up with the Paleontologist and the exhibits department.


      • Val

        As this particular thread now has its own post, I will reply to this on the other thread. For whatever reason, your comment to my post never showed up in my coments feed on WordPress, so I had no idea this reply existed.

  • robertlfs

    I particularly enjoy taking copious notes and photos so that when I am teaching the Museum Practices graduate seminar each fall, I have lots of examples of what does not work or worst practices in museums – carefully avoiding the institution where I am the director.

    (But truthfully, I also use my museums visits to get examples of phenomenal best practices too.)

  • Jane Bowers

    Wow – which museum professionals do you know? I have been working in museums for 20+ years, with many said professionals, and while some of this is true some of the time, no museum professional I know has EVER touched an object deliberately, or gone around a barrier, saying “I am a museum professional,” implying that makes it okay, or grumbled that there was no professional courtesy discount. In fact, I and most of my museum friends don’t even ask for free admission or a discount because we know about the financial struggles that our own organizations endure – we consider it our small way of supporting the museums we are visiting.

    I realize (hope) that this is meant to be somwewhat tounge-in-cheek and you are exaggerating for emphasis, but it’s rather offensive to paint a whole group of people with the same insulting, broad brush, and just because you happen to be one of us doesn’t make it okay. There’s speaking the truth and holding a mirror up to people who might be guilty of some of this in a way that makes them see the problem and also makes them smile, but then there’s a level at which your point just gets lost in the hyperbole and insults, and you have reached that point.

    What are you really trying to accomplish here?

  • Michelle Roberts

    It’s a very true reflection of museum professionals. I was just having this conversation with a group of colleagues. You can tell the registrars and preparators because they are always looking at the mount/hanging device and never really see ‘what’ is being displayed

  • Mary Schrader

    Don’t forget, we also use our AAM membership to get ourselves and a guest in for free too.

  • michaeleriksson

    At the risk of missing the topic: I have increasingly found that museum professionals make terrible museums.

    (Disclaimer: I write from a European perspective.)

    For instance, most museums today appear to ignore their main purpose as a source of learning and focus on being a “fun experience” or “child friendly”—leaving the visitors who actually are there to learn something exposed to playing children, overly loud and low-information recordings, and other annoyances. In fact, the last few times I visited a museum, I have used ear-plugs to drown out at least some of the noise… Yes, we have reached a stage where ear-plugs (!) are useful in a museum (!).

    At the same time, the signs and other information accompanying the objects are almost always lacking in depth and context, forcing anyone who wishes to gain even the most basic understanding, apart from what can be learned from the objects themselves, to read up elsewhere. (Which can be forgiven in an art museum, which has another character than non-art museums, but is a hindrance elsewhere.)

    It is not even that uncommon that the information provided can be recognized as unduly simplistic, outdated, or, more rarely, as outright wrong even by an informed layman. On rare occasions, even preconceived opinions of an ideological nature shine through.

    • museumsaskew

      Michael, I find this perspective really interesting. As a recent transplant to Germany, I experience things from an “American perspective,” to borrow your turn of phrase. I suspect some of the things you admire about museums on this side of the Atlantic are the same things that bother me about the museum here. Even with standards and best practices, so much about museums really is still subjective (for visitors and professionals), isn’t it?

  • Serug Nahor

    I have to say that I have visited a small number of museums and in some instances have walked away with a bad impression because of how they handle their exhibits. I am in my second profession and I have experienced criticism in the same ‘I would have done it a different way’ manner. It is natural in any profession and to turn off the professional is difficult.
    I have criticism for some museums, I have not gone behind barriers or any of the more serious breaches of etiquette described but I have made mental notes. I once went to a museum where there was no logical flow to the exhibits or information provided. The collection was highly randomized between WWI and Back to the Future in one room (no joke). It was somewhat dizzying.
    Another museum had a broken display and I was able to get the scoop that they had broken it themselves twice having survived nearly 2,500 years of previous history to be dropped by amateur handlers and display mounters and, again, narrative difficulties. I emailed the director about these issues in a very professional manner and extended my help, if they wanted it, to correct these areas. He took the issue personally and left the problems uncorrected. I now know for a fact that large amounts of people are not returning the above museum. My point being, criticism can be excessive by some people but it also pays to listen to other professionals and evaluate their advice in context and sometimes take corrective steps. We shouldn’t take the criticism in an unprofessional manner but in stride and with care.

  • Renato

    Great article! I’m three weeks into my first full time museum job and it was like seeing myself in the future. It was like calling myself out before it even happened! The whole reason I didn’t want to go into sports was because I didn’t want it to ruin sports for me. I hope that’s not the case with museums as I can see all of the different personalities for so many different fields trying to work together. So far so good, thanks for writing this.

  • theboullelady

    ‘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’.

    Quite right too. I have a long and international history of setting off alarms, taking illegal photos, playing ‘spot the mistake’, interrupting guides. And of course I have the moral high-ground because I care about the stuff.

    • Val

      I set off my first alarm at seven. My defense is that I was seven. If you don’t want people setting off your alarm, Albuquerque Museum, don’t hang that rug upside down, facing away from your guests, over that railing. It’s a very dumb place to put it. I witnessed someone else doing it thirteen years later when I visited thirteen summers ago. I seriously doubt it’s been moved.

  • Five on Friday- End of July! | Life By Kristen

    […] and I don’t always like going to museums. And when I do, I’m the worst visitor so this blog post pretty much is about me and my horrible museum going habits ( especially about asking for free […]

  • Kelli

    I and the museum professionals I know must be the exception that proves the rule. I would never act this way in another museum or in any place I am visiting, and I personally don’t know of anyone who would.

  • Jeanne Pirtle

    I love to visit other museums. I never tell anyone I work in a museum beforehand, I’m there to learn. I’ll answer and ask questions perhaps, but I am careful not to answer too many. I never ask “insider” questions unless I am given the oportunity afterwards in private. I never “correct” docents in front of other guests. I don’t always get the same consideration at my place, but I’ve been here long enough, I know who you are.

  • T.H. Gray

    We wanted to say thanks to everyone who visited the Hysterical Society and read this piece. So we did, over here

  • Joe Greeley

    Even before I became a museum professional I would give impromptu lectures and tours-mostly in maritime museums. At age seven or eight I gave Rolf Klep one of the founders of the Columbia River Maritime Museum a quick talk on the history of the U.S.S. Constitution when he found me off by myself admiring their model of said ship. He listened very politely and took me back to his office and signed me up as a member . . .

  • Friday File

    […] for any museum professionals, have a good laugh (while cringe) reading the satire “Museum Professionals Make Terrible Visitors.” Not that all of us do these things, but I’m sure some of this will ring […]

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