Attendance, n. The published sum of all museum visitors for a given event or time period. This number has no relation to reality.
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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.
By Claude Anderson
There’s nothing quite like a Civil War reenactment. Dressing in the woolen uniform of the period, eating hardtack and bacon, and firing black-powder rifles, we are transported back to those darkest of hours when our nation was nearly rent asunder by armed conflict. Brother against brother. Father against son. Oh, what a time it was!
But, sadly, for those of us who are disabled, taking up arms and participating in the War Between The States is nearly impossible. You see, very few Civil War reenactments are accessible to the handicapped.
A few years ago, I was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. At the time, I had already been an active member of the 10th Virginia for seven years. When my fellow infantrymen heard that I’d been struck down on I-90, they rushed to my side for support, visiting me in the hospital, bringing me flowers and singing choruses of “Dixie” with me every day. It wasn’t until I joined them for the Battle of Antietam that I became aware there was a problem.
To call Antietam a disaster would be an understatement. When it came time to charge the Union Army, my wheelchair got stuck in a patch of mud, and one of McClellan’s men stabbed me to death with his bayonet while I just helplessly sat there. Then, just to add insult to injury, he tipped me over. I’ll tell you one thing–that never would have happened if that battlefield were equipped with a wheelchair ramp and some guiderails.
Things were even worse at Gettysburg. Shortly after the fighting began, I was captured by three members of the First Michigan Cavalry, who laughed as they rolled me down Culp’s Hill. I’m just glad General Pickett was over on McPherson Ridge at the time, so he didn’t see it.
At the Battle of Chickamauga, I couldn’t keep up with my fellow soldiers during a simple rifle drill, let alone during a complex about-turn-wheel-and-fire maneuver. When I discharged my Model 1863 3-band Richmond Rifled Musket, I was at knee level to most of the other men and set their breeches on fire. Mostly, though, I was slow, a situation that wasn’t helped when they insisted I fashion a historically accurate wheelchair from hickory, leather and brass.
For awhile, the other members of the 10th Virginia were polite about my problem. But sometime midway through the 1864 campaign, they began to approach me with what they thought were really good ideas. For the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, they lay me out on the field before the first shot was even fired, assigning me the role of “dead soldier.” Then, during the Battle of Charleston, they asked me to wheel around making loud artillery noises through a repainted 50-gallon steel bucket and pretend I was a cannon. How humiliating.
I realize that the Americans With Disabilities Act was signed 125 years after the surrender at Appomattox, but I am confident that Jefferson Davis would have approved of a few minor adjustments to the battlefields if it meant making the war against the North accessible for all Rebels. To this end, I propose that battlefields feature hard-packed skirmish areas suitable for access by people like me. Furthermore, Malvern Hill, Fisher’s Hill and Little Round Top should be equipped with wheelchair ramps–wooden, of course, hewn with period tools– designated for use by differently abled soldiers. And let me tell you, a couple of handrails in the latrine certainly wouldn’t hurt, either.
All I want is a chance to fight bravely for the South, just like everyone else in the 10th Virginia. After all, I don’t think of myself as handicapped–I’m handiconfederate!
Family vacation. Who doesn’t look forward to that every year? The kids are out of school, the parents are off work and everyone is hopping into the car and going to do something rad. It’s important to choose your family vacation destinations wisely. If you have children, go to an amusement park. If you have no children, sit on as many patios as you can while power drinking. But under no circumstances, ever, should you blow a family vacation on visiting a national monument.
I certainly understand the allure of driving hundreds or even thousands of miles to see the Grand Canyon in person. Actually, I’m just joking, I don’t get the appeal at all. I’ve never seen it, but I expect it looks a lot like this …
… except bigger, hotter and dirtier. Those adjectives are all fine and well if you’re talking about a porn sequel, but when you’re referring to something you can just as easily look at in pictures, it’s far less titillating.
Another good example of this is Mount Rushmore. You probably know it from pictures, where it looks like this …
But as someone who has seen it, I can vouch for the fact that, in person, it looks a lot more like this …
Right, those are the exact same picture, because that’s exactly what Mount Rushmore looks like in person. What is it that you think you’re going to do when your Wally World-like trek to see four presidents’ faces carved into the side of a huge rock comes to fruition? It’s not like you can climb up there and take a picture of you pretending to put your dick in Lincoln’s nose or anything. You’re just going to stand there, take a few pictures that will look like the epitome of shittiness when compared to stuff you could just download from the Internet and then spend the rest of your vacation bored to tears because western South Dakota is a desolate hellhole with nothing even sort of fun to do. And it’s going to be the exact same story at any of the other remote tourist destinations people flock to every year.
To its credit, though, Mount Rushmore does have fireworks every Fourth of July. Ha! Just joking. They stopped doing that years ago. But it doesn’t matter, because the lamest of all lame outdoor activities is .
“Hey, you know what would be fun, a trip to the museum!” The preceding sentence is something no person has ever said with any semblance of honesty in their voice. Don’t get me wrong, I know people claim to love museums. I’m sure tons of them will take to the comments section and call me an unsophisticated philistine for not feeling the same way. But that doesn’t mean they’re correct.
Deny it all you want, but the truth is that arriving at a museum is right on par with arriving at one of those national monuments that I made fun of last time around. Once you get there, literally the only thing you can do is look at a bunch of shit that you could just as easily see in a book or on the Internet. But at least in a book or on the Internet you could just skip over all the boring shit without feeling guilty about it. That’s not the case at a museum. Instead, you have to stop every 50 feet or so and pretend you give a damn about what’s written on the placard below whatever lifeless artifact you’re looking at. Otherwise, you look like some maniac who pays $30 just to power walk your way through the Ice Age exhibit.
A stock image search assures me that this picture is what the Ice Age looked like.
When you get right down to it, museums are basically zoos for inanimate objects. Paying an admission fee to enter a place where everything is locked away so you can’t touch it is a fine idea if the stuff you’re looking at is flinging feces at unsuspecting spectators or swinging around on ropes and whatnot. That’s just a barrel of fun. But not once in recorded history has a painting ever leaped from its enclosure and mauled the teen who had been mocking it. Real live angry tigers know how to entertain a crowd, and they don’t need a ridiculous Glamour Shots for Men backdrop behind them to do it. That’s more than can be said for the stuffed animals in the above photo.
“But if I could pick a backdrop, this would be it.”
Let’s be honest, nobody loves going to museums. What people do love, though, is anything that makes them seem a little bit more cultured and educated than the rest of us lunkheads who just waste away our free time ogling boobs and betting on cockfights. People don’t go to museums because they get off on looking at a collection of fossils — they do it because it gives them an excuse to shake their head in pity while muttering “You just don’t get it” under their breath. Anyone who claims otherwise is either the most easily stimulated tourist of all time or a straight-up liar. Sorry, museum fans, there is simply no middle ground to be had there.