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!