Etiquette: set of conventional rules of personal behaviour in polite society, usually in the form of an ethical code that delineates the expected and accepted behaviours in a society – in this case the art world. Many of those rules of etiquette in the art world are unwritten, obscured and complex, you probably have broken more than one purposefully or by accident. If you want to learn more about those – you came to the right place to save you some embarrassment.
Take it down a notch…
Noise level: share your thoughts but be mindful of other visitors’ experience! Think of a museum as a lively library, but you should still be careful about not turning into loud chatty Cathy that may ruin other visitors’ experience. Furthermore, you never know who may be in the room, curators, museum patrons and artists might hear all the nice or not so nice comments that you feel it is important to verbalize during your visit. Be polite and keep most thoughts to yourself until you sip a coffee in the museum coffee shop.
Story Time! While on this particular instance I, evlyne, felt that it was hilarious, I still feel that I shouldn’t be able to follow your conversation and keep mentally adding to it. A few years ago, I was in Venice, visiting the Damien Hirst “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable” exhibition. It was a spectacle and whether you hate him or love him, many couldn’t hold their tongue ( but rest reassured, no artworks were licked– or at least not to my knowledge). But the number of comments heard from visitors, showed that they didn’t read anything or didn’t understand that the operational context of Hirst were out of this world. From “let’s call the National Geographic!”, to “I didn’t know that Mickey Mouse was already popular in ancient time”… Let’s be honest, while they lack discretion, it also didn’t shine the best light on them.
Photography: For the Gram and the Glory
In the age of social media, one of the perks of visiting museums–aside from the obvious culturally enriching experience– is showing all of your followers just HOW cultured you can be! In all seriousness, taking photos of your museum experience can be helpful for others to know what exhibitions are on in your ‘glocal’ museums so you can also plan to visit. With the photo-taking process however, there are some key things to keep in mind to ensure that not only your experience is enjoyable, but also not royally peeving off everyone else around you.
- Awareness of your Surroundings: This should go without saying, but in the words of early-aughts post-Britpop band Snow Patrol, OPEN YOUR EYES. Please, please, please take a look around to make sure you are not interfering with other patrons’ sightlines and experience before you step up to get the shot.
- Wait your turn: More common sense that seems to be withering away, is being respectful of others also taking shots of artworks. Whether it be for research, reference, or the ‘gram, please keep in mind that there may be others around you also waiting to take a snap for posterity.
- Respecting “No Photography” Signs: Although sometimes annoying and eye-roll inducing, there can be real concerns over copyright infringement and collector anonymity issues that should be respected. When these signs are posted, do abide by them to respect the artwork, their custodians, the institution, and the security guards who really don’t want to keep repeating the obvious to you.
- Selfie Sticks: Perhaps a polarizing topic to many, however if we are visiting a museum, the security of the cultural objects is still a priority. Sorry, Becky, but finding your light and angles with a 4 ft pole just inches away from delicate canvases, sculptures and installations is really not the look. Save this for outside the museum to get a beautiful panorama of all that architecture.
- Crediting: An artwork can be a beautiful backdrop and really speak to your sensibilities, however we need to be mindful of the artist’s intent, process, means of creation and authorship. Crediting the artist’s work is how we can disseminate an artist’s work to the masses, contribute to their following, connect with others and enhance their careers. Particularly for practicing contemporary artists, properly crediting the artist’s works in your posts can help them reach new audiences and maintain their authorship of the work to avoid the prickly areas of plagiarism and appropriation of works. If they have social media handles, tag them!
*N.B. This is also great for tagging the museum, using hashtags and geo locations (if comfortable, of course) to help boost their engagement.
Story Time! Is it appropriate to photographed yourself in front of this artwork? Recently, I, evlyne, visited a museum where a particularly attractive, shiny and picture perfect Felix Gonzales-Torres was on display. The strings of golden pearls created floating and mesmerizing moments, but let’s think about the fact that this is a work that Gonzales-Torres created a few weeks before his death and that the strings of pearls almost act as a membrane like skin, or a curtain between private and public. Does it still feel appropriate to take a bunch of ultra posed pictures that you will add to your instagram account not mentioning the artist or the museum? I strongly encourage you to wonder if it is appropriate – use your critical judgment here!
Sight Lines for viewers: Move B****, Get Out The Way!
- Spacial Awareness: Just like above in our guidelines for photography, do be mindful of others around you. Would it be great to get up close and take in the delicate details of brushwork in a painting? Absolutely. Do you just walk up with disregard for others around you? Absolutely not. It’s a matter of courtesy to take a look around to make sure you’re not going to infringe on another patrons experience. If an artwork is crowded–think the Louvre–just be patient and wait your turn to inspect.
- Museum Elders: Seniors and patrons with mobility devices should always have priority access to artworks. Common courtesy, perhaps, but there have been a surprising amount of instances where other patrons would need a gentle reminder to step out of the way of someone who was using a mobility device or who simply needed to get a little closer to take in a piece. Rule of thumb is to be respectful and patient to ensure a pleasant experience for all involved.
*N.B. Some of these more elderly patrons may also be important collectors, museum patrons, curator circle members and philanthropists…you just never know who you might run into at the museum, so practice some social awareness in these circumstances.
Touch and distance: Hands off, that means STOP!
- Unless expressly stated to touch and interact with the artwork DO NOT touch an artwork. Although it is tempting to think that “it’s just for a second!” if everyone was allowed to, artworks would need a daily bath! Touching and interacting with artworks not designed for this can cause serious conservation issues and may jeopardize the integrity of the piece for future exhibition.*N.B. A pro tip is to always keep your hands clasped behind you…ahh yes, very distinguished! Almost like you know what you’re doing! In reality however, it is a nice non-verbal cue to the staff that your hands are away from the art and you won’t touch a piece.Story Time! While he is a controversial figure of the art world ( and for good reasons… but let’s pause on this for a moment) many Carl André artworks have this insane appeal – it is like these artworks beg to be touch or… licked. Yes, you read this correctly. I once saw a tiny human, probably 3 or 4 (maybe 5 maximum) licking one end of a Carl André that was on display directly on the floor. The little one was crawling and added his body fluid to the work. Not sure it was a very good decision, probably boosted his immune system, but I have no doubt that it was totally not appropriate and could have resulted in damages to the art work. Don’t touch it, don’t blow on it, don’t lick it! (Should we make t-shirts???)
- Do not overcrowd a piece: Packing in like sardines not only annoys everyone around you, but it significantly increases the risk of an accidental trip, fall, or safety concern for a patron that will potentially damage the artwork. Look what happened with the Mona Lisa…this is why we can’t have nice things! Other than the multiple burglary attempts, the fair Madonna is now behind bulletproof glass with its own designated wall and unsightly crescent-shaped railing system to keep the throngs of patrons at bay to not risk any further damage to the piece.
- Respecting stanchions: Proof of why we can’t have nice things! Odds are, if there are stanchions around the work, it is likely the work has condition issues that are delicate and we need to be mindful of, or someone else has ruined the fun for the rest of us and has jeopardized the integrity of the work by some means. Sometimes it also may mean that an artwork is out on loan from an anxious collector and they just want to be extra precautious. In any event, be respectful of these barriers to ensure everyone can enjoy the work and exhibition.
Exhibition Wayfinding Signs and Text
- Swimming with the current: Now, this is not a hard and fast rule, but following the flow of the exhibition that has been outlined by the curator(s) will help enhance your understanding and experience while keeping the pace of guest flow for a smooth experience. Artworks are mapped out in particular orders taking into account a variety of curatorial reasons including period, aesthetic, scale, and even collection politics, among other reasons.The curatorial teams have designed exhibitions and wings of museums for a reason and it is often wise to follow these guidelines– especially if the institution is new to you– to experience the works in the institutional framework.At a basic level, this can also help keep a comfortable flow to an exhibition without running into other patrons.
- Read the Text: Some poor intern likely poured hours into writing these wall labels only for you to give a passing glance. However, oftentimes these short essays really help give contextual background and additional details of a piece that can help your overall understanding and appreciation for an artwork. Pro tip: if you’re in the way of others on a particularly busy day at the museum, take a quick snap of the text to read while stepping away from the work. These are also handy little tools for future research and reference with the additional artwork details to credit the artwork later
- Kids are a wonderful addition to the museum, and we want to encourage young art appreciation. That being said, please remember that museum exhibitions are not babysitters. Although, most museums have wonderful programs for kids and youths including interactive projects, tours and other activities. Keep an eye on your little ones to avoid firstly, them getting lost in the shuffle of patrons, and secondly, tiny sticky hands touching artworks. We get it, the artworks are beautiful and we don’t blame your minis for wanting to engage, but please remember that these are still works of art that need care.
- New Perspectives: Bringing kids to museums is a great way to see art in a new light! Curious little minds can see things we take for granted and it is a fun experience taking in artworks for the first time again through the eyes of a child. The blunt criticisms are nothing less than fantastic as well!
- Start ‘em young! Bringing kids to museums is an excellent way to teach boundaries and respect for others and your surroundings. By exposing kids to art objects and installations, it helps instill values of respect that they can carry with them as they grow into.
Staff and Security
Be courteous to security and front of house staff–they’re just doing their jobs as stewards of the institution. Lose the attitude and be gracious to service counter attendants, coat check assistants, and library staff in the institution. Many workers in the institution have a passion for art and want to ensure you have a great experience while visiting. Don’t break the rules and make a guard chase after you, for heaven’s sake.
- Don’t wear overpowering perfumes…I shouldn’t be able to smell you before I see you.
- Donation boxes: Not obligatory, but it is always courteous to give a small donation to free museums when you visit. These funds do help keep the collection in top shape and the wheels moving smoothly. If it is available to you, donate as a gesture of gratitude.
- Be on time for your time slot if there is a timed entrance. In the wake of Covid-19, timed entrances to exhibition, particularly popular blockbusters, have been instituted to help manage the number of patrons within the exhibition and avoid overcrowding with overselling tickets. Be on time for your entrance to avoid a headache for the museum employees trying to change and accommodate your late arrival.
Etiquette is of course a set of suggested behaviors mostly learned through doing the exact opposite and realizing the faux-pas. People may quietly–or not so quietly– think you’re a jerk for not following the unspoken rules, but at the end of the day, these points are to help you and everyone else enjoy their experience in the museum. Will everyone be perfect? No. But by integrating these points in your museum going practice, you’ll save a lot of unintentional missteps along the way.