15 Museum Etiquette Errors And How to Avoid Making Them
Ever been whistled at while admiring a piece of art and immediately felt embarrassed for getting too close? A whistle or a snapping of fingers could be your wake up call that your museum manners are not as great as you thought they were. It’s easy to get carried away when touring cultural centers, but there’s a reason why there are guards stationed everywhere in museums—and why rules need to be followed.
As a museumgoer, there are straightforward rules on how to behave as well as unsaid common courtesies. These unwritten policies, which I once thought to be obvious, are more and more apparent to me with each visit—especially as other patrons break rules with outright awful etiquette. Museums can sometimes come off as rather pretentious institutions, but most of them are dedicated to the public. They have spent centuries preserving and perfecting history so that the public can access knowledge through exhibitions. And the history of the museum itself is pretty fascinating—the future of the cultural spaces is always evolving.
Curators, museum educators, and volunteers spend countless hours coaxing the public to come inside its doors. Don’t get discouraged by these rules—just know that the museum space is not a shopping mall or playground.
Although I personally prefer art museums, all museums have set rules so visitors can have the best experience possible—and so that they can continue to preserve the works for future generations. The people behind museums deeply care for the spaces, so proceed with caution the next time you stroll through an exhibition. Read on for our list of universal museum mistakes, so you can make sure you don’t commit them.
Mariah Tyler is a digital photo editor at Travel+Leisure. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @mphbox.
No, seriously, it ruins the experience for everyone around you. There is nothing worse than finding solitude in the halls of a museum gallery only to be interrupted by intrusive noises of children yelling, or someone going on and on audibly to their friends about topics that quite frankly have no place in a museum space. The galleries and rooms of museums are never the space to use an outside voice, so pipe down or take the conversation/storytelling to the cafe in the lobby.
Check your bags
Most museums have a coat and bag check area near the entrance, so take advantage of it. A bulky load can weigh you down and stop you from fully experiencing the awe and wonder of the world unknown. Checking backpacks and bulging totes also prevents accidents—you wouldn’t want to knock over a precious artifact or sculpture.
Do not crowd the artwork
Even if you’re an art history novice, you’ve probably heard of the great masters and their works—like Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. And after years of seeing reproduced images, being in the same room as the real thing may cause a frenzy. Try to remember that the master works have boundaries and creating a crowd around them can put the paintings in danger. These pieces tend to have heavier security, but you should still avoid shoving others so you can get to the front of the crowd.
Do not block the art
Of course you can walk in front of a piece to give it the once-over of admiration, but stay a few steps back so that people behind you can see the piece instead of just your head. And it goes without saying that you shouldn’t walk in front of someone just to get a better look for yourself—interrupting someone’s gaze is never okay.
Do not take phone calls
Taking phone calls not only disrupts others around you, but your experience as well. Texts are the better way to go if you need to communicate with the outside world, or if you’re trying to locate a friend. The Metropolitan Museum in New York City will not even allow one to take a phone call in the hallway or main corridor areas—you need to walk to the lobby if you want to chat away.
Your Instagram doesn’t actually need to be instant
Wait to Instagram the exhibit until you’re in a phone-friendly zone, like a couch in the lobby. It’s pretty much impossible to experience an exhibit fully if you’re busy picking a filter and writing a caption. Waiting to post will also help you be more selective about what you share—which your followers will appreciate.
Do not use the flash
If you’re taking a photo in a museum where photography is allowed, make sure your flash is off. Think of flash like a bolt of lightning that could destroy the material the artwork/artifact is made of. The museum will go to great lengths to insure this is communicated. I once went to an exhibition at the Met where there was a curtain over the work that needed to be gently lifted before viewing because even the dim gallery light was too much exposure for the precious piece.
No selfie sticks
January has a day dedicated to the museum selfie, which encourages people to go out and visit museums. Art selfies can be a great way to express your own creativity, but be aware of your surroundings. If you must take one, just avoid the selfie stick. It’s an added distraction and dangerous to the artworks and others around you—arm length is always the more manageable approach.
Do not photograph everything
There is no need to snap photos of every item on display in an exhibit. Pare down your photos to only your absolute favorite. You forget to experience the exhibition when you worry about taking photos every second. Sometimes you want to snap a quick shot of the description or artist info for later, but in most cases, this information can be found on the museum’s website or in an online catalog.
Watch your step
From discreetly marked lines on the floor to various barriers, there are all types of things to watch out for at museums. This can become a bit trickier if the art is on the floor or if there are unconventional materials like sand involved. Just keep a good two feet away from any object or person for good measure. Keeping full awareness of your surroundings is always best. The last thing you want is to create a domino effect that ends with a broken vase.
Keep up with the pace
Generally museum wandering requires no regulating pace except your own, but smaller spaces that draw large crowds can be tough and a bit more daunting to get through. In crowded exhibitions, it can be hard to read through each descriptive sentence and wall text. Consider using an audio tour so you don’t end up holding up the line. Some museums even have apps available for personal devices, so you don’t need to spend money on a guide.
Do not feel like every work has to make you feel something
One of the biggest myths surrounding museums is the notion that every piece of artwork will move the spirit and captivate the soul. You will not be moved by every brush stroke, as one is lead to believe. Granted, some exhibits can be overwhelmingly emotional, but don’t feel pressured if you have no natural reaction. This will help you keep going until that awe-inspiring, life-changing feeling hits you out of the blue.
Do not touch anything
This rudimentary statement should go unsaid, but to my dismay I see someone touching something important and valuable at every museum. Even if artifacts don’t have a case or are hung in the open, they’re still part of the exhibition and should not be tampered with. There are plenty of museums for the interactive, hands-on learner—and those are always clearly marked.
Do not lean on the walls
Walls are abundant in museums (obviously), but they are not for you to lean on. Although museums can be cumbersome and tiring, avoid leaning on walls, with or without art. If you do not have stamina to stand, simply sit down on a bench.
Do not eat, drink, or vape
Accidents can happen, no matter how careful you are. Eating and drinking has long been banned, but the vapors from an e-cigarette could greatly harm the paints, materials, and artifacts along the walls. Most museums provide wonderful cafes and restaurants, as well as outdoor areas, that are better suited for these activities.