October 14, 2013

Museum People Make the Worst Museum Visitors

I always loved being a museum professional. There's something special about being so close to the past every day. You touch it. You preserve it. You teach about it. I loved being a museum professional, until read an article entitled "Museum Professionals Make Terrible Visitors."

I had observed this phenomenon but didn't attribute it to solely being a "museum person." But it is true,  museum people really do make the worst museum visitors. If you are a museum person, that article will make you laugh.  

I found myself committing many
museum sins mentioned in the article. I definitely did very little real shopping in gift shops and sometimes find myself in awkward angles that visitors are never meant to be in to get the best possible view of an artifact that I want to see. (Sorry, Franklin Institute, but I couldn't sleep for a month prior to your exhibit knowing I would get to see King Tut's liver casket. I wasn't about to not get to see the details up close.) 

I'm glad that someone pointed out the behavior of museum people. You can't fix a problem you don't know
exists, right?

Worst Offenses of Museum People in My Experience:

-Not being open to learning new information. Many museum people don't go to museums to learn something new. They are more interested in seeing how someone else is interpreting history. They feel that they already know a lot about the subject and end up being more interested in the displays, pamphlets, artifact handling, etc.

-Correcting guides or unfairly expecting them to speak on something they are not prepared to speak about. Sometimes I think self proclaimed history buffs feel the need to defend their title when they visit a museum. They try to point out wrong facts and try to contradict the guides and displays every way possible. If you are a museum professional, you know that this behavior is not only unprofessional but these people typically reference old research and popular history sources. 

Professionals understand the interpretive nature of history and aren't so quick to judge research based on what they see in a museum and understand that not every person is prepared to speak upon every subject. Although, occasionally professionals expect everyone to know about some obscure research so-and-so is doing. Some of these people will also "hijack" tours from guides.         

-Not buying from the shop. This one is mentioned in the article and I am guilty. Many museum people go into gift shops, see a book they are interested in and go home and buy it on amazon. I am guilty of this only because I typically wait a few months before buying a book to make sure I am still interested. I have started viewing this differently. When you buy from the shop and it is more expensive than what you'd pay online, we should think of the extra cost as a donation to the site. Maybe we need to set up some museum people code where if we see a few books we like in their gift shop and plan to buy them online later, we will all add an extra few dollars to the donation bin.

-Not staying where you should be or touching things you shouldn't. Working at a museum is hard, you have to watch a lot of things at the same time. We have people at our sites sneak upstairs without a guide. I have heard every excuse, but most frequently things like "I used to work here" or "I've been here a million times." I assume the best of people but if something breaks on one of my tours or goes missing, it's my responsibility and ultimately we need to remember this when we are at other sites. 

I have encountered bad museum manners numerous  times but I think the worst offense I ever encountered was when I was giving a tour and speaking on the education habits of the Quakers in the area in the 1700s. A man flat out in the middle of my tour stated "That's not how they did it in Philadelphia, "Do you have research on this?" and other remarks.

First, I thought it was rude that he spoke without asking permission first. But secondly he said this with such a condescending tone and with such accusation that it was frankly embarrassing for me in front of the other guests. I felt like the research question was silly--we're a museum--they didn't just tell me to make things up. And while some guides may carry their research with them on tours, I certainly don't.

If this man was truly interested in the research I had on this topic, he could have asked me privately at the end of the tour and I would have happily forwarded it to him. If this man was just trying to show off and make the guide uncomfortable, he succeeded.

I find that reenactors and other museum people can be the worst offenders of "correcting guides" even though we know it is unfair. What is truly remarkable is that with all of the bad mannered things visitors do at our site, this is one of the most insulting. I can handle visitors not listening and accidentally using our model privy. I am only slightly irked when someone strays from a tour and I have to make everyone wait while I track them down. But correcting the guide publicly is just rude, makes you look like a jerk, and makes the rest of the guests frustrated.  I was lucky in that the other guests made it apparent that his interruptions were uncalled for.

What is the worst museum offense you've ever seen committed or committed yourself? Was the offense committed by a museum person? 

**All photos taken on the Becuna and the Olympia at Penn's Landing.  



  1. I was "hijacked" once at a reenactment. I was giving a very detailed account of live in Vicksburg and this rude man, kept stopping me literally. after. every. sentence. He gave vague "facts" and history channel knowledge. I researched this for over a year I wrote papers on it. At first I felt dumb that he was doing it but by the end I could see sympathetic eyes from the crowd. Other times it's just been annoying. Sometimes people try to make the tour about them. It frustrates me!

    1. This is awful but it really is quite common, isn't it? It's one of my biggest pet peeves. I'm glad you had a sympathetic tour group.

  2. Haha, I have committed some of these faux pas. I'm usually just silent, though. Miss Thorton, ugh, that does sound annoying. I'm one to get irritable, I'd probably would have snapped.

  3. Thank you. I felt about to snap!

  4. I think I've done all of these. I'm also the guilty party who sometimes geeks out more on how the exhibit was put together than the actual contents of the case. "How did they get it to sit like that? I could never get mine to cooperate. What size light is that? Is that all the bigger it is? And it works that well? Wow! Good lord, who picked that backdrop color? It's hideous. I would have put them in *this* order... What do you MEAN I can't take pictures?!"

    Oh yeah, I can be obnoxious if I'm not careful.

    1. I do that too when displays are particularly creative. :)

      And as for photos, I almost don't even want to see an exhibit if I'm not allowed to take photos. It's an unfortunate outlook but I really enjoy sharing.

  5. The shop thing I'm guilty of, though I'd be willing to spend more if I had it. ;) I wouldn't interrupt a guide, even if I didn't agree with what they are saying. I wouldn't like it if they did it to me, so I wouldn't do it to them. I have seen people act this way, and it's not only annoying to the guide, but annoying to the rest of the people visiting. They may be trying to impress people, but I don't find rude behavior impressive.

    1. As you know I'm terrible with shopping at the store. Those things tend to be very expensive. At least we're very careful about always signing the guest book (to help increase funding.)

  6. Love T.H Gray's article. Saw it a while back. It was spot on. Offensive history buffs (not professional historians) are a museum's worst nightmare. Specific to historical clothing exhibits, museums who do not have textile collections or choose not to display their collections have often resorted to eliminating reproduction garments completely because of the barrage of accusations of inaccuracy by stitch counters. It's such a shame but it happens more often than not.

    1. I've noticed this too. Most "buffs" don't take into consideration that the museum is trying to preserve artifacts and sometimes that means a reproduction has to be on display and not the real object.


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