Employees who protect ancient (and
modern) treasures offer tips about behaving yourself —
21st century style
By Pat Dunnigan, Special to the Tribune
May 12, 2011
From the elegant galleries of the Art Institute of
Chicago to the stately halls of the Field Museum, the
blend of modern culture and modern museum management has
created etiquette issues your grandmother's curator
could not have imagined.
Consider the Museum of
Contemporary Art in Chicago, where museum-goers are
invited to crawl inside a giant clamshell, or watch
performance artists re-enact some of the most passionate
kisses in art history. Neither adventure inspires the
most conventional interpretation of polite behavior.
Some guests, in fact,
are occasionally inspired to notify security.
"We often have artwork
that is purposely designed to blur the line between art
and life — artwork that is purposely designed to elicit
a reaction," said Amy Corle, the MCA's director of
It's the kind of place
where the traditional rules of museum etiquette would
seem to require a bit of tweaking. Except who has any
idea what the rules were in the first place? It's like
trying to remember life before Starbucks. Was there
really a time when people didn't carry lattes
So museums are being
forced to forge new conventions: What is the base limit
for making out during the star show at the Adler
Planetarium? What kind of scars should you keep to
yourself during a visit to the International Museum of
Surgical Science? How many verses of "New York, New
York" can you sing in the Chicago History Museum before
it becomes offensive? What if it's for your blog?
If you're like many
museumgoers, these are the kind of etiquette questions
no one has ever properly answered for you, leaving you
clueless and potentially embarrassed as you navigate the
endless faux pas-sibilities of the modern-day cultural
We are here to help.
With the assistance of an etiquette expert and a
collection of museum employees, who, trust us, have seen
it all, we have compiled a brief guide to museum manners
in the age of iPhones, bucket-size coffee drinks and
handbags you could pitch a tent in.
The good news is that
Chicago's museum employees say you are pretty close to
perfect just the way you are. They don't care what
you're wearing as long as it's not a backpack. There is
nothing you could say about their exhibits that would
offend them; they're just happy to have started a
conversation. They're flattered that you want to take
The bad news is that
they're probably just being polite.
owner of the Pekin, Ill.-based Etiquette Network,
has been teaching good manners for nearly 30 years. She
recently grew rapturous over a baseball documentary in
which all the men in the stands were wearing suits and
hats. She knows better than to pine for 1925 but she
couldn't help herself. Still, she would really like it
if you dressed up a little bit and turned off your
cellphone when you visit a museum.
Sadly, she knows you
better than that, so she's going to keep it simple.
Would it kill you to lose the baseball cap?
But mostly, she says,
museum etiquette requires "acting out of consideration
for others. You want to show respect." The same holds
true for all forms of etiquette.
Museum manners, however,
have to take into account one fairly unique
circumstance. "You're dealing with priceless objects.
It's one of the few places that is true."
Which is why, at the Art
Institute of Chicago, public affairs director Erin Hogan
says, pens, flash photography and backpacks are
unwelcome. Also, she says, "we are not a huge fan of
pointing," which can lead to jabbing, which runs the
risk of unintentional contact with artwork.
A good rule, says
Thompson, is to check everything that
you can before entering a gallery.
This does not include your doggie bag, however. "People
do not understand that they cannot check food," said
Hogan. People ask "'why can't I check my Chipotle
But with 1.6 million
visitors a year, things get left behind. "We don't want
there to be spoilage that could attract insects," Hogan
Spicy Mexican cuisine is
not the only threat. Jeffrey Arnett, manager of
development and marketing for the Museum of Contemporary
Photography at Columbia College Chicago says he is
frequently forced to mediate the conflict between modern
visitors' hydration needs and the more arid requirements
of a photography collection.
"You'd be surprised at
the number of people who come in with a big Jamba
Juice," he said. The museum, which also includes video
and some sculpture, also discourages backpacks.
Photography is fine, as long as you are not attempting
to reproduce photography that is copyrighted.
"We only speak to people
if they're going up really close," Arnett says.
Photography policies in
some places have changed to reflect the times, not to
mention the demands of constantly updating your Facebook
status. When Madeleine Grynsztejn became the MCA's
director in 2008, she lifted a decades-long ban on
"It's part of life now,"
said Corle. "We try to be pretty forward thinking."
But you are welcome to
think whatever you like. Out loud even. From a chair
made of raw flank steak to science exhibits that toy
with your gag reflex, Chicago's museum operators insist
there is nothing impolite in expressing your opinions —
unless you are doing it on your cellphone. Then they
would really, really like you to stop.
"I don't think any
comment is wrong, said Arnett.
"That seems like an old
school way of thinking about it."
On the other hand, said
Thompson, "sometimes it's OK to keep
your mouth shut."
More advice for
volume: "There's no yelling in the
— Lisa Miner, Museum of Science and Industry
Give a little
bit: "If you're really charmed by a place,
join it, be a member, contribute.
A lot of us are really on the brink."
— Greg Peerbolte, Mount Prospect Historical Society
Give yourself a
rest: "When (someone's) behavior is bad,
it's usually because they are tired or hungry or need a
break. I think that applies to adults too."
— Jennifer Farrington, Chicago Children's Museum
It's OK if the
lobster tank makes you hungry, but please don't lick the
"… it may be polite to keep in mind our
staff who help clean the exhibits every day."
— Melissa Kruth, Shedd Aquarium
romantic: "A kiss now and then is fine, but
you're going to miss the show if all you're doing is
necking" at the planetarium.
— Robin Thompson, Etiquette Network
Ask first, then
shoot: When it comes to photography,
"sometimes other places set the rules."
— Nancy O'Shea, Field Museum
backpack, but take out the Chipotle first:
"A backpack is one of the most dangerous things you can
have in a museum. People are not aware of what their
dimensions are." Also: "People do not understand that
they cannot check food."
— Erin Hogan, Art Institute of Chicago
Lay off the
juice: "You'd be surprised at the number of
people who come in with a big Jamba Juice."
— Jeffrey Arnett, Museum of Contemporary Photography
cellphone a rest: "I find it a little
shocking when I walk through our gallery and people will
be in the camp exhibit and take a phone call. It just
strikes me as odd."
— Arielle Weininger, Illinois Holocaust Museum and
Education Center, Skokie
Go ahead and
laugh: "However you react to it is
perfectly acceptable. As long as you're behaving
yourself and not touching the art."
– Amy Corle, Museum of Contemporary Art
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