Museum Manners
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 visitor engagement.

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 everywhere?

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 institution.

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 their picture.

The bad news is that they're probably just being polite.

Robin Thompson, 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 leftovers?'"

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 said.

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 photography.

"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 visitors

Adjust your volume: "There's no yelling in the Whispering Gallery."
— 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 glass:
"… it may be polite to keep in mind our staff who help clean the exhibits every day."
— Melissa Kruth, Shedd Aquarium

Isn't it 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

Check your 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

Give your 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

Copyright 2011, Chicago Tribune


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