Why we should get excited in museums

Richard Wendorf, Issue 115/02, p14, 02.02.2015
About a year ago, I visited my friend Steven Parissien at Compton Verney, where he is the director, to see the exhibition of English landscapes he had curated.

It was a rich, lovely show and, as we wandered from room to room, we became quite animated. At one point, we were approached by someone who had broken away from a tour of the gallery. “Don’t you realise this  is a museum?” he asked.

“You’re making so much noise that we can’t hear what our guide is saying.”

We bit our tongues and gave each other a bemused look. Later, however, as I made my way back to my own museum, I entertained several conflicting thoughts.

The first was an appreciation of the irony of the situation, in which two museum directors had to be reminded where they were standing. The second was that it was terrific that these museum-goers were hanging on to a guide’s every word. The third was a sense of mild embarrassment that our excitement had distracted other visitors.

But my final response, which I wish to examine here, was to think more generally about the kind of behaviour we would like to see displayed by visitors. Don’t we, more than anything, want people to become engaged with what they are viewing, and isn’t a vigorous conversation just what the arts should generate?

Why should galleries become hushed temples of visual culture? Isn’t there room for a museum of exuberance, both in the art that is displayed and in our reaction to it?

And now the caveats. I am not condoning any kind of behaviour that is so intrusive that it prevents other visitors from concentrating on the art on display.

We have all had exasperating experiences of this kind, often in large museums, where surging crowds focus on a particular iconic object, cameras in hand and phones at the ready. Some may see this as engagement, while others will see it as disrespectful to the art and distracting to other visitors.

I don’t wish to adjudicate these disputes. However, I do wonder just how our galleries devoted to painting, sculpture, prints and drawings became the hushed and hallowed sepulchres they often appear to be – or aspire to be. Like others, I have argued that libraries, museums and concert halls have become the chapels and cathedrals of an increasingly secularised society.

Libraries and concert halls naturally call for a respectful silence, as readers and listeners engage with texts and performances. But is a hushed atmosphere the healthiest way in which to engage with visual art? And isn’t an exchange between viewers one of the social and cultural productions that artists hope to generate?

I was a trustee of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts for a decade before moving to the UK, and nothing gave me more pleasure than taking my children through its galleries on Saturday mornings. I always gave them the same assignment: after half an hour or so, tell me which one painting you would like to take home and why.

They loved this exercise and excelled at it, blending emotional responses with increasingly solid aesthetic ones. And they both became excited, just as Steven and I had done, and inevitably caused a raised eyebrow or two. I thought that was fine then – and I still do today.

Nothing gives me more satisfaction in my own museum than hearing animated conversation and laughter well up within the central hallway of the manor house. I sometimes take a look down at our visitors from my perch on the top floor to see what they are responding to – and then I return to my office and, if necessary, shut the door.

Richard Wendorf is the director of the American Museum in Britain, Bath


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MA Member
19.02.2015, 09:20
This is just a question of balance and common sense, surely? I don't think there is any museum now where reverent silence is the norm, and nor should there be. On the other hand, no-one wants either children screaming, or adults loudly talking on mobiles, so other visitors can't concentrate on what they're seeing or hearing. One simply needs to consider other people or, in the case of children, their parents need to consider other people, and explain to their offspring that chatting and asking questions is absolutely fine, running around screaming is not. The same would apply in a restaurant or on a train.
18.02.2015, 20:05
I love and agree with the sentiment expressed by the poster below about museums being places places of lively discussion. But catering to the needs of all visitors is not always easy.

Whether the chat is about the art or the football, talking over a tour is really difficult for the people trying to listen, as well as the person trying to lead the tour (is 'tour-guides-throat a recognised medical condition?!).

While that still needs thought to resolve, catering for those seeking quiet contemplation might be easier: Would it be possible for galleries to have Quite Time, an hour a week when a space could be set aside for silent viewing?

Just as much as talk and noise is important, so is time to sit and be silent. In busy cities, this could be a really attractive idea to bring people into museums and galleries.
MA Member
09.02.2015, 14:06
When I worked at a museum, I would often hear parents tell their children to "Shh! You have to be quiet". I would say "No. It's fine. We're not a library". Museums should be a place full of discussions, debates, facts, opinions, musings and questions (and hopefully answers). I think it comes down to the nature or subject of the conversation. If visitors are discussing the objects on display then that should be encouraged (alot of my object research came from overhearing associated stories or comments made by visitors and following it up) but if visitors are discussing mundune/irrelevant things, such as the football score last night, what they are having for tea and the price of petrol, then I would be upset too if my gallery tour was interrupted by this chatter.
Jane Kidd
Collections Curator, RGU Art & Heritage Collections
05.02.2015, 10:40
I am glad Richard had a good solution for engaging his children with art. But the reason people keep their voices down in galleries is not for some deep spiritual reason. I'm afraid it's for the same simple reason they do this in restaurants (unless they have drunk a lot!). It's because they don't want everyone else in a big space to hear their mundane or irrelevant remarks. Museums could either provide soft furnishings such as seats (I wish!) and carpets or background noise and music and the problem would be solved.