Do This, Don't Touch That: Museum Etiquette for Beginners

I was having lunch a few weeks ago with a friend who works in the art industry when the topic of museum etiquette came up. I had just gone to see two separate exhibits in town and was marveling at how the atmosphere differed so widely at each gallery. In a town like Houston, which regularly gets large exhibits -- such as the Houston Museum of Natural Science's Terra Cotta Warriors or the Museum of Fine Arts' recent Turrell exhibit -- people who aren't regular museum or gallery-goers are sometimes drawn to these big-name events. Some of these people might even go years between museum visits.

So I put the question to social media: "What are some important tips for museum/gallery etiquette? Do you have any pet peeves with people in galleries?" And I got a huge response, from all sides of the coin, including curators for large museums, gallery owners and casual art lovers alike.

This Saturday is the fourth installment of the Houston Museum Experience. This is the Houston Museum District's reworking of the insanely popular Museum District Day, which also used to occur in September every year. On that day, all 19 of the district's museums were open and free to the public, and the crush it created with thousands of people trying to squeeze in as many museum visits as possible wasn't pleasant for anyone. So at the beginning for 2013, the district decided to divide those museums into four walkable zones, focusing on one zone a quarter.

Zone 4, which is being highlighted all day Saturday, includes some of Houston's busiest destinations -- HMNS (one of the most-visited museums in the country) as well as the Houston Zoo, the Children's Museum of Houston and Rice Gallery. And it's also Families Weekend on the Rice campus. That could mean a lot of people.

If you are new to museums or just don't go that often, check out our guidelines on museum etiquette.


Respect the Space One of the first complaints I hear from a local art lover had to do with litter at a major and very popular traveling exhibition in town. Litter! Who leaves their trash lying around a museum. A lot of people, apparently. Some galleries and installations are dependent on the surrounding to create an "experience" of art, so respecting the space means not just the art itself, but also the room. Be careful about leaning up against surfaces like white walls, where your bag or buckles could leave a mark.

Respecting the Space also means being aware of the atmosphere of a gallery. In some ways it is the responsibility of a museum to set the tone here, but you should also be aware of how the majority of other people are behaving. If everyone is quietly enjoying James Turrell's Ganzfeld and discussing it in hushed tones, it's probably not a good idea to bring a 3-year-old into the exhibit hell-bent on seeing how loud he can make his voice echo.

That's not to say you always have to be quiet. As a curator at a major metropolitan museum replied, "I'm actually for museums being both quiet AND loud and all in-between too. I'm all for finding moments of quiet contemplation, but a museum should be a social place where people can talk, listen to music, etc."

And if you're persnickety about noise, look at it this way: "Museums are institutes of learning. They aren't always going to be quiet, whether it's children, tours, or adults having a discussion. If you prefer to tour in silence, call ahead and ask what days and times are the least busy and plan accordingly."

Respect the Art You might think is a no-brainer, especially in big art museums like the Menil with expensive, heritage works of art. (And it should go without saying, but do not spray-paint your name on the art.) Large museums like that often have sophisticated security systems in place to protect the art. But it also applies to small galleries too. Here are some tips from a friend who owns a gallery in town.

"Do not touch the art unless invited by the gallery owner or artist. Do not, under any circumstances, open flat file drawers or boxes. You'd be shocked by how many people just start going though our storage systems. Do not open any closed doors. All three of these tips are so that you don't ruin art that you don't own. Want to ruin it? Buy it first then take it home and ruin it."

You might think that one light touch on a work of art won't harm it, but places like the Museum of Fine Arts Houston get more than a million visitors a year. Even if a quarter of those people think it's okay to touch a piece of art, that's still 250,000 fingerprints.

The same goes for cell phones and photos. Some galleries allow non-flash photos, but it;s totally inappropriate to be playing with your cell phone the entire time you're inside a gallery. Unless, of course, it's one of those handy cell phone tours.

Respect the Fellow Patrons When you go to see the Crowned Jewels of the United Kingdom, you stand on one of those airport-style people movers that take you past cabinet after cabinet of sparkling glory. You can go through the exhibit as many times as you want, but you can not linger on one piece. The idea behind this is that one or two people don't hog all the front space so no one else can see the artworks.

None of Houston's museums have moving sidewalks (yet), but that doesn't mean you can't be considerate to other museum-goers. Take your time to appreciate the artwork, but don't take all day. In the vast majority of cases, you can always come back around to see it again.

Leave space for others. This was the most common complaint I saw on social media.

"I dislike people that walk right in front of you as you're trying to admire a painting and they block you," said one art lover.

And from a gallery owner:

"Don't block the view of others while you look at your cell phone. Even if you're totally engrossed in a piece, if a room is busy and you've been standing there a while, take a step back and let other people "play through" as it were. You can keep looking after letting someone else have a turn."

At Events I love going to art openings and lectures. They're usually free, they make me feel fancy and educated, and the wine is typically on the house. But that doesn't mean I have to be hoity-toity about it, and neither do you.

One friend in the art world said people will sometimes show up to these events and complain about the food and drinks offered. Ugh, don't be that guy. And don't be rude to the staff, be it a lowly bartender or caterer or the curator or owner of the gallery.

And bad behavior is not limited to museum-goers.

"For artists attending openings, don't monopolize the gallery owner or artist's time with questions," one person in the industry replied. "An opening is to sell work and talk to collectors, not to discuss technique."

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