Fading Museum Etiquette – Why Museums are Refusing to Help Themselves Against the Onslaught of Broken Britain

When I was a child of primary school age two decades ago, I was taught how to behave appropriately in museums and visitor attractions. The main lessons that I learnt gave me such a respect for the museum industry that I chose a career in it. So why have these basic morals been thrown out of the window lately?

Here’s a secret from the museum workers on ground level that our managers never want you to know: Increasingly large percentages of the young families and indeed school groups who visit attractions are an absolute nightmare for us to deal with.

All of the basic etitquette I learnt as a child as been lost to a whole new generation, and sadly that etiquette I learnt was nothing more than common sense and good manners.

For instance, as a young child I would never have dreamed of climbing on an museum exhibit, and neither would any of my friends. We were gently taught that museum exhibits were delicate and unfathomably old. We respected exhibits as we would want someone respect our favourite toys. If we wanted to climb on something, then if we behaved well at the museum we got to play at the park on the way home. If I had have treated a museum exhibit like a jungle gym, I would have been sternly taken home to get a reprimand and not get any dessert. Sound familiar? This was back when parents taught us how to be responsible. The era of parents who treat their offspring like miniature Maharajahs hadn’t yet dawned.

In a similar vein, by the time I was school age I knew better than to wander off without my parents in an unfamiliar building. Today, I have lost count of parents of young children who choose to sit in the musem cafe tapping away on their smartphones whilst blithely letting their children race around knocking over little old ladies. I’ve worked in a few sites where the building wasn’t purpose built. Instead, the museum or attraction was housed in historic buildings, fortifications etc. Letting a child loose on a building that in the case of forts and castles were literally designed to kill people is a notion which consistently baffles me. I have had to rescue children from perilous embankments, sheer drops and areas that are out of bounds to visitors due to being structurally unsound. At one site, ambulances weren’t a rare occurrence as children, left to their own naive devices, were using a 30ft steep slope as a slide and slicing themselves to pieces on the gravel below. In 99% of these incidents, it took us over 5 minutes to locate the parents. I lived in fear of an unaccompanied child careering down a stone spiral staircase and breaking their neck. 20 years ago this wouldn’t have been a problem. Parents would have been watching their children like hawks and pointing out potentially dangerous areas.

You may be thinking that these problems could be eliminated by signs warning visitors of dangerous areas or uneven surfaces, or indeed, by us, the staff who watch it happen.

Nearly every visitor manager I’ve worked with has tried to explain to me why signs are evil. Apparently, a sign that says ‘don’t do…. don’t go….don’t let….’ gives an aggressive impression and is ‘overwhelmingly negative.’ Bollocks. A child screaming the house down because they’ve fallen off of a 20ft wall and broken their leg is negative. Signs are a simple way of giving people information.

My argument against the negativity statement is that putting a ‘please’ before a ‘don’t’ works wonders, and also if the sign explained why we don’t want a visitor to do something, they will understand our reasoning and respect it. For the majority of the time at least.

Modern parents, particularly, it seems, the ones from more affluent backgrounds, seem to expect that gallery and museum floor staff double up as au pairs. We don’t. I am not responsible for your child’s safety or behaviour. I am responsible for protecting the fabric of the building and exhibits and to teach visitors about them.

One gem that I never used to hear 10 years ago but is now increasingly regular is a parent saying to a boisterous child “Now, Tarquin, please don’t be naughty. Otherwise that lady in the uniform will come and tell you off!” It gives me a perverse pleasure to make a point of telling the parent that I absolutely will not. I get great satisfaction in informing the parent that it is actually their responsibility to discipline their own child, and if they fail to do so, I will tell the parent off. It is apparently not enough that modern parents let their children act like Lords of the Manor whilst fretting that their child is turning into a tiny tyrant, apparently they now expect me to pick up their slack and do their parenting duties for them!

This may seem trivial, but consider the wider consequences. Pandering parents teach their children that museum staff are terrifying harpies. When the clueless adults then leave the child to wander off unaccompanied, these children aren’t coming to museum staff anymore to be reunited with their parents. Instead of going to the ‘friendly lady in the uniform whom it is safe to talk to’, they frequently hide from us because they have been told that our only role is to berate them. This can cause some fraught situations where young children are nowhere to be seen, and ignorant parents are, you guessed it, blaming museum staff.

Now, please do not assume that I am a child hating militant. I do not hate children. I often find them to be insightful and, if encouraged in a proper way, enthusiastic and willing to learn. No, I am a useless-parent hating militant. I despair that the basic morals and manners that were drummed into my generation are not being passed on by that same generation to the next. What is wrong with us? We are already seeing the consequences every day of our softly softly approach. Hug a hoodie? No! Bloody well teach him some old fashioned discipline and respect!

It is because of a lack of respect that a regular extra duty of many gallery and museum staff is to remove graffiti and garbage.

School groups are even worse, which I think that those parents who mercifully do still have a their heads screwed in tightly would be shocked by. Again, it is not all teachers that I am on a crusade against, but a shocking number of teachers (the younger they are the worse they become) treat school trips as an opportunity for a bit of a break from their pupils. These teachers sit on a bench catching up on the new Maeve Binchy, blissfully ignorant of what the hell their class is up to. This poses a new problem – what do you do when an irresponsible adult has 30+ children running around unsupervised? I’ve known some teachers to actually leave the site completely for hours at a time, expecting that gallery staff who already have a job to do to teach the class as well.

Why do we let our teachers get away with such laziness? Teachers regularly complain in the media that they are exhausted by having to teach children the manners that should be taught at home by the previously mention yummy mummies. And yet too often I encounter teachers doing the bare minimum that is required by law, and sometimes even less. The adult to child ratio law is often ignored, yet my managers will let the group in as long as they are paying their ticket fees.

Bingo. They’re a source of money! We won’t care if you let your delinquents tear our priceless heritage apart as long as you keep paying for your tickets! The ticket money doesn’t seem to go into restoration of the damaged items, either. But you will spot a museum director driving into the staff car park in his new Audi.

Wouldn’t this money be better spent elsewhere? I can think of one really good investment: Plexi glass panels to cover carvings/frescoes/etc that are at risk from environmental damage and graffiti, and fences and barriers that prevent visitors getting close enough to do damage. Again, my Yes Men managers will argue that a barrier or velvet rope is ‘excluding.’ Again, bollocks. As museum staff, we have a responsibility to protect and preserve our exhibits and buildings for the next generation to enjoy. We won’t have any heritage left if we insist on letting this current generation slowly destroy it though vandalism. But we wouldn’t want them to tell them off, they may not like us. They may be put in a bad enough mood that they don’t spend their money on the tat we sell in gift shops. They may not come back and pay for another ticket. Ah, it all comes back to money, doesn’t it!

One site managers I worked for was a failed garage door salesman. He didn’t give a shit about the building or the exhibits it housed, as long as his figures were good. I don’t think he could have even told you 5 facts about the history of our site. Who the hell put him in charge?

In January, the V+A was in the news when it was revealed the extent of damage to objects caused by visitors in the last 3 years. This is a perfect example of how a museum seems to be steadfastly refusing to help itself. Every time I’ve visited there has been football sized pitch areas crammed with objects that have one solitary gallery warden patrolling the area. One staff member v. a few hundred visitors on an average day = inevitable damage.

The V+A keep some objects behind glass, but not all. And they wouldn’t know what a velvet rope was if it hit them in their face. Everyone knows what a velvet rope means. Are they honestly surprised that objects are getting scratched when it is so easy for a visitor to use that object as a table, or to bump into it?

If the V+A has any Don’t Touch signs, they weren’t placed in prominent areas and were so unobtrusive that they were indeed, invisible. Don’t complain that your objects are crumbling if you don’t explain that you don’t want them touched.

I’ve had to remind customer not to lick priceless paintings (you get all sorts) and yet my manager at the time suggested I should have just let the visitor slurp and drool away, all over a oil painting that ahd survived for centuries but whose immediate future now looked bleak. Why? Because we wouldn’t want to upset the visitor, even though he is hell bent on damaging a painting with his own tongue.

I partly blame sites such as TripAdvisor. Particularly for smaller museums, a negative review has the potential to seriously dent visitor numbers. So if we reprimand a vandal, and that vandal writes a harsh review on TripAdvisor, then fewer people will visit, meaning less income, and our managers do not want this because they will have to buy a Fiat Punto instead of an Audi.

For ever lily livered visitor manager, there is a careworn curator, hidden in the depths of unseen archives somewhere on the site, sobbing into his Kenco. This curator is increasingly rarely seen outside of his office, as the site of his beloved life’s work is torn to shreads on a daily basis on the other side of his door.

To any museum workers reading this: When was the last time you saw a curator and a visitor manager sitting next to each other, laughing, at your Christmas Party?

Curators have been relegated to the least important person in a museum, save perhaps for the gift shop girl. Actually, no, she brings in revenue. The curator simply demands to spend that revenue on restoration work. The curator knows how to preserve and protect our heritage, but his voice is drowned out by YesMen with dreams of how their plan to build a rollercoaster in the grounds of the castle is going to really be a big moneymaker!

Whilst I am evidently quite ready to rant extensively on these problems, I admit to have no idea how to solve them. Where would you start? Sadly, I can see our rich heritage fading away in the near future, and that is heartbreaking.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Fading Museum Etiquette – Why Museums are Refusing to Help Themselves Against the Onslaught of Broken Britain

  1. There are times I long for the days of the dust covered museum, well funded and equally regarded as no-go zones for many. I know in south-east Wales we struggle with local museums acting as a drop in centers for disaffected youths who treat the sites as nothing more than jungle-gyms. It is a cause of great sadness.

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