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Museum Etiquette: is it time to break the rules?

Written by: Helena Davies


Gallery spaces and museums pose as alien landscapes within our contemporary world. Their stillness and relative quiet differentiate them drastically from our normally chaotic days, where every ring, buzz and ping brings another unwanted, but tantalising interruption. This permeating calm seems to breathe a new atmosphere into these canvas-laden landscapes. Inhaling upon entry, every visitor adopts an abnormal, but recognisable behaviour, metamorphosing into what naturalists have come to call the ‘gallery-goer.’ This species comes in many shapes and sizes, but what is for sure is all must adapt to the unspoken etiquette which whistles through this enfilade tundra.


Silence is Golden


Galleries and museums can be mausoleum-like in their silence. A heavy hush pervades every corner, and its invisible presence seems to quiet the chattiest of artistically-minded Cathy’s. Although, there’s always one… Their rambling commentary on Van Gogh and his “troubling” time in Arles just cannot wait, leaving many quietly asking if they’d just gauguin do one. But why do we exercise this (literally) unspoken rule within artistic spaces? Have paintings and their respective show of talent and history become like sacred shrines in front of which artsy pilgrims must respectfully fall silent and immediately drop to their knees? Has the innocuous gallery bench become a pew, from which followers quietly allow artistic expression to wash over them, baptising them into the art historical brotherhood? Or is this simply British intolerance at its finest?


Whatever the reason, the question remains whether silence is indeed golden, and conducive to the ‘gallery experience.’ Yes, it may form the perfect environment for contemplation, but it also threatens to disengage many would-be art enthusiasts from museums and galleries. Younger visitors may learn to associate these exhibition halls with passive activity and unearthly quietness; the oddity of the space distracting and deterring them from the exciting pictorial puzzles which hang from the walls. Is it not time to normalise opinionated and unpretentious intellectual discussion within galleries and museums? This was of course the function of their ancestors, the salon- a space where exhibition was not just limited to pieces of art, but where ideologies and philosophical thought were showcased by the influencers of the day. Let us tear down the normative barricades we have seemingly constructed for ourselves, and take inspiration from our enlightened, loud-mouthed predecessors! Vive la révolution orale!


The museum goer, the newest performance artist?


Continuing with our French theme, which may or may not be getting a tad démodé, we can equate gallery and museum visitors to Matisse’s sinewy, faceless figures in La Danse. Every exhibition goer similarly operates within an anti-clockwise, occasionally clockwise, chain, each performing standardised choreographed moves, and, obediently, reacting to the curator’s drum. A misstep, and you may too quickly hurry past a masterpiece or incorrectly view the artists’ works from death to birth, inviting the disapproving glare of visitors who have actually followed the arrows, and Barbara, the Sunday volunteer, who’s been shaking her head at you this whole time from her foldable stool, thermos in hand. Humiliated, an imperfect performance can leave visitors’ memory of an exhibition stained with their literal faux-pas, leaving little mental space for any pieces they may have enjoyed. Have gallery halls thus become toxic stages where visitors’ artistic savvy and behaviour are silently critiqued and appraised? Admittedly, this assumes all visitors possess a particular level of self-consciousness, yet, is such self-awareness deniable where ‘keeping up appearances’ has become the motto of our Instagram age? Much like breaking the sound barrier within galleries and museums, to bring this curious, taboo-ridden dance to an end, it requires a collective effort to normalise erratic viewing-behaviour, creating exhibition halls which resemble more the chaos of Bosch’s landscapes, than Matisse’s balletic compositions.


This article is not advocating a wave of pandemonium to cascade through our museums and galleries. Instead, it aims to highlight the common behavioural patterns by which we normally unconsciously abide, and to encourage us all to dip our toe into the pool of individuality and challenge these norms. Etiquette and regulation did not hold back the avant-garde artists, whose works often line the walls of museums. Is it not right that we should participate in their rebellion?


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