Minding Your Manners at the Museum

By Shantay Robinson


photo by Julian Plowden for Black Art In America

Working at a museum’s front desk for five years, I’ve seen a lot of things, heard a lot of complaints, and had to impart rules verbally to patrons. It was my job to impart, what some people thought were unfair rules. At times, it was tough. People couldn’t understand why their children shouldn’t be carried on their shoulders or why babies in carriers needed to be worn in the front. They would argue with me for enforcing the rules of the museum that were put in place not only to protect the art, but to make sure everyone was safe. To be clear, sharing 10 important museum rules from my experience will keep a lot of people from being embarrassingly reprimanded and make the work for museum staff around the world much easier. There are rules, so there are security guards in large museums to enforce those rules. If they tell you something, they’re just doing their jobs. God forbid something happens to an artwork, not only will the work of art be ruined, the security guard will be at fault for not protecting the gallery. So, to keep things running smoothly, I’ve compiled this list of 10 very important rules for visiting art museums.

  • No eating and drinking in the galleries

While most museums have cafes, they are usually tucked away in spaces far from the art because museums forbid food and drink near the art. Accidents happen, people can be pushy, they can trip and fall, even sippy cups can leak. In order to preserve the art to the best of their ability, there is no eating and drinking in the galleries. Museums tend to have events where food and drinks are served. If you notice, they don’t hold these events in the galleries with art. If there is art around, this means the museum is trusting that you will be careful. In the museum where I worked, the lobby was typically where events were held. Although there is artwork in the lobby, they are placed away from where people can interact with them, some have wire barriers around them. No eating and drinking in the galleries holds true for young children as well. If your child needs to be replenished, take them to the café where there will be tables and chairs available for you to eat and drink comfortably.

  • Stay a safe distance from the artwork

On several occasions, I’ve noticed the daredevil in people. They stand as close as they possibly can to the painting pointing a daring finger at an artwork to show someone what they mean. Just imagine if a person behind you bumped you at just that moment. That daring finger would go right through the painting. Don’t do that. When I see these people, they are so certain of what they’re doing, as if accidents couldn’t happen. Stay a safe distance from the artwork. Nobody wants that accident to happen. But to ensure the safety of the valuable art, use your best judgement. Sometimes there are wire barriers close to the floor to avoid people from getting too close. There might be lines on the floor, so you keep your distance. Glass is sometimes used to keep people from poking and prodding at the art. Respect those barriers. And just because the barriers are there doesn’t mean you have to stand exactly where your body and the barrier meet.

  • Don’t be noisy

Museums should be serene to enhance art watching. In order to maximize vision, sounds should be kept at a minimum. Noise in the gallery is distracting to the other museum-goers. Loud talking can disrupt others from engaging in deep thought. If you must discuss your museum experience with your company, do so in a respectful voice. Avoid talking on the phone in the galleries, if you must take a call, do so in the lobby of the museum where noise is allowed. People are so sensitive to the sound of noise in the galleries, I once received a complaint about the security guards communicating on walkie talkies, and they were doing their jobs. Often times, at the museum where I worked, when there were events in the lobby, the sound would float up to the higher-level galleries. And while these events were expected to be loud, some people still complained. The music playing in the lobby affords a different experience in the museum. When these events happen, you have to expect your museum-going to be affected. I would suggest you avoid going to the museum at these times. While the museum is typically quiet during daytime hours, when school groups arrive, all of that changes. My suggestion would be to visit another gallery while the school groups are there. It is quite difficult to conduct interactive tours of the museum without hearing their voices.

  • Documenting your visit should not disrupt the experience for others

Some museums don’t allow you take pictures, so ask. Other museums will allow you to take personal pictures. But don’t use the flash. The artworks are sensitive to light. If you are a commercial photographer and you would like to take pictures, you should ask for a pass. Selfies are great to share on social media, but don’t hog the artwork so other people can’t see it. And don’t spend a lot of time trying to take the perfect selfie when others are waiting to look at the artwork unobstructed. On another note about social media, it can wait. Take the image you would like to post and then move to another location to write about it. Also, if you see someone engrossed in an artwork, and you would like someone to take a picture of your group of friends, find someone else. Don’t ask the person who is engaging with the artwork.

  • Don’t be pushy

When shows open, everyone wants to be the first to see it, so the museum can be very crowded. The museum, which is often looked at as a serene place, can get downright maniacal. People push, they become impatient, they yell at the workers and make them cry (my true story). If the museum is crowded, don’t be pushy. Everyone wants to get a glimpse of the work. At busy times, you are not going to see everything without interruption. Museums are open most days of the week. If you don’t see everything you want to see, go back another day. They are typically quite empty during the day and many museums have evening hours on some days. If you decide to go to the museum on an opening day or a free event, expect to be in a crowd. Everyone had the same idea. Deal with it.

  • Be mindful of your children

The museum is a great place to bring children, so they get exposed to art and culture. Even though it can be a place for everyone, everyone is trying to enjoy the museum, so control your kids. Children can get restless at the museum. So, if you plan a trip, try to do it on days when there are activities for them. The museum where I worked has so many activities and special events for children. They even have a play room. Do your research, and plan to venture to the museum with the kids in mind. And if you are seeking some deep contemplation with your kids, take breaks, so they can run around outside, and then reenter the museum when they’ve released some energy. Museums are no place for running around and touching expensive things you can’t afford to replace if your children destroy them. There should be no running in galleries or horse playing. This goes for kids, as well as adults.

  • Clean up after yourself

Museum staff work hard at keeping the environment as clean as it can be. Long before you get there and long after the museum is closed, cleaning staff are there picking up behind you. The cleaning crew at the museum where I worked were some of the sweetest people you could meet. They always seemed to be happy despite the mess they were left to clean. Try to make their jobs easier by putting your trash in the proper receptacles. This also goes for the cafes and restrooms. While it is their job to clean the space, why not make an arduous job a little easier?

  • Don’t be a snob

Art and culture have a bad reputation for breeding snobs. Don’t be a snob. Maybe at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions snobbery is accepted, but at a public museum, it’s unnecessary. While you may have a little more art history education than your fellow patron, it certainly doesn’t mean you should throw it in their face. Art, and especially public museums, are for everyone. Being a tour guide at the museum, I found out people love to learn more about art. Let’s have some respect for our fellow patrons and allow them to become cultured at their own pace. Just being at the museum means they have open minds and are attempting to enculturate themselves.

  • No vaping

Vaping is new, so while there are signs that state you should do your smoking outside, you shouldn’t vape in the museum either. The mist from the device could be very damaging to the artwork. Many people think sneaking a quick pull won’t hurt because others don’t see it and can’t smell it. But could you imagine if everyone was doing it, how much mist would be in the air?

  • Be mindful of your space

Last, but certainly not least, be mindful of where you are. Don’t lean on anything. Not even the walls. Some of these walls are moveable. Leaning on them can cause a catastrophe. And when surfaces rub on each other, colors transfer. You don’t want to leave your mark in that way. If you have big bags check them at the coat check or you might get reprimanded by security when you get up in the galleries and have to go back to the entrance to check your bag. From experience, it is the personnel at the front desk’s job to direct you to the coat check if you are carrying a large bag. Carrying babies on your back is also not allowed. When things like babies and backpacks are on your back, you are at a higher risk of knocking something down behind you. You really don’t want that to happen.


Bonus: Follow the rules! They are put in place to protect you and others. They are there so you can have a pleasant experience. They are made to protect the artwork for future generations. And if you are reprimanded, don’t take offense. Someone is just doing their job.

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Shantay Robinson, BAIA resident scholar has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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