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Take a Seat

Category: Museum Magazine

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

Here is a scene I witnessed on a recent visit to a major American art museum:

In a foyer between galleries, a young woman pulled out a chair from behind an unused table and sat down in front of a monitor to watch a three-minute video clip. She was well out of the flow of foot traffic. In less time than it took for the clip to play, three guards in succession informed her that she was not permitted to sit where she was sitting and had to get up. The first relented when she explained that she was waiting for a friend and would be there only a few minutes. The second admonished, “If you sit down, everyone else will want to sit down.” Guard number three appeared. “I don’t care what anyone else told you,” he said. “You have to get up.” She did. The chair was quickly replaced. Order was restored. The visitor was perplexed. What’s the problem, she asked me when the guard left. In a Polish museum, back home, there would have been plenty of chairs.

“If you sit down, everyone else will want to sit down.” Well, yes. It’s a video clip. People generally like to watch them sitting down. A dozen or so chairs would fit in the foyer without impeding other visitors. Their presence might even encourage people to watch the video, which after all is there to be seen. What is the problem?

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Indifference and even hostility to visitor comfort is an attitude that seems to be shared by a number of major institutions I’ve visited over the last few years. In brand new, purpose-built museums, I’ve struggled to open doors seemingly designed to keep out Vikings. I’ve attempted to navigate narrow hallways and staircases that barely fit two people abreast. I’ve visited restrooms with exactly one so-called handicapped stall and the others too narrow to comfortably accommodate anyone carrying a bag or a coat or extra weight. I’ve seen non-rectilinear room designs with odd, disorienting angles that present trip hazards and head-banging risks. I’ve walked on stone and concrete floors that tire the feet and amplify unwanted sound. I’ve passed through entire wings with hardly a bench in sight. And almost everywhere, I’ve attempted to read small-type, low-contrast, poorly illuminated labels placed at awkward angles.

The governing assumption seems to be that the average museum visitor is young, strong, thin, tireless, childless, and possessed of better than perfect vision. Of course, actual museum visitors come in all ages, shapes, energy levels, family sizes, and physical abilities. Some are shepherding boisterous toddlers or slow grandparents or both. Some are pregnant. Many are simply beat and would like nothing more than to sit down and look at a painting or sculpture or video for a while.

All of these points should seem obvious; none are new. Many of the principles of what is now known as universal or life-stage design were introduced to the museum field in 1987 with the publication of the Smithsonian Institution’s comprehensive handbook on accessible design, Part of Your General Public is Disabled, which calls for even lighting, uncluttered walkways, readable labels and acoustics without excess reverberation—features that any visitor would appreciate. In 1998, AAM published Everyone’s Welcome: The Americans with Disabilities Act and Museums, a design manual that explicitly makes the point that “a person does not have to be disabled to benefit from access.” Museum conventions now regularly feature sessions on accessible design. Yet here in the 21st century, museums are still being designed, built and furnished in ways that create physical challenges for visitors and actively discourage comfort, rest and relaxation. Why?

One big reason is language. Perhaps because universal design has roots in the disability rights movement, user-friendly features in museums are often consigned, with the best of intentions, to the category of so-called disabled access, sometimes known as “stick on a Braille label and forget it.” The very words “disabled” and “disability” in the titles of our handbooks and workshops serve to reinforce the message that access and comfort are important only for a special limited population, and everyone else can just sort of cope.

Lack of clarity is another cause. In 2002, when I surveyed exhibit developers and administrators at 158 North American hands-on science museums on the topic, there was no general agreement on the definition of “accessible design.” Some thought it meant striving to create a museum environment that accommodated as many different visitors as possible. Others believed it consisted simply of creating spaces for wheelchairs and, yes, sticking on Braille labels. Without agreed-upon definitions, there can be no best practices.

Age might be a factor—not old age, but the relative youth and resilience of many museum workers and designers. Without knowledge and guidelines, it can be difficult to think beyond your own personal limitations, or lack thereof.

Then there is plain elitism. A couple of years ago, when I researched the issue of seating in art museums, staffers at more than one institution told me that in their view, curators resisted installing benches because they would clash with the clean, spare look of the galleries. There were practical reasons as well—thoughtlessly placed benches can become trip hazards—but I was left with the strong impression that in some prestigious museums there resides an old-fashioned sense that the institution exists primarily to serve the art. Visitors are somewhere down the list.

Faced with these obstacles, how can we create museums that not only accommodate but welcome visitors? I would suggest that we approach the creation of the visitor experience from the inside out—in other words, worry less about designer buildings with impressive facades and more about how easily and comfortably the visitor can move through the physical space of the museum, from front door to gallery to café to restroom.

For starters, forget about concepts like access and accommodation. Think about fatigue. Imagine how hard you ask your visitors to work: Stand. Wait. Walk. Search. Observe. Read. Listen. Interact. Recall. Navigate. Often, they’re in an unfamiliar space in a foreign city, on a limited schedule, with companions who have other agendas. They might have headaches, or tight underwear, or perhaps forgot their reading glasses back at the hotel. In those circumstances, who wouldn’t prefer a comfortable, easy-to-use environment? Who wouldn’t want to sit down once in a while?

In the spirit of inside-out design, here is a short list of interior features that can be modified quickly, easily and not too expensively, to the benefit of the greatest number of visitors. None involve structural changes. All can be quickly prototyped and evaluated.

Seating. There are many reasons your visitors might want to sit, and very few legitimate reasons to deny them. Benches and chairs should be placed in galleries and elsewhere—with attention to traffic patterns to avoid trip hazards. Visitors will be happier, more receptive and less tired. And they won’t go back to their home countries annoyed at your museum.

Labels. Easily legible labels are better for everyone. Labels should be in high-contrast, large type, well illuminated, at an easy angle to read. There is no need to sacrifice design for legibility. Lighthouse International, to name just one resource, has a number of articles and guidelines on why legible signs make good design sense. About Braille: The American Foundation for the Blind estimates that about 80 percent of blind and vision-impaired people in the United States have some useful vision. Of the remaining 20 percent, only a small percentage read Braille. By all means, keep sticking up those Braille labels, but be aware that the vast majority of your vision-impaired visitors can read. Legible signs help them immensely.

Lighting. Sure, certain works of art require low light. But thanks to inexpensive pin spots, there is no reason to keep labels, doorways, passageways and general signage dimly lit as well.

Open captioning. Videos should have open captions whenever possible. In addition to assisting the hearing-impaired, they help visual learners, non-native English speakers, visitors who can’t hear properly over ambient gallery noise and people with hearing impairments who don’t self-identify that way. Captions also allow you to keep the video volume down, reducing noise and visitor ear fatigue.

Steve Tokar is a writer and museum consultant in San Francisco. He can be reached at

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