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Monday Musings: Accessible to Whom?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
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 Another in an occasional series of 15 minute musings on items in the news last week.
I’m working on a blog post for tomorrow on museums’ efforts to be accessible to a broad range of audiences.  (And it is slow going—please  lob stories and links to me if you have any museum accessibility news to contribute. Thank you.)
Anyway,  I’ve been distracted by thinking about the story from last week about how the Musee d’Orsay evicted a couple and their child who were on a free trip to the museum with a group that supports “hard up” families. Why? For being “smelly.” Another story quoted a spokesperson from the sponsoring group as saying “”Women who stink of perfume don’t get asked to leave. No one calls security when you see people pontificating in front of paintings.”
Good point. I have found both such groups extremely annoying, on occasion.
Contrast this with the story @adamrozan tweeted about this morning on how the Boston Children’s Museum is offering deeply discounted admission to families on public assistance to “attract a demographic that has largely stayed away” from the museum in the past.
Getting people into the building is only half the battle: how do museums make people feel welcome once they are there? I’ve heard complaints from teenagers who feel harassed for…well, for being teenagers—loud, flirty, rambunctious, social. I’ve heard from people of color who felt uncomfortable just because no one else in a museum “looked like them.” Even CFM’s (white, upper class, highly educated) lecturer Jane McGonigal chided museums for “making her feel stupid.”
The question of what subtle signals museums send, consciously and unconsciously about who is welcome, and who is not, about acceptable behavior, dress, demeanor, is really complicated. For now I want to focus on the more egregious issue raised by the Musee d’Orsay’s behavior: what is your museum’s policy about chastising, or evicting, visitors? Do you have homeless people coming in to use your restrooms (and maybe hang out to see the art?) If so, do you welcome them in or escort them out? What is so unacceptable that someone would be asked to leave–does the person have to appear actually dangerous, or merely make others feel uncomfortable?
I’d appreciate it if you shared any policies (official or unofficial) your museum has on this issue. And if you don’t have any policies—how do your front line staff actually handle these situations? 

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  1. When I worked visitor services during "free hours" at a mid-sized NYC institution, we had a few homeless regulars – some more presentable and properly clothed than others. One regualar, in particular, would politely check his shopping bag of scavenged bottles at the coat check and proceed to see the exhibits. Upon his return, he would be utterly gracious and wait for his bag, at times telling us what other institutions he had visited that week during their respective free hours. It was fascinating that this man was so nice and willing to come into such prestigious and frankly fancy places. Furthermore, since only security guards and VS people worked free night hours, we were under the impression that the rest of the staff was unaware of the homeless attendees.

    To put all of this in a historical perspective, the first museum "public day" was proposed in 1780, but was nixed because the trustees thought that people not in the upper echelons on society would be "in liquor". Had this rule continued, many of us (middle class/ upper middle class) would not be allowed in today.

  2. One of the simplest ways we do this is with a policy we call "spontaneous free." It costs $5 for adults to visit our museum normally. But if you walk in the door and you look uncertain–about the fee, about the experience, whatever–we just make up a reason and invite you in for free. We figure if you made it IN the door, we don't want you to not come further because of the fee.

    We started this policy after I talked to a librarian who told me that the best thing he did for community relations was waive late fines. Someone walks in feeling guilty, and you turn it into an experience of generosity that builds a positive relationship. We want to do the same for our visitors–to feel like we are offering a gift instead of charging a fee.

  3. I am an over 50 year old, single with out kids grad student at a college in Buffalo, NY.I have been made to feel unwelcome in our Science museum to such an extent that I no longer venture there. Between being point blank that museums are for kids and I need to get used to not having any adult programming save fundraisers, to having a member of senior staff make remarks about my gender/sexual identity to being followed by security for no reason other than being their with out a child – I've had it with the place. Similarly, most of the museums I visit have issues with single adults even being there, we are charged more person for memberships given less programming and expected to cede over the best places and most fun activities to families, for community days and the like we are charged the same as a family of three – but not welcome to participate in the vast majority of the activities and more. Remind me again, why people like me are supposed to visit and support museums? Because from where I sit, they are not accessible to people like me. Heck they are down right inhospitable

  4. My museum experiences have always been enjoyable – for which I am thankful.

    The situations you present here – pose a conundrum, both for the public and for the museums.

    It seems a step in the right direction that accessibility is being evaluated.

    To know that museum directors, staff, and board members realize the therapeutic, educational, and generally edifying effects of a museum and how this benefits all echelons of people – is encouraging.

    Tactful communication – whether verbal or visual – is key in handling uncomfortable situations.

    One can understand the standpoint of museum staff when encountering questionably clean, questionably mannered visitors.

    Something to ponder however: Would many of the great artists of our past even passed muster – given the requirements of high social status and spotless appearance?

    Also – today's visiting child (from undetermined background and status) may very well be a treasured artist of the future.

  5. Because your museum accessibility post is so thought provoking, I was compelled to comment again. The questions "who should be allowed to visit museums and why or why not" seem extremely important and worthy of much careful thought by a panel or discussion group.

    Although I am not affiliated with any museums, but have experienced many as a visitor… the obstacle these issues present is understandable to me – from a teacher's viewpoint.

    The quality of the group experience may suffer from a chatty, smelly, or unpleasant participant – but as Nina mentions in her comment – if the visitor attends, that itself is a step in the right direction.

    One example of concise and quickly-conveyed information is the overall genre of picture books for children. Most often they use humor, minimal text but maximum imagery. (Humor and visual ideas are the key here.) This idea might be converted to museum use – but in the form of brief, funny museum etiquette video installations along the museum entrance corridors. This might also provide a way to feature new video artist's work.

    Picture a video featuring a loud, stinky skunk (Pepe Le Pew type of character)… visitors around him stare and faint. Pepe visits the restroom sink, freshens up and enters the museum quietly. People smile at him and say "Bonjour Monsieur".

    Thus, it might be necessary to reconfigure museum entrances – making restrooms available within the entrance.

    Again, referring to previous comments, free days are a gift to the public on behalf of the museum – so the museum should be able to limit the areas visited, as well as size of groups visiting. Free days might be the best time to feature outdoor sculpture gardens – rendering too much perfume, dishevelment, and loud talk less offensive.

    To utilize volunteer "museum intermediaries" – more tactfully called "museum hosts and hostesses" may be useful in some situations. Perhaps their job is strolling the museum, "checking the pulse" of group temperament. Free days may require people to be placed in small visiting groups – then, if a problem arises, the museum host could discreetly mention that another group docent is available to lead part of the original group through the museum tour "to enhance their museum visit".

    Through careful observation, discreet management, and tactful interaction it should be possible to share our wonderful museums – created through the imagination and labor of a wide variety of people – TO a wide variety of people.

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