Where the Seats Have No Name: In Defense of Museum Benches

Category: Exhibitions
A woman sits on a long backless bench in front of a contemporary art piece.

Sitting gets a bad rap. The last few years have seen articles and media outlets touting that “Sitting is the new smoking.” Standing desks are the latest office furniture trend. And in museums too, it seems like visitors are primarily encouraged to meander, remaining upright. But sitting isn’t all bad. In fact, there are many reasons why placing one’s derriére on a horizontal surface can make a museum visit more enjoyable: to rest, to write, to sketch, to talk, to look, etc.

Benches are for everyone, not just those who are tired, but for elderly visitors, disabled guests, those not feeling well, parents with energetic children, and anyone simply eager for a quick break to stop and appreciate where they are.

There aren’t enough benches in museums. Sure, it’s common to see a nice bench here and there in art museums, aesthetically perfect below a large masterpiece. Museums place benches in their lobbies and hallways. And seating is typically included in museum theaters and small AV alcoves. But for the most part, benches are scarce throughout exhibition galleries. In conversations about museum planning and exhibit design, benches hardly make an appearance.

Keep seating in mind when developing your next exhibition. Here are four things to think about when including benches in your museum.

Help Visitors Slow Down

Museum fatigue is real. It’s not fair to expect visitors to stand, walk, and think for hours without getting both physically and mentally exhausted. People get tired, overheated, bored, and distracted. But a bench does more than give one’s legs a rest. Providing more benches in exhibit galleries encourages visitors to slow their pace – to stop, and look, and reflect. As artist Paul Klee wrote in his 1920 credo “For the understanding of a picture, a chair is needed. Why a chair? To prevent the legs, as they tire, from interfering with the mind.” This is true not just for art and art museums, but also for the understanding of artifacts, stories, and technical concepts in history museums, science museums, and nature centers.

Make Them Part of the Plan

Back in 1975, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts started an initiative called “Please Be Seated,” where the institution commissioned contemporary furniture makers to design gallery seating. The benches were simultaneously works of art and utilitarian objects. Make benches part of the programmatic requirements for new exhibitions, in all types of museums. Design them into the exhibition floor plan, and commit to keeping them there, even when the desire to add more artifacts or content puts them on the chopping block. Coordinate the benches with the materials and finishes of the exhibit. It would be nice if, during the design of an exhibition, benches got the same amount of attention as things like wall colors and lighting.

Encourage Hanging Out

In a 2008 Museum 2.0 blog post, museum guru Nina Simon asks, “Where are the couches in museums?” Museums should take a cue from places like Starbucks and Panera that encourage guests to use their cafés as freelance workspaces and informal meeting venues. Cultural institutions could do what Capitol One has done to banking – catchphrase, “Museums Reimagined!” – and invite visitors to spend time in their facilities without any pressure or obligation to view the exhibitions. Perhaps designated benches and “hangout” areas could become a perk of museum membership, similar to airline-affiliated airport lounges.

Know the Rules

Ironically, benches are often excluded from exhibit galleries because there’s a fear that they might violate accessibility standards. By placing them in the center of rooms or circulation routes, they’re sometimes seen as potential trip hazards. There’s also a common, and false, belief that all museum benches must have backrests and armrests in order to comply with ADA requirements. Check out Section 903 to see what the requirements are for ADA-compliant benches. But better yet, since that doesn’t cover all benches, take a look at the Smithsonian Institution’s helpful accessibility guidelines on public seating..

British writer, Tom Hodgkinson, wrote about benches. “Whoever first came up with the idea is a genius: free public resting places where you can take time out from the bustle and brouhaha of the city, and simply sit and watch and reflect.” Hodgkinson’s magazine, The Idler, advocates slow, leisurely pursuits. And what is a modern visit to the museum, if not an activity for leisure?

So, take a seat, relax, and please include more benches in your next museum design project.


David Whitemyer is the Director of Business Development at Luci Creative, an exhibit and experience design firm, and an instructor in Johns Hopkins University’s Museum Studies program. He can be reached at david@lucicreative.com

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Comments

4 Comments

  1. My partner always comments on the seating in museums that I drag him to. I have kept a visual log of him NOT looking at art: https://bit.ly/2J8UlE2

    But, when Carnegie Museum of Art had bean bag chairs for their exhibition of Jacqueline Humphries, he said sitting there made him consider the artwork longer than he had previously!

  2. As a museum professional who has been accused, with reason, as being the “bathroom and benches” guy because of my advocacy for visitor comfort, I found this article a breath of fresh air. My only problem is that, as is typical of AAM articles you only got the perspective of art museums. “Museum” does not equal “art museum.” Art museums are only 4.5% of of US museums according to IMLS. Why does AAM keep portraying them as the only voice that matters?

    Imagine how much more nuanced this article could have been if you discussed the challenges of placing benches in a historic house museum, an industrial museum, or a zoo or aquarium?

  3. You may want to check out “The Convivial Museum,” a book I co-authored with Wendy Pollock, which explores the broad significance of seating in museums. We not only advocate for seating as affordances of leisure and rest, but also as tools for dialogue, accessibility, and even the sharing of power. You can tell a lot about a museum’s core values by the types of seating it provides. Available at the ASTC bookstore online. http://members.astc.org/astc_prod_imis/ItemDetail?iProductCode=158&WebsiteKey=56a4f481-6bb9-45a8-96a1-f9abf9c90cbc

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