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Sofa So Good: A word on behalf of older folks

Category: Alliance Blog
A sofa at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo credit: Mick Haupt on Unsplash

I don’t know about you, but a career in museums has made it very difficult for me to be a satisfied museum visitor. I find that I am always peering into “how the sausage is made,” as it were, noticing how the front-of-house staff interact with visitors, questioning if the museum store is well-stocked with “mission-related” inventory (oh, my word, that teddy bear is most definitely “non-related business income!”). My family doesn’t even enjoy being near me during our museum visits, seeking usually the farthest gallery from me to begin their wanderings. Fair enough.

Here is an example of what I mean, from a visit I made last month to a revered museum which had just completely redone its galleries to much acclaim. Even before I entered, I wondered: Did a team of curatorial and visitor experience staff closely collaborate on this rejuvenation, or were the galleries given up to curators one by one, leaving each expert to have their way with the separate exhibits? Consequently, did all the galleries feel connected to a larger theme?

Experience as museum professionals, for better or worse, enables us to sense the answers to these questions in minutes, and in this case they came to me in mere seconds, from the very mouth of a curator who was in the midst of leading a special tour. “Over here are the Braxton Stones [not their real name]; they are the most expensive items in my exhibit.” For some reason, this statement got me wondering where the bathrooms were in this newly redone museum. If this curator thought of the gallery as his alone, this must have been a renovation that enabled specialists to have their say without the invaluable input of staff acquainted with the overall visitor experience.

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But wait, there’s more! In the corner of this exhibition was an ancient stone given to the museum by a foreign government. Colorful drawings on the surface drew my attention. What could they mean; what message was embedded in the hieroglyphics? I drew in closer to the darker-than-it-needed-to-be corner and saw on the wall (almost behind the stone) a small label. It read…well, I didn’t know quite what it read until I leaned over the barrier a bit to get a better look. Yes, it read something like, “This is an ancient stone given to us by the government of Zardinkia [not its real name], and was considered a directional marker.” I laughed out loud, for it reminded me of my favorite label I saw in New Zealand in the 1980s: “This is a Maori carving of great value.” Until this day, the Kiwi label had secured first place in my Parthenon of the Pathetic, but today the carving was gazumped.

But these complaints are more than petty gripes, and they affect more than just the jaded museum professional. Exhibitions that disregard visitor experience and make it hard to indulge curiosity fail in their primary purpose. The problem is especially common when the visitor in question is an older adult, as museums often overlook the needs of the demographic. As I have started to think about how museums can enhance older adults’ experiences, I have been paying greater-than-usual attention to the following matters:


I get it, labels are often written by curators who are cataract-free and can spot a fingerprint on a portrait a furlong away. But is it too much to ask ourselves the question, “Is twelve-point font sufficient in the darkened corner of a gallery, especially if the label is already partially hidden?”

The best way to go would be to add older people to the review process for label drafts, to make sure they’re easily readable to all.


Young or old, we all appreciate opportunities to reflect. Museums are, after all, largely meant for this reflection. But I find myself doing it much more now that I am seventy, which I’d like to think is because I have so much more experience to reflect upon, but actually it’s these damn legs! Why don’t museums add in more seating? The one I visited had little if any, and even the seating in the basement café had those uncomfortable wooden seats that practically say out loud, “sit, but do not linger.”

J. Paul Getty believed that the museum environment worked in concert with the object, and therefore we should attend to the conversation between the two, always. I agree. What a pleasure it is to find a quiet place with a comfortable seat from which you can look out and enjoy the whole view. This is enough to drop your Fitbit pulse a good ten to fifteen beats.

Continuous Improvement

As I exited this museum I visited, I thought I would suggest some ways the institution could enhance its visitor experience for older adults especially. But, to my surprise but not shock, I discovered that to make such a suggestion one had to ask for a visitor evaluation form at the desk. Furthermore, when I went to ask about it, I was greeted with a look that said, “Well, we do not get that question very often.” After some digging in a drawer filled with staplers, guest badges, and a bag lunch, the staff person pulled out a wrinkled pile of forms, obviously vestiges of pre-renovation days, and added, “We hope you say good things.”

I like to think my observations will be considered “good things,” for all museums should strive for continuous improvement, and the way forth is to keep the visitor in mind, always. Our visitation numbers depend on referral and positive remarks from those who have come through our doors, yet we too seldom ask the visitor, “How can we work to make your experience better?” At the very least, we should be making it easier for them to tell us.

I say, upon this visit: light your labels, enlarge their font to the satisfaction of older audiences, ensure that there is inviting and comfortable seating that assists in the all-important element of reflection. Further, from the very beginning of a major renovation (or any exhibit development) insist that your planning teams include the perspective of the visitor’s experience. Finally, remember that the objects in our museums are priceless treasures that belong to everyone and, with proper oversight, will be valued for generations to come!


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Mark Your Calendars: The American Alliance of Museums is holding a national convening on museums and creative aging at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from November 5-6, 2020.

We are receiving excellent feedback on our survey regarding those topics you believe to be of most importance to their work. Let us know your thoughts! It only takes a moment!

Also, we are seeking guest bloggers who would like to share their thoughts and experiences in creative aging efforts. Just let me know if you have something you would like to contribute. It could be anything relevant: an upcoming conference, a program you have developed, a perspective you would like to share, etc. We are greatly enjoying the conversations these blogs are engendering!

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  1. Thank you, Bill. I was just in an acclaimed museum wandering with my cane and found little to no seating and all us old people occupying the interactives meant for families so that at least we could sit down. So far warning museums, if you want your family interactives used by the intended audience, put a comfy seat in for us. e–

  2. Don’t forget us pregnant women who also appreciate seating! I recently visited an exhibition and was delighted to be able sit on a comfy seat and spend time viewing the art on display while listening to the artist audio commentary and giving my feet a much-needed rest.

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