BEFORE WE GET TO THE MAIN EVENT!
I want to do a future installment that’s sort of a Q&A answering reader questions about art, culture, museums, etc. So: do you have any? Keep in mind that this newsletter has a reallllly broad definition of what counts as art. If you have any questions, I’d love to hear ‘em- hit me up either by email- firstname.lastname@example.org – or on twitter at @keithpille.
OK! Game on!
So last week I had this uncharacteristic burst of positivity and was all set to write a buoyant, inclusive newsletter issue about how there’s no wrong way to visit a museum, that any thing you do that gets you inside the door interacting with exhibits is a good thing, even if it’s just a quest to go in and find the 6 ugliest paintings or because you like the view out of one of the windows.*
*FWIW, I do believe this pretty fervently.
And then, as I walked through the skyway, a crushing wave of reality hit me: of course, even with the most open-minded of visions, there are some wrong ways to visit a museum. I know this because I worked at museums for a decade and a half, and witnessed or heard about all kinds of ways that people—usually, but not always, horny teens—managed to find extremely wrong ways to visit museums. And then I asked around to other museum-y people I know for horror stories, and got a bunch more. Crucially, I should add that other people’s horror stories were emphatically not limited to teens; people of all ages can find bad ways to visit museums.
For me, the canonical example of this comes from the days when I worked at a large, encyclopedic art museum (I have this vague sense that I shouldn’t name the names of specific institutions in writing here, but rest assured that for the price of one beer I will happily do so in person), took a break to stroll through the galleries on a quiet day, and came across a couple of teen boys fondling a nude statue. More specifically, I guess, one was fondling the statue while the other looked on, very impressed. I told them to knock it off and they bolted.
Another one that I didn’t experience firsthand but heard about through back-office chitchat when I worked at a large history museum: an interactive exhibit there, ostensibly aimed at kids but with a fluid-enough definition of kids that high school students visiting the museum usually went through it, was basically a human-sized series of hamster-tube mazes, and it was an endemic problem that HS couples would hide out in the tubes and make out during field trips, often requiring chaperones or gallery staff to flush them out.* Also, I can’t verify this one, I always heard persistent, horrified rumors about a time when some malevolent being took a giant crap in one of the tubes.
*When I was checking this one with a friend who’s a veteran of the same museum, they responded that they were also aware of a similar-but-higher-stakes situation, probably too graphic to be elucidated here, stumbled upon and broken up by museum staff in a different exhibit space. This friend also had firsthand knowledge of a busload of kids from a prominent local private high school who showed up for a field trip absolutely shitfaced.
It’s not always just teens behaving badly, though! Another friend told me that their mother-in-law was very difficult to visit museums with, because she “could not, would not stop touching the exhibits. She would reach a finger or fingers over and touch stuff ALL THE TIME - especially Egyptian stuff. I was routinely embarrassed and crazed inside that she knew it was wrong but couldn't help herself.” Reading that reminded me of the time, probably within a month or two of when I busted the teens feeling up a statue, that my grandmother visited me at the art museum and mortified me by grabbing and feeling every quilt or tapestry she came across, even when I kept haltingly trying to stop her.
I heard a lot of others when I put out the call for stories: a friend who’d worked as a museum security guard said, “The number of people who go to an art museum and get naked and have someone take a picture of them naked in the museum before the guards get to them is... exhausting. And also boring.” This friend then wanted to make clear that the vast majority of people who visit museums come in with good intentions and behave well, a sentiment that I believe; but then they added that “people who don't understand that we had night vision cameras in the dark immersive installation rooms keep the security folks entertained, for sure.”
I really liked this friend’s wrapup sentiment, as well: “Teens for the most part take art museums more seriously, even when they're snarking at art, than people who think they should like art but don't know how to be in a museum. Teens make jokes, pose with the art, google facts about the artist. I wish everyone interacted that way.”
I collected a bunch more—people swiping museum landscaping elements to use as art supplies, people cracking color codes to reuse those metal tags that some places use to show you’ve paid to get in—but let’s step back a second and look at what unites the really bad museum behavior here: fundamentally, these are bad because they impact other people’s experiences in the museum, or hinder or endanger the exhibits. I think a lot of human problems ultimately stem from some people having an inability to remember that other people exist, and forgetting (or not caring) that whatever they’re doing is going to impact other people. If you’re 15 and pissed that you have to go to a boring old museum, maybe it seems hilarious to take a crap in an exhibit; but only because the idea that other people are going to have to deal with it either doesn’t exist to you, or seems extra awesome in a teen-sociopathic way.
So I guess I’ll modify the original statement I was gonna make: there are no bad ways to visit a museum, as long as whatever you do when you’re there doesn’t imperil the art or disrupt other people’s experience in the galleries, or create hassle for the museum staff. And hell, maybe that means that it actually is ok to make out in the museum, if you’re 100% certain that you’ve found a place where doing so won’t impact other people.
Just remember what my friend said about the night-vision cams, though.
Speaking of bad behavior: noted drummer and hilarious person Jon Wurster uses his instagram account to curate what I can only describe as cursed images that people send to him, to be hashtagged “#mynewworstfriend.” The stuff is hilariously awful, and has to be seen to be believed. Wurster also likes to pass along weird rock photos like Bob Dylan posing with Liberace and a sweatpants-wearing David Letterman. Wurster’s instagram is somehow both a treasure and the opposite of a treasure, and you should check it out, but brace yourself first.
Yet another great link courtesy of Rebecca: art fraud in fancy galleries.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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