A Fear of Museums: Choosing Not to Enter

Perspectives ,

Posted By Dana Metheny

Recently in the museum field, there has been an uptick in professional discussions about turning to an interactive, visitor-centric focus rather than a collection and conservation focus. Museum professionals are asking themselves what makes a successful experience once a visitor passes through the museum door. But, what about the people who have never stepped into a museum because they are afraid of how they will fit in? Perhaps we should all consider this demographic even more if we hope to grow our attendance numbers and strengthen our support systems for the future.

We all understand that progress towards any goal develops on a continuum rather than a single point in time. We learn as we go and we make progress. We try new strategies, then try more new strategies, all the while basing our decisions on learned assumptions. One overarching assumption is often that visitors are at least familiar with museum traditions like space, design, wayfinding, labeling, push-button videos and voice-overs, gift shops, and possibly pamphlets and other “take homes” along the halls between exhibits. Another long-standing assumption that may drive our decisions is that visitors know how to act in a museum. Most people understand not to touch the displays unless prompted or allowed. We expect them to know that they should be quiet, respect other visitors by not interrupting them, follow the designated path through the exhibits, and ask questions if so inclined. We design our exits to go past the gift shop assuming, or rather hoping they will buy something according to their level of interest after they leave the last exhibit space but before they leave the museum. And finally, there is the assumption that using “friendlier” terminology, like “guest” instead of “visitor” will make for a more lasting and personal connection with the public. Over the years, these assumptions have been the foundation of some meaningful and successful work.

On the other hand, we can all safely assume that there is a large population of people who have never stepped into a museum because they are afraid of how they will fit in. When they consider going to a museum, the uninitiated may perceive social and physical barriers that make a museum visit seem intimidating, unpleasant, unsafe, and perhaps even threatening. Museum professionals who want to increase and broaden their museum’s audience should be thinking about them, too, in their efforts to build and sustain a larger, inclusive, and loyal museum community.

Social barriers can affect the perception of museums in a very significant way. In order to decide that it is all right to enter an unfamiliar museum, people may consider a community’s perceived attitude and opinion about it. The stranger to the museum may seek out public opinion from someone who’s been there before (through personal contact or through the press). Other social factors include availability and cost of transportation, neighborhood location, complicated or tiered admission costs, handicapped accessibility, visible security measures, and staff attitudes and helpfulness towards a diversity of visitors. The uninitiated visitor may not know what behaviors are expected of him and his family. The fear of judgement of others or feeling exposed or out of place, as well as issues like dress code, bringing and restraining lively or bored children, and being afraid to ask questions may be enough to keep new people away.

Physical barriers, from a building design perspective, are rooted in tradition. Many well-known, larger museum buildings often reflect the exalted status of artifacts and collections. Special. Grand. Impressive. These design elements can contribute to resistance along with the nuances of style and ornamentation (or lack of it). Wayfinding language and complicated routing can cause anxiety. Angular entrances and pathways through and between exhibits can create disorientation and the very uncomfortable feeling of being lost, isolated, and in the wrong place. Uncertainty isn’t what visitors want to experience in an unfamiliar space. Consider what typically happens when, in an unfamiliar place, people don’t feel “safe.” They may never venture there or anywhere like it again, abandoning those personally risky places for more comfortable, populated, friendly, and acceptable public ones that have elements of design that cater more to strangers and to being anonymous.

While it may be true that most visitors to any museum have been to a museum before, many others may be “outside,” considering an experimental visit. They may start by observing from afar, in the lobby, on the grounds, or inquiring of others they know and trust. To help these “strangers” to the museum world, everyone on staff should learn to recognize and take action to ensure that they too can have a successful visit. The greeters, ticket sellers, gift shop cashiers, monitors, docents, lecturers, exhibit and technology designers, reenactors, security personnel, administrators, policy makers, and even the community at large all have the opportunity to make museums a safe, comfortable, and welcoming place especially for the uninitiated museum visitor who ventures inside.

When the social and physical barriers in front of brand-new, first-time-ever museum visitors are considered and addressed, it follows that they may find the encouragement they need to step over the threshold and discover a new community—a community which embraces a museum’s relevancy in their lives and fosters an ever-growing appreciation of all that museums have to offer. There is so much to discuss about identifying and tearing down barriers to build and sustain a larger, inclusive, and loyal museum community.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. What are your thoughts?