I love museums!
I love visiting them, spending time in them and writing about them. Every time I travel to a new city or a new country, I make it my mission to tick off as many of its museums as I can. For me, they offer an unparalleled insight into the way of life, the history and the art of the respective place.
This summer I spent 45 days on the road, covering seven countries in Europe. Guess what?! I explored as many museums as I could. From the Roman Verulamium Museum in St. Albans in England through the Tyrolean Folk Art Museum in Innsbruck in Austria to the Museum of the First Bulgarian Capital in Pliska, Bulgaria, I spent many hours looking at exhibits, reading through informational posters and, ultimately, feeling enriched.
Well, mostly! In some cases, I also felt irritated, outraged or, simply, put off.
So, based on my personal experiences, these are the five worst business practices a museum could abide by. In case you are questioning the use of the term ‘business’ in the context of a cultural institution, well, in a climate where governmentally-funded expenditure on culture and art generally is subject to deep cuts, museums are starting to rely more on entrance fees and sales of merchandise. Also, funded or not, a museum is still an entity with staff on the payroll and an intrinsic need to make its visitors (=clients) happy so as to guarantee its existence in the long run.
As such, the five worst business practices a museum can engage in from my point of view as a tourist are:
As a tourist nothing quite matches the disappointment of finding out that every museum and place of interest is shut in a town right on the day that you visit it. Yes, you can check opening times in advance online and try to arrange your travel accordingly. Still, in the midst of the peak season, when thousands of tourists flock to particular places eager to explore them it feels like such a waste of opportunity to shut everything once a week and leave the enthusiastic visitors culturally high and dry.
On Monday this week we travelled to Sirmione on the beautiful lake Garda with the view of exploring its castle dating back to the 13th century, as well as the ruins of a huge Roman villa – Grotte di Catullo. We were sorely disappointed to find them both closed for the day. The little picturesque town was besieged by hordes of tourists keen to see things. The castle and the villa were taunting them from behind the locked gates.
I understand that staff needed a day off, but would it have been that difficult to organise a relief team during the peak season so as to make sure that no tourist willing to spend their hard-earned euros was missed? Just imagine the amount of money these two cultural sites lose just by remaining closed once a week.
The private business in Sirmione wasn’t missing out though. Shops, restaurants and gelaterias were bustling with people. Private tour boats were zipping up and down the coast.
In the end, we paid to go on a boat tour around the island so that if we couldn’t see the castle and the villa from the inside, at least we could admire them from the water side. Private business won and the boat tour saved the day which otherwise would have been a bit flat.
2. Charging a Photography Fee
There are three types of museums. The first is only too happy for you to photograph their exhibits and displays. In our social media-geared world, this type of museum is the indisputable winner, as people love sharing photos of their travels abroad. Hence they spread the word about the museum and the treasures it holds among their family and friends potentially making them very eager to visit it themselves. The museum gains free exposure, generates word of mouth and attracts new prospective visitors.
The second type of museum clearly forbids you from taking any photos whatsoever. Fair enough! Maybe it feels like its intellectual property and copyright will be jeopardised by the bunches of snap-happy tourists. Maybe it doesn’t allow photos as a measure of crowd control. Or maybe it doesn’t care about social media presence and doesn’t want to facilitate people spreading the word about its artefacts. Whatever the museum’s reasons are, the museum is entitled to them. I rarely go to such museums and even less frequently write about them on my blog, as to bring my blog posts to life I need photos and many of them.
The third type of museum is the most curious of them all. It both wants to have its cake and eat it. So, the museum charges you a photography fee. In other words, if you want to take pictures of its displays, you need to pay for the privilege. I have done this once.
I was in the world-renowned theatre and opera house La Fenice in Venice. It is a fabulous place. I wanted to write about it on my blog, hence I paid nine euros admission fee and three euros for the privilege to take photos inside the building. I did it for two reasons. On one hand, yes, I wanted to write about La Fenice as I like featuring beautiful sites with a story to tell on my blog. On the other hand, I thought that three euros was not that much.
Two interesting things happened.
1. While I was still in La Fenice, a member of staff stopped me and quite rudely told me to go and pay for a ‘photo pass’. When I proved to her that I had already paid for it, she apologised. At the same time, I could see people surreptitiously taking photos and thus cheating the system.
2. Once I published my blog post about La Fenice my photos started appearing in the social media channels of the opera house. So, La Fenice, it seems, was happy to both charge me for the privilege of taking photos and then use for free my creative output. On one of the social media channels, where they shared my photos, they didn’t even tag me, until a third party did it.
This made me re-evaluate my eagerness to write about such museums and places of interest. I mean, I invest a lot of effort in my articles and it is all done in my own spare time. I do it because I enjoy it and because I want to share my thoughts on a number of topics.
I am not willing though to have to pay for it and then have my work used for promotional activities by the same party I had to pay to in the first place.
As such, this summer, when I visited a museum I love with the intention of writing a detailed article about it and its amazing collections, eventually I decided not to do it, when I was asked to pay a photography fee.
The ticket office lady was in fact visibly embarrassed to tell me how much this fee was. After some prompting from me, she finally told me that it was double the entrance fee. To express this in numbers, I had to pay 10 Bulgarian leva to enter the Archaeological museum in Varna and then another 20 leva if I wanted to take any pictures at all in it.
I don’t know who decides on the size of the photography fee in Bulgaria. Is it the museum’s management, a governmental entity or somebody else?! Especially considering the fact that other sites of interest there ask for a symbolic 1 lev photography fee. In any case, I found the photography fee asked for by the Archaeological Museum in Varna unacceptable and disproportionate. It actively puts off people interested in the museum and, in my case, it lost them not just a visitor, but a detailed article, which I would have loved to write and publicise otherwise.
3. Providing All Information Only in One Language
A few years ago I was in Barcelona and the National Art Museum of Catalonia figured prominently on my must-see list. Its beautiful building had caught my eye during a previous flying visit to the city and I couldn’t wait to explore it.
You know what usually happens when you approach a place full of expectations?! Well, I wasn’t disappointed by the museum as such. It houses some stunning pieces of art among other exciting things. However, what surprised me rather unpleasantly was the fact that it was all signposted only in Catalan.
Well, you would think that such an important museum would be interested in making its collections and the story behind its artefacts accessible for the thousands of people who visit it every year. I am sure many of them speak and read Catalan, but it would have been nice, inclusive even to think about the rest of us, too.
I know translation services can be super expensive, but you would think this huge museum would have some budget for it. Instead, it seemed like the museum was not interested to promote the art and culture of Catalonia beyond the reach of people who were already fluent in Catalan. A bit restrictive, I thought at the time.
Maybe things have changed there since. I never felt the urge to go back and find out. Feeling excluded once was enough for me. Since then I have come across a handful of museums in different parts of Europe, which also have gone down the monolingual route. I am still struggling to grasp the logic behind it.
4. Providing an Audio Guide as the Only Source of Information
This is my all-time pet peeve.
Listening to long explanations delivered to you via a small device that many people have pressed against their ear does not appeal to me at all.
People absorb information in many different ways. My favourite is through reading. It gives me the freedom to skip through the informational posters or signs as quickly or as thoroughly as I want and as the time I have at my disposal allows me. It also gives me a chance to point a particular point of interest to the person I am exploring the museum with, ask them what they think, share observations or even a joke with them whilst we both read through. As such, the visit to the museum becomes a shared experience.
Instead, audio guides seem to eliminate the surprise of discovery and to guide you through the same path as every other visitor to the museum has followed. Also, first you need to listen to a long piece explaining how to use the buttons. Then, you need to stop and listen for a minute or two in front of every artefact and/or in every room, taking directions from the disembodied voice as to where to look at and which direction to turn your head in right when the voice tells you to do it, rather than when you want to do it.
Listening to the pre-recorded pieces doesn’t give you much chance to talk to your companion(s) and sharing thoughts with them. Not to mention that audio guides are impossible to use if you are a parent with a small child. As a parent you can’t just stop and listen for minutes at a time. You need to be with your child, pointing things to them, explaining what you are seeing and making them interested in what the museum is about. You can’t simply strap them in their buggy and say: ‘Hang on! This half an hour recording is simply riveting!’.
I have been to a few museums where an audio guide was the sole source of detailed information and I found this a lazy, ill-thought approach which totally affected my enjoyment of whatever the respective museum had to offer.
5. Failing to Create a Welcoming Atmosphere
This can be anything – from a sullen ticket office lady who refuses to acknowledge you because you don’t speak her mother tongue to perfection to the presence of a large man leading a large dog on a lead and looking suspiciously at the visitors of the museum.
Yes, both happened to me this summer, the second one in Germany of all places.
Add to this an experience I had a year and a half ago in the Archaeological Museum in Varna (the same one I mentioned under point 2 above, but on a different visit). Twenty minutes before closing time the museum curators started closing the shutters and switching off the lights so as to show us that we had to leave. We went into one last room, as I wanted to show my husband some fabulous pieces of jewellery dating back to the 2nd century AD. The lady in charge of that particular room expressed her displeasure that we were there in very many subtle ways. We felt rushed and unwanted and left even though officially the museum was still not closed.
You see, when I pay for a ticket to visit a museum, I do it because I would like to learn something new, to see something amazing and, ideally, to expand my horizons. It would be good if museums, apart from serving as guardians to human history, human art and human achievements, were also at times a little bit more aware of their visitors as humans, too.