Trouble with touchy patrons? 5  ideas that will  inspire  museum  etiquette  in  newcomers

 It’s great when new visitors drop in. It’s bad when they don’t know the rules.

As a curator, exhibit designer, or museum director, have you ever cringed at a lack of museum etiquette in the occasional modern-day museum goer? Do you ever feel as though you’re put in the position to be the one to ask parents to pull their child from climbing on a priceless statue, or prevent people from touching paintings? Here are some constructive, creative ideas to help you gently teach new patrons about museum etiquette, without playing the role of the art police.

Most people have a general understanding of basic museum etiquette, but those who don’t frequent museums (which is the group you want to attract) may need a bit of education. So how do you teach new patrons good museum etiquette without being bossy or offensive? By snobby finger pointing and lectures? No! Inspire them with knowledge! Story telling and educating the public is what you do – this could be fun.

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Gerard Schmidt, a retired banker who lives near the Met, said he had never much cared for museums until he was given the chance to manhandle one of Monet’s Water Lilies.

“At first it just looked like a picture of a bunch of lily pads, but then I started scraping at it with my pocket knife and the whole painting just sort of spoke to me,” Schmidt said. “For the first time, I finally understand what Monet was trying to get across in her work.”

– taken from a hilarious article in The Onion. Read the entire article here.

Here are some ideas to help you train new patrons to quickly learn museum etiquette:


1.  Destroyed! Make the entrance of your museum about what happens to carelessly handled artifacts.

Create a ‘Hall of Horrors’ – in terms of artifacts, that is, to teach patrons about why museum etiquette is important, and what happens when rules aren’t followed. Display items which have been stained, fingerprinted, or ruined by things like food and beverages, breaking, or touching. If you don’t have ruins, create some, or download examples from the internet, and have fun. Design this portion in a way that by following museum rules, patrons realize they’re doing their part to help preserve important collections.

2.  Make use of plants and pedestals, caution tape, mannequins, or anything else that creates a border in front of no-touch areas.

Use decorative design to create a 3-foot space in front of your display areas, so patrons are forced to stay at a comfortable distance. Border the floors of critical display areas with a fake “garden” using bricks and mulch and potted plants. Borrow ideas from the theatre and use props such as cut foam to look like ice, wood, or other items to get in the way, and keep hands out of reach. 3D items work better than tape, which often gets ignored. Brick and mulch areas look great, are inexpensive to create, easy to clean up, and patrons generally won’t step over your boundaries.

3.  Create an Instagram or social media challenge

If the copyrights of your exhibits allow, challenge patrons to take photos (rather than touch) artifacts, and post them on social media. You can even create a scavenger hunt, and have patrons seek certain artifacts to photograph and post. Be sure to create a hashtag to go with the posts to help you museum get a social media boost.

4.  Stay at an easy-to-read type size for text placed on display areas

Most people who struggle to read small text will naturally step closer to read it. Make it easier to maintain a safe, 2 to 3 foot distance from your artifacts by using adequately sized text for labelling credits or describing artifacts. When in doubt, make text larger. Font sizes should be easily read by the elderly and the young at a distance.

5.  Provide interactive zones that are clearly marked

Some museums do not clearly mark areas that are okay to explore. Use a logo and consistent color to let patrons know when they’ve discovered an “okay to touch or interact” zone, as well as marking areas that are not okay to touch. This way teachers and parents can help kids understand when to explore in depth. Visual clues, such as consistent logos will quickly and tactfully show visitors what’s interactive and what’s not.


Tactfully teach those who are exploring museums – possibly for the first time outside of a classroom. Who knows? You may even be able to use these ideas as ways to invite newcomers to your museum.

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