A Case for the Defence

image © Nathan James Page

image © Nathan James Page

We’ve all been to museums during busy periods, especially if travelling in tourist meccas like London or Paris, and we’ve all at some point therefore been intentionally or otherwise harassed by our fellow visitors. Not content to leave their ill will in the gift shop however is Time Out, who recently opted instead to express its grievances in an article called “Top Five Annoying People in Museums.” Museums if nothing however should be a forgiving environment, and as such I am compelled, despite my own frustrations at times, to make a case for the defence of Time Out’s selection of culture criminals.


The first on their hit list in is the ubiquitous “primary school gremlin.” I was fortunate in my childhood to have been regularly taken to the National Museum of Scotland by my parents, and it is undoubtedly these trips that have fostered my enduring love for it (and museums in general) to this day. Some children however are not so lucky, and it is important that primary schools act as a vehicle to introduce young people to museums. This is especially true of national institutions; they belong as much to them as they do to you. For as long as I live I will never begrudge a child, no matter how gremlin-like a visit to their museum. Besides, we’ve all been through primary school and most of us can testify that it was often the front-toothless scruff with the inability to blow his nose that became the brightest and best of their peers.


Second on the list is “the know-it-all” who, as Time Out put it, “like to spend long afternoons in museums imparting nuggets of wisdom on [their] specialist subject.” With this I can empathise, but it depends on the nature of your new acquaintance. The author’s real issue here seems to be with the pomp and pretence with which the “know-it-all” insists upon assisting. Remove these however and find yourself approached by a fellow visitor who is genuinely knowledgeable on a subject, with a desire to serve your interests rather than their own, then they will undoubtedly elevate your experience. We go to museums to learn after all, so why turn down the chance to do so?


I would instead warn against whom I’ll call “the fraud,” who masquerades as the “know-it-all” despite knowing little about the subject in question. An immediate example that springs to mind is the individual who once insisted to me that a Max Ernst painting we were looking at in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was likely the work of famed art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, despite my repeated attempts to inform him that the iconic collector was married to the artist for five years and was even suspected to be the subject of the piece. I later learned that a fellow colleague had an identical encounter with him elsewhere in the museum. Beware of the fraud.

Fake Max Ernst painting by Wolfgang Beltracci, titled La Horde (1927) © VBK Wien 2010

Fake Max Ernst painting by Wolfgang Beltracchi, titled La Horde (1927) © VBK Wien 2010

Number 3 on Time Out’s list is “the teenage sceptic.” This is an odd one but appears in the author’s estimation to boil down to a huffy high-schooler, more interested in girls than anything the museum has to offer. I actually think this is preferable to the pretentious philosophical sceptic the name suggests, deep in the midst of an existential crises or attempting to engage you in a needless discussion about whether anything in the museum is even there. Besides, if the lad the author is describing happens to take a shine to the girl in the museum then good for him, she has at least proven by her location to be interested in things other than herself, unlike the one whose “gym progress” selfies he spends all day “liking” on Instagram.


Lazily slotted in at number 4 is what Time Out has dubbed, “the cultural castaway.” This is essentially someone trying but struggling to learn in the museum and I fail to see how this can be annoying unless they are badgering you with questions. But why not then become the sincere informant discussed earlier, whose knowledge can elevate their overall experience that day? If you are equally at a loss then simply be polite. Nobody should ever be chastised for trying to educate themselves, especially when they are making use of a public service designed for that very goal.


Last in the firing line of course is that eternal scapegoat, the tourist. They have just as much right to attendance as anyone else though, being human beings as they are. Furthermore, many of them are just as represented by the museum as its native attendees. For example, despite its name, the British Museum considers itself a “museum of the world, for the world,” and its retention of contested objects such as the Parthenon Marbles and Benin Bronzes is predicated on the claim that it offers the best platform for the “world” to come and visit them. Tourists therefore are not just welcome, but they are necessary in order to justify the collection.


To be fair to Time Out, number five on their list is specifically “the tourist tool,” who spends their entire visit with their noses pressed into their cameras. On this issue I concede. There is no need to take photographs of literally everything on display, and to answer the question posed by the author: they are within their rights to do so, but no, it is absolutely not the best use of their time. Even so, that’s their prerogative. If I would make one request though it would be that they at least turn their devices to silent. Nothing sucks you out of a museum experience quite like an obnoxious cacophony of faux shutter sounds.


I do of course appreciate that there is no venom in the fangs of Time Out’s article, and that it is clearly just a bit of fun. However I feel it is important to re-establish that museums are intended to be fun too. Let people enjoy them.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 8.3.2016

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