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The latest entry in Ricochet’s “What Your [Service Provider] Wants You to Know” series.
For most of the past eight years, I have worked and/or volunteered in visitor services at several high-profile museums and sites in Washington, DC. This type of gig can be exhausting and repetitive, especially during peak tourism season. But often it is a lot of fun, it’s great to hang around museums all the time (a personal priority), and to learn about the relevant history/artifacts/exhibit subject matter is endlessly fascinating.
Herewith, several tips to help museum visitors make the most out of their visits. (And if you’re ever in DC, let me know and I’ll hook you up with advice and freebies!)
1. Do your research. At busy tourist sites, open hours, schedules, events, exhibitions, procedures, and prices change all the time. Just because your 2011 guidebook says hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and you don’t need a ticket doesn’t mean that this will be true forever. There is this amazing thing called the Internet where organizations will post their most up-to-date information about visiting. Please check a few websites, look at a map, and do a little planning before setting out for your day of touring. This will help you avoid disappointment, confusion, needless backtracking, and wild goose chases.
2. Things change. This is a corollary to rule #1. Museums tend to rotate their exhibits on a pretty regular basis. Even museums with extensive permanent collections and displays will switch objects out from time to time for loans, cleaning, conservation, research, etc. I’m glad you have fond memories of visiting [iconic site] 40 years ago, but please don’t be quite so surprised (and, inevitably, disappointed) that the experience isn’t the same in 2015 as it was then.
3. Not every site is appropriate for every visitor. Young children might be bored at a fine art museum. Adults who are not interested in 19th century American history should not put Civil War battlefields on their A-list. Elderly visitors might not like to use cell phone audio tours. If you are not sure whether a particular site or exhibit is appropriate for small children/visitors with mobility limitations/non-English speakers/teenagers/blind people, please ask! Visitor services peeps are happy to make suggestions and let you know about questionable content or recommended guidelines. For every visitor who leaves an exhibit enthusing about how awesome it was, there is another complaining that the whole thing was a waste of time. We are sorry about the latter (really!), but it’s just not possible to appeal to everyone. Going back to rule #1, a little advance research will greatly improve your enjoyment-to-disappointment ratio.
4. There is (probably) a method to the madness. It can be frustrating to wait in line and to follow a site’s visitation procedures. And yes, absolutely, some policies are dumb. But in general, a lot of thought goes into the best way to get visitors into and through a site while maximizing both capacity and visitor enjoyment. If a particular policy seems opaque or unnecessary, please ask us to explain it. If you then ask us to bend the rules in some way, it is much more effective to be kind about it than to begin your request with angry complaint.
5. Know how to visit a museum. The way most (traditional) museums work is that you look at objects and read things. Regardless of subject matter, museum visits generally include a lot of looking at and reading. There might be guided tours or in-person interpretation or interactive elements, but please understand that a lot of the museum experience is self-guided and self-motivated. If you’re not feeling up to reading exhibit labels, check out a couple of videos or read the brochure and look at the exhibit map instead to find something of interest. Museums take a little effort on the visitors’ part to engage the material.
6. You will not be alone. My number one piece of advice to out-of-town visitors to our nation’s capital is to come in January, when you really can have Washington, DC all to yourself. Pretty much any other time of year, it’s going to be crowded. And often hot. There will be huge groups of school children everywhere, all day, every day. There’s no point in being resentful about this; did you really think that you were the only family who wanted to see the cherry blossoms this year? Big, important, capital cities and high-profile tourist attractions are worth seeing and therefore many people want to see them. It can’t be helped, and complaining to the staff at a crowded tourist site that it’s crowded will not make it less so.
7. Read the signs. Visitor services staff don’t mind answering questions, but if you are standing in front of the “Ticket Line Begins Here” sign and then ask where the ticket line begins, we might be tempted to roll our eyes. This ties into rule #4 — the signs and wayfinding mechanisms are intended to inform and streamline your visit, so it’s a good idea to read them first. And then if something still doesn’t make sense, ask for help.
I’ll see everyone in DC in January!