The Truly Rich Lady's Etiquette Rules For Visiting Museums
“O-wee, young Zi-zi, the painting was so ekz-kwee-zeet! I just had to touch the leetle ten-dreelz of the fleur,” said Mrs. Beaumont, my private art instructor, when we first met many, many years ago.
I thought it strange, but also exciting. Doing something you're not supposed to is thrilling, more so if that taboo thing involves something expensive and rare like art. As a curious and sometimes naughty Truly Rich Girl, I wanted to feel what Mrs. Beaumont felt.
On the second floor of Casa Coo was a still life of flowers. In the pastoral scene was a clutch of yellow peonies stuffed in a blue ceramic milk jug decorated with birds. No one was around, so I moved a chair closer to the wall, mounted it, and then touched the yellow ridges of the edges of the petals of the painted flower. They were, uh, pointy?
That's when Yaya Loring, an old mayordoma, who didn’t last in our employ (a disagreement with another staff member led to an unfortunate incident involving being sprayed in the face with Aqua Net!), blew her top. “Git duwn from der, Se-se! I will tell yer Muder dat you touch da plower peynting,” she screeched.
Startled by Yaya Loring and struck with fear by her proclamation, I scrambled down the chair, but lost my balance because I am beautiful but clumsy. That was when I put my left hand through the painting, creating a hole where one of the peonies should have been. Oopsies.
That was also my very first lesson on why you shouldn't climb chairs, why you shouldn't listen to the French, and why you should behave in the presence of art. If you don't want to end up grounded by your Mother, or accosted by a strict minder or, worst of all, becoming one of those uncouth tourists ruining culture, here is a cheat sheet on the etiquette for visiting a museum.
Don’t Be Clumsy
The expression, “like a bull in a china shop,” comes to mind, and it can really be the umbrella thought, the main reminder, and the foremost warning on how to behave when inside a museum.
Imagine: The museum is a charming little shop filled with fragile plates. The plates are dangerously thin and also cost more than your life.
Now, there is a bull. What is the bull doing here? Oh, the bull is lost and scared. In its panic to get out of the shop, it charges through the halls, causing a minor earthquake, which leads to major financial loss for the shopkeeper.
You, of course, are not a bull, but a human being, who is aware that when you are inside a place where expensive, one-of-a-kind, and irreplaceable things are displayed, you should be more like a...cat—graceful, always balanced, and sometimes slow (but not too slow!)
When visiting a museum, what is needed is deference, and that translates to putting distance between you and the paintings, sculptures, or whatnots. Distance also means that—above all!—do not touch the art. Do not touch the frame or pedestal. Do not even breathe. (Unless it is some sort of interactive art, which just means you are in an exhibit that I do not care about.)
And if you are a beautiful but stupidly clumsy person like me, maybe reconsider going to a museum.
Don’t Make a Fuss
The bull is a show-off, stomping its hoof on the ground, making circles with its horns.
I have been witness to such showboating from so-called art lovers and even critics. Art fans would let out exasperated sighs of tension (to convey the hard work they are exerting to view the artwork) or little squeals of happiness (to convey their approval), all loud enough for those in the immediate vicinity to hear.
Amateur critics employ non-words: oohs and aahs and hmms and nnns to represent a range of evaluation, whose meanings I do not know nor care about. If they are extra annoying, they unleash the Shaking Fist of Disapproval. And if they are beyond hope (or thick in the head), they offer me their unsolicited critique of a cat painting—not knowing that I am an expert on cats.
Needless to say, this not proper museum behavior. While they do not injure the artwork, like in the above, they do impair the viewing experience of others. Remember, the museum is a public space, so all the rules of courtesy apply. In short, respect your fellow art enthusiasts. They want to see the art, not you.
On a related note, keep moving. When museums are packed, the viewing of popular works requires the informal agreement that you will not be so enraptured by, say, “Le Moulin de la Galette” that you freeze in the choicest spot, crying and shaking and also preventing the people behind you from seeing the painting up close.
Yes, please do soak up the details, but if there is a throng behind you, waiting to also be caught up in the swirls of color, kindly protract your observation. Come back later when the crowds have thinned. The painting will still be here.
And What of Photos?
Your precious Internet provides a source for both arguments. There are those who argue the flash of a camera aides in the deterioration of a painting. There are those who say its effect is negligible. And there is I, Si-si Coo, who will abandon this debate, and concentrate on a more important thing, which is this:
You are blocking my view.
I have observed that taking a selfie with art (an art-fie?) requires setup. Where is the best light? What is the most flattering angle? What is the best framing? What is the Wi-Fi password? What do you mean there is no Wi-Fi here?! Before long, in between figuring out filters and effects and poses and light, you've already caused a massive traffic jam of people, who are, by the way, not very happy about you.
But now, you say, “I do not care at all about other people? I only care about myself and this moment!” Well, if you are not moved by the fear of public disapproval, consider how viewing the world through the lens of a camera is not really living life or, as what you kids call it, your best life.
You're not seeing the colors, the brushstrokes, the details. You're not allowing your spirit to discern the meaning behind something very old, odd, or creative. You're not letting yourself be lifted or cast down by the beauty or horror you see before you. In short, you are not being real, and isn't that a crime today?