Richmond Proper: On Museum Etiquette

A recent trip to a museum got me thinking about museum etiquette, and what special rules ought to be observed when visiting our fair city’s bastions of art and antiquities.

A recent trip to a museum got me thinking about museum etiquette, and what special rules ought to be observed when visiting our fair city’s bastions of art and antiquities.


Funny how museums tend to be in the most echoey spaces imaginable, with those pesky marble floors and big, open spaces. Something you may not have realized is that your voice really carries in a space like this. This means that three galleries to the west, someone can probably hear you yelling at your kids about how they’re not getting any ice cream later. It’s a given that you’ll have some legitimate reasons for needing to talk in a museum, like calling a friend over to a particularly interesting display, or making a relevant comment on the subject matter. This talk should be relegated to hushed tones, so that everyone can enjoy the museum without distraction. And for those of you who are pained by folks who think a museum is a circus, keep in mind that the best thing to do is “move to another room and return when quiet prevails,” as Judith Martin suggests.


Most of what happens in a museum is looking: reading placards, taking in the sight of a beautiful painting, etc. Keep in mind that you’re not the only person looking, and be considerate of fellow museum-goers. Move along at a decent pace, taking your time to look at a given object but not planting yourself in front of it firmly for hours. If the space is tight and you need to get by someone, say “excuse me” and try not to jostle them. Don’t touch the exhibits unless they say specifically to do so, and don’t stand so close to display cases that your breath fogs them up. When you see a popular exhibit that has attracted a crowd, wait at the edge of the crowd until it starts to move you into its view. If it’s the kind of crowd that won’t move unless you throw an elbow, come back later or just ignore it. It isn’t worth becoming a wild animal.


When on a tour of a museum or historical site, there are a few extra considerations to apply. Keep up with the group so that the docent doesn’t have to stop to wait for you to catch up. If your baby starts crying, take him outside for a few minutes, quiet him down, and rejoin the tour. If you have a question, wait until the speaker pauses before asking, instead of interrupting his or her sentence when you blurt it out. Try to ask questions that are pretty easy to answer in a few words rather than in a 15-page treatise. If you need more in-depth information, perhaps you can pull the docent aside after the tour and have a more specialized conversation. “Pay attention to the tour leader’s descriptions and explanations,” says Emily Post’s Etiquette. “Talking over the leader or conversing with someone else is rude.”

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. thoughts on cell phone usage? should phones be silenced?

    also, is it impolite to make snide comments under one’s breath about the know-it-alls who try their damnedest to stump docents with obscure, ridiculous questions? i hope not.

  2. I think that in most cases, cell phones should be put on vibrate. Texting is probably fine since it doesn’t distract people around you, but could be offensive if you’re at a war memorial or something. Use your best judgment.

    Snide comments are usually meant to be rude, but I completely know what you mean about haters and know-it-alls and how they can ruin a museum tour. I want to ask them, “Did you pay admission in order to learn something, and are you now trying to make sure everyone here knows what serious chops you have?” This can be particularly irksome at Civil War-related museums, where the subject is so broad that the showoff can ramble on forever, embarrass the docent, and bore everyone else to tears. I mean I’ve been on tours where the docent knew a lot less than my third grade teacher about the subject at hand, but I just smiled and took in all the sights anyway. Trying to stump them or one-up them really doesn’t make the situation improve.

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