Visiting a fabulous art gallery or museum should be one of life’s great pleasures but what happens when the experience is ruined by rampaging coach parties, screaming children and petty irritations?
People having loud conversations on mobile phones, breast feeding mothers, and badly behaved teenagers are some of the annoyances I’ve encountered.
A trip to Tate Britain last week got me so irate that I started thinking about the 10 most annoying things about museums – and what we can do to tackle them!
Is it me but is bringing a screaming baby into the Tate’s Walk Through British Art a smart idea?
What was supposed to be a visually stimulating and relaxing stroll around the gallery turned into a trip to the nursery, complete with loud sound-effects.
So what are the top 10 things that drive me mad about museums – and more importantly – what are yours?
1. Irritating crowds
Overcrowding is the scourge of any trip to a museum, whether it’s Monet’s Garden at Giverny or a blockbuster exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert.
Naturally, the crowds are worst at the world’s most popular tourist destinations – the Vatican, Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Rijksmuseum, Tower of London and Louvre.
Other potential hot spots for annoying behaviour are one-off exhibitions that have desperate punters queueing around the block for limited tickets.
One of the worst examples I’ve come across was the Van Gogh exhibition at London’s Royal Academy featuring the artist’s wonderful letters to his brother Theo and his friend Gauguin.
Just one problem – it was impossible to read the letters and their translations due to the crowds pressing against the display cases.
The only way of enjoying the show’s star exhibits was to buy the exhibition guide and read the letters at home later that evening.
At the fabulous David Bowie fashion show at the V & A last year the crowd resembled a rugby scrum, with visitors jostling to see the Aladdin Sane costume and rare memorabilia.
In fairness, the gallery did try use big screens and racked displays to alleviate the problem but trying to ‘work the crowds’ was pretty exhausting.
It’s hard to blame the galleries because they’re victims of their own success, but perhaps limiting the numbers further would help? Or extended opening times, as tried by the British Museum for popular shows?
Big visitor attractions with lots of spaces are more immune to the problem but even The Louvre in Paris and The Metropolitan Museum in New York are tedious and claustrophobic when the crowds hit their peak.
Nothing makes the heart sink more than a crowded, claustrophobic exhibition with all the ambience of the opening day of the New Year sales, whether it’s Tutankhamon at London’s O2 or Hollywood Fashion at the V & A.
But the runaway winner in this category is the Vatican Museum in Rome, without doubt the world’s most crowded tourist attraction. In fact, it’s so bad that it deserve a category on its own – hell on earth!
Top tips: Book online for slots at ‘quieter’ times if you can – early mornings, late afternoons, evening openings. Whilst free entry on Sundays at some attractions seems attractive, it also brings out the crowds in their thousands, as I’ve experienced at the Louvre and Copenhagen’s Carlsberg Glyptotek Gallery. Try visiting out of season?
Coach party hell
‘Coach party hell’ is something to be avoided at all costs as we found on this summer’s Stockholm vacation when a morning trip to the Vasa Ship Museum had to be postponed.
My heart sank when I saw the huge numbers of coach parties and snaking queues – we joined the end of the line but it was soon clear we’d have to come back later or give up completely.
An unscheduled trip to the nearby Skansen Open Air Museum filled the void with grumpy Tony von Diesel complaining that he hated folk museums, crowds and organised tourist groups.
Funny but Skansen turned out to be excellent and eventually we sussed out that it was far better to schedule a visit to Vasa late afternoon when the bus trips had subsided.
We had a similar experience at Stockholm’s Drottningholm Palace, another magnet for giant-sized Japanese coach parties who hog all the key viewing spots inside the museum during their visits.
There’s nothing worse, of course, than having to listen to their guides shouting at full throttle, telling everyone the potted history of the palace in English, German or Japanese.
Possibly worse still are the school coach parties and trips when 100 children descend on one room in a museum or gallery, together with hectoring teachers, obliterating any space in which to think, look or breathe.
Once again the prize for the worst crowds has to go to the Vatican Museum with its endless sea of visitors chattering away and ignoring the ‘silence’ signs in the Sistine Chapel.
Worse still is the papal warden shouting “Silence” at the top of his voice every three minutes, only to be ignored!
Top tips: Many coach parties visit only the key sights at major attractions – the most famous spots – so avoid those spaces and head elsewhere until the rush has calmed down.
Avoid the most popular tourist destinations in the summer and peak times or you could find yourself in need of anger management therapy.
If you’re at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art head up on to the roof where there’s a collection of interesting installations which hasn’t been discovered by the large parties.
It’s hard to avoid school trips but in general keep away during school hours at venues where you know that they’ll be large groups of children including Tate Modern and Tate Britain in London. Go in the school holidays!
2. Audio-visual meltdown
The growing number of tech devices designed to enhance the “visitor experience” has mushroomed in recent years to the point of being super-irritating.
First, there’s the problem that these guides tend to pinpoint specific works of art or historic interest resulting in big groups of people standing their ground for 10 minutes in front of one piece.
The Tate Modern in London may have one of the best devices but it doesn’t remove the problem of visitors hogging the spaces in front of key paintings – and often the smallest of works!
Then there’s the devices themselves, which can be an asset if the storytelling and explanations are well-crafted but more often than not they’re so dull that you’re left wanting to launch the machines into outer space.
A trip to Avignon’s Bishop’s Palace was ruined by the compulsory audio guide which explained every single dimension of each room in the dullest monotone voice known to mankind.
If I’d wanted to hear about measurements, I would’ve looked them up on Wikipedia. What about the papal scandals, the rich history and the intrigue of the place?
Then again, there’s always the off button – or just say ‘no’ when handed the offensive beast!
Top tips – avoid getting a device and buy the exhibition catalogue. Say ‘no’ when given the option of an audio guide.
3. Pointy elbows and ‘space hogs’
This irritation is really a sub-group of overcrowding but it can also take place in the quietest galleries so I’ve given it a category of its own.
Pointy elbows are a bug-bear of mine, the people who think they’re ex-footballer Alan Shearer trying to muscle in, elbows raised or planted firmly on their hips.
These folk expand their size by standing their ground and pushing out their chests and elbows so nobody else can get a look in.
Also in this group are what I call the ‘space hogs’ and those with no spatial awareness who wander around aimlessly, bumping into people who are trying to see the exhibits.
Perhaps I’m being harsh but I’m tempted to push them over or nudge them to one side so the rest of us can get a peak at whatever they’re blocking.
Then there’s the afternoon ramblers who use their trip to chatter and gossip endlessly about random, boring stuff whilst ignoring the exhibits, but blocking the view.
My recent trip to London’s Dulwich Gallery and the Whistler exhibition was a great example of this. The show featured many small pieces which were rendered almost impossible to see by the pointy elbow brigade… plus two ladies gossiping endlessly about the Women’s Institute.
Top tips – Don’t get cross, get even – retaliate or wait your turn patiently! A large hand bag or ‘man bag’ can work wonders for nudging people out of the way.
4. Bringing in baby
This is one of the worst offenders because having a screaming baby crying constantly can become so grating that it will drive you mad if it persists longer than a few minutes.
Now I’m not a fan of leaving babies at home but taking a very small child into the Tate Britain’s video installations to “calm it down” took the prize for selfish behaviour this month.
It provoked a verbal checking off from Tammy to a nanny who thought this was an acceptable way of spending a Monday afternoon with her charge.
How a child of three-months-old is supposed to appreciate a Chapman Brothers’ video is beyond me but then perhaps I’m old-fashioned?
My friend Clive saw a mother breast feeding her baby in front of his favourite Turner at the Tate Britain, a sight he’s seen at several galleries. It’s not as if the gallery has no other baby facilities on site.
Top tip – Some cinemas have ‘bringing in baby’ screenings so why not galleries and museums? Ban babies completely?
5. Obtuse curation
One of the most annoying things in galleries and museums is obtuse or minimal curation either down to ineptitude or an arrogant attitude towards visitors.
The Picasso Museum in Barcelona is a fine example of how not to curate an art museum. My group left without learning a single thing about Picasso’s early work due to the lack of information.
Ironically, the Miro Foundation, also in Barcelona, is one of the best curated museums I’ve seen, with fantastic contextual material about the Catalan master in a variety of languages and formats.
Perhaps most annoying are those gallery information panels that are so sparse and obtuse that no normal visitor can understand them. Obfuscation is king… and it makes the poor punters feel stupid and ill-informed.
The BALTIC in Gateshead is a master of this art with this piece of curation from one recent exhibition:
“Maciejowski manipulates the hierarchical distinctions between painting, photography and film and high and low culture, to question the legitimacy of his chosen medium. He is also highly aware of the implications of his scenes being presented within the context of an art gallery and, indeed, that of the art world.”
Thanks for that insight into his work – it could’ve been written about any number of contemporary artists.
As an antidote, I recommend the awesome AROS gallery in Aarhus, Denmark which is one of the best curated places I’ve ever visited with clear, helpful information and back stories to the art works.
Top tip – fill in the comments book of feedback online at galleries and museums and explain that you’d like to see more information written in plain English.
You know the scene – absolute silence, snotty wardens, cold receptionists and glaring security guards giving disapproving glances and looks.
The gallery or museum seems to imagine that they’re doing you a very special favour by letting you in to look at their important collections.
Every sneeze or cough is looked upon with disapprobation whilst veering too close to a picture or object is ticked off. Walking over the ‘imaginary line’ three feet from a painting is a complete no-no.
Naturally there are no photos – not even non-flash – and engaging with any art work is completely off limits.
Now I understand the need to protect valuable collections and I’m not an advocate of a free-for-all, but some galleries are like mausoleums manned by prison guards.
The worst examples are often the least interesting galleries which is weird because you’d think that they’d work harder selling their wares to visitors.
Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere, England provides a tour where visitors creep around listening to a dull guide who reprimands anyone who dares to take a photo or lag behind the group.
I was allowed to step two feet outside to take a photo of the cottage before being dragged back indoors!
Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum incurred the wrath of my partner, Tony, who found it snobby to the point of rudeness. He hated the frosty staff, the dark rooms, the over-reverend ambience and lack of interpretation.
Top tip – avoid anywhere with arrogant and disapproving guides. If you must venture forth, try vexing the wardens by asking lots of intelligent questions and stomping around loudly. Give feedback.
6. Snap happy?
There’s a fine line between museums allowing photography and opening the floodgates to happy snappers.
Those with a no photography policy are generally being over-cautious and heavy-handed unless there’s a good reason, for example, textiles or light sensitive watercolours.
In the age of the eponymous mobile phone snapper, it seems impossible to stop photography for amateur use and social media sharing on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
On the plus side galleries in Denmark have embraced this and allow photography almost everywhere as long as it’s not intrusive, a sensible idea if I ever heard one.
London’s Saatchi Gallery, a lovely art space, also has a very liberal attitude to photography as does the equally friendly Serpentine Galleries.
But some tourist attractions have become so overrun by snappers that it veers on the ridiculous.
It’s almost impossible to walk around the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel without having dozens of iPad users jamming a screen in front of your face and snapping away.
At Denmark’s Kronborg Slot in Helsingor (Hamlet’s castle) I saw a party photographing every single object in each room. I wondered if they were compiling a Japanese version of the castle guide book!
Top tips: Avoid times when coach and group tours are most likely to be visiting. Retaliate with an even bigger camera with a giant lens. Avoid places which are magnets for large groups of mass tourists.
‘Mash-ups’ are what I call exhibitions which are made up almost entirely from a gallery’s main collection but which advertise themselves as special, one-offs with a hefty ticket price.
Sorry, but I didn’t pay £12 to see a show in which 60% of the exhibits are already in the free permanent collection.
Recent offenders include London’s National Gallery’s Vermeer and His Contemporaries exhibition in which the majority of the works were drawn from the main collection. I was hoping for rather more.
Basically it’s a cheap way of putting on a show but it’s intensely annoying if the re-hashed exhibition doesn’t say anything new about the exhibits on display.
Top tips: Read reviews and check what’s in the exhibition before you commit to buying a ticket.
8. Too many rules
Every gallery has its set of rules of do’s and don’ts but some take this practice to extremes, from rules about where to walk to detailed guidance on behaviour inside the gallery spaces.
OK, we should all know that eating, drinking and destroying the exhibits is not the correct behaviour but some bizarre rules seem to have crept in to overzealous establishments.
The BALTIC in Gateshead, England has a zero tolerance policy on visitors interacting with the exhibits and it’s also very hot on health and safety regulations.
At a recent show I was handed a list of 12 rules which must be obeyed before I entered the gallery space.
The list included obvious things like not touching the exhibits as well as one amazing piece of advice “not to turn on the tap” on a sink which was obviously part of an art installation.
Another piece of guidance recommended not standing too close to the gallery walls in case the newly painted surfaces (which had dried) stained items of visitors’ clothing.
On another visit a warden took me aside and explained “the rules” for five minutes including a warning about a half inch protruding piece of metal on a large styrofoam sculpture which was clearly visible to the naked eye.
An exhibition of arty tents by an American contemporary artist looked as if visitors could go inside but when they did, all hell broke loose – “there’ll be no sitting inside the tents,” proclaimed the gallery staff.
I’ve also seen this at several other galleries where’s there’s a confusion between which exhibits you can interact with and those you can’t.
It’s hard for galleries, I suppose. Once I saw a visitor trip over the Tate Britain’s exhibit of Carl Andre’s minimalist bricks, thinking it was part of the gallery floor.
There’s a fine line between preserving the art and encouraging audience interactivity – it’s a tough tightrope!
Top tips: Tell the gallery or museum in question to chill out in their feedback forms about exhibitions. Don’t trip over the exhibits!
9. Crazy opening times
Funny but Italy and Spain seem to specialise in having ridiculous opening hours which defy any normal logic although I’ve also had similar experiences in the UK and France, to be fair.
“Closed every 3rd Monday except on holy festivals and every 2nd Sunday in the season (except saints days)” is something I’ve witnessed many times in Italy, Portugal and Spain.
Then there’s the attractions where you turn up only to find they’re shut even when they’re supposed to be open, according to their websites.
Confusing times and wrong information is the one thing that’s guaranteed to push Tammy’s holiday stress levels to boiling point.
How annoying to drive 50 miles on a wild goose chase after checking the opening times on a website that turns out to be completely wrong.
In the Czech Republic the famous Traja Palace in Prague refused to let Tammy and Tony take the tour because we couldn’t speak Czech – and we weren’t even allowed to tag along with the group.
The UK used to be pretty good at keeping to opening times but recent cutbacks in public spending have led to unusual closures and inconsistencies.
Other private collections have been known to close for functions without notice.
London’s Saatchi Gallery is generally good at advertising closures for private functions but on two recent visits I’ve turned up (having checked the website) to find the gallery shut. Really annoying.
Health and safety has also raised its head several times including a winter trip to the National Trust’s Prior Park in Bath which was advertised as being open but was shut “due to dangerous slippy paths”.
Looking over the wall it didn’t look that bad. We were left peering at what might have been a charming winter walk, having travelled 350 miles from the other end of the country.
Another group of annoyances are ‘restoration closures’ which aren’t always advertised extensively.
Once I spent an hour trying to find the golden statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, only to discover from a local man that it was ‘in restauro’ or ‘in restoration’.
I discovered that one famous palace in Venice had been ‘in restauro’ for about 10 years despite every guide book and website saying ‘opening next year’ for eight years running.
Turning up and finding the star exhibit(s) aren’t on display is one of the biggest disappointments that can befall any tourist. It’s like showing up to see the Mona Lisa, only to find it’s down in the conservation lab.
Once I travelled 5,000 miles to visit my favourite art works in New York, only to find them temporarily on loan to an exhibition in Berlin!
Top tips: Ring ahead and don’t always rely on websites to have the correct opening times if you don’t trust the information. Check that some key works haven’t been sent on temporary loan elsewhere.
10. Ticketing hell
Not being able to secure a ticket to get entry into a famous tourist attraction is not just irritating, it’s frustrating.
I remember a trip to Florence which was marred by not being able to get a ticket to two of the main attractions in the city, the Pitti Palace and the Uffizi Gallery.
On a second trip we tried to book ahead only to be told that all advance tickets to the Uffizi had been allocated and we’d have to wait in the long, snaking queue to get an ‘on the day’ ticket.
Despite turning up at 8am it took two and half hours to get to the front of the queue, which put Tony van Diesel in such a black mood that we skulked around the gallery looking grim-faced when we did get in.
“It wasn’t worth the wait,” said Tony, scowling at the Caravaggios, Titians and Botticellis as if they’d been daubed by a primary school child. “It’s a bit average, isn’t it?,” he bleated in disapproval.
To this day, I have never visited the Pitti Palace in Florence despite three trips to this fair Italian city.
Then there was the Leaning Tower of Pisa which has no tickets for several days so we never managed to get to the top of the leaning tower to view its pillars and decorations.
Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise smaller, sensitive sites like the Tower of Pisa but it would be good to know in publicity that the chances of seeing these iconic attractions are slim, unless you book ahead.
The Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain is one of the worst offenders despite being on a site spread across a large area. It’s an example of ‘crowd control’ gone mad.
We ordered tickets online, turned up very early and queued for nearly an hour, experienced bureaucratic hell and nearly missed our allocated time slot despite having all the paperwork.
There was much stamping of forms, checking of passports, head shaking and disapproval, yet we’d done everything correctly!
Top tip – book in advance online wherever possible and check availability well ahead of your travel date. Don’t assume you’ll be able to drop into an iconic attraction ‘on the day’.
Allow plenty of time to get your group ‘processed’ at popular locations like the New York’s Statue of Liberty, Paris’ Eiffel Tower and the Alhambra where there are long queues to pick up tickets and get through security.
Top 10 best gallery and museum experiences
I don’t want to sound like ‘Grumpy Tammy’ because a lot of these annoyances are confined to a few places and busy times of the year.
Predictably, the summer months are hell in most capital cities as it’s the prime time for mass tourism.
But there are some potentially irritating things that are easily tackled like having welcoming staff, excellent information, good facilities and ticketing systems that work for and not against the visitor.
Perhaps I’m being churlish because there are many fabulous tourist attractions so here are my top 10 museums and galleries offering brilliant visitor experiences:
1. AROS gallery, Aarhus, Denmark – great gallery spaces, brilliant curation and hours of interactive fun. Perfection. The staff are welcoming and the gallery is open late at night in the summer most evenings.
2. Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon, Portugal – a fantastic collection brilliantly presented in welcoming spaces where you can drool over the exhibits.
3. Miro Foundation, Barcelona, Spain – this spacious and well-curated gallery has cracking art works by the Catalan master of modern art, Miro. It makes you feel welcome and the whole trip makes you want to stay for hours.
4. Maeght Foundation, Saint Paul de Vence, France – beautiful indoors and outdoors, this laid-back family museum has many masterpieces of modern art but lacks a stuffy ambience despite the high class exhibits.
5. British Museum, London – despite its popularity, you can always find somewhere to escape from the crowds and delve deeper into the brilliant historical displays.
6. Storm King, New York State, USA – this large, outdoor park with art installations has a stunning landscape filled with great art plus friendly staff and a laid-back atmosphere.
7. Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, England – fabulous indoor and outdoor spaces make this a relaxing and fun experience – and it’s free of charge.
8. Kroller Muller Museum, Arnhem, Holland – another relaxing and spacious place with art indoors and outdoors plus lots of curation, a lovely cafe and changing exhibitions. Kroller Muller also has great bike rides and art trails through the park.
9. The Jewish Museum, Berlin – despite the airport style security checks (understandable) this stunning museum is to be commended for its brilliant architecture and imaginatively curated displays.
It creates a real mood and atmosphere with its galleries and external spaces… and the design means that there’s no gabbling crowds to ruin the experience. A truly moving journey through the Holocaust and its traumatic history topped off by a brilliant building.
10. Hearst Castle, California, USA – this enormous castle complex belonged to the 1930s newspaper magnate, Randolph Hearst, complete with private zoo, cinema and guest houses. Brilliantly organised tours take the visitor on a variety of experiences, depending on your interests and the time you have available. Excellent curation.
What annoys you?
I’d also like to hear your thoughts… tell me what makes you annoyed about galleries and museums?
Do you have a list of places that get you hot under the collar? Have I missed any irritants off the list? How about mobile phones, loud tour guides. opinionated art experts, ‘know-it-all’ visitors and rip-off prices?
I look forward to sharing your experiences, good and bad – and hearing your solutions to the problem places!