A gallery or museum visit lurks in almost every holiday and at that visit you must follow the prescribed etiquette. You didn’t think there was a gallery and museum etiquette? Of course you did – you don’t burst into song, cartwheel or tell dirty jokes at the gallery. You’re quiet. Respectful. Sombre. Whether it’s a tin shed with dusty perspex shelving, or a state of the art, kid-friendly monolith with flashy interactive monitors, these institutions are serious and wrapped up in a web of etiquette we can only begin to unravel right here and now.
Do not go to a Post Impressionist art exhibition if you have a respiratory tract infection. Gazing fondly at a Monet my gentle reverie was rudely interrupted by a hawking, guttural noise. Ok, I’ll admit I’m a bit of a gallery purist… a snob, if you will. I actually stopped to turn around and give that person a dirty look. I stared coldly at this tall giant of a man, from my height of five foot nothing, and gave him an eyebrow raise. Satisfied I’d made my annoyance known, I stared fixedly at a Degas. Again, the snorting, throat scraping, gurgle. What? I actually tutted then and looked at this man in disbelief. Really? What sort of Neanderthal, lunk of a man would even bother wasting the entrance fee on an art exhibition if all he was going to do was hawk mucus like a 19th century, southern plantation owner. The third time, when it sounded like a dog was trying to cough up a fur ball, I spun around to catch…. the man’s petite, cardigan dressed wife, resettling her glasses and wiping her eyes. She smiled meekly at me in apology.
Do not step back unexpectedly. The gallery dance is a subtle and complex movement, full of nuance and delicacy. Step in front of the portrait. Sigh. Tip head thoughtfully to one side. Narrow eyes. Murmur ‘mmm’. Put hand to chin. Lean forward to look at brush strokes. Straighten. Step gracefully to the side and, gently now… whoosh. Tilt chin back, mutter ‘oh my’ and raise your eyebrows at your companion. Prepare to whirl again, but don’t step back – unless you and the person behind you practiced this in the car park beforehand, you’re not in sync. There will be inappropriate touching. If it’s peak hour – Saturday afternoon on the opening day of a special exhibition – you’ll witness a lot of foot stepping, ‘oh, excuse me’s and even a couple of narky head shakes and ankle rubs. The dancing will be less like a waltz and more like a mosh pit.
Do follow instructions. If you go to the Sistine Chapel, be silent. Not quiet – silent. This is what they ask you to do. In a myriad of languages piped through a loud speaker as you creep forward in the inevitable long, long line you’re asked to respect this holy place by refraining from talking. Of course, the moment you step into the Chapel it’s like a market day cattle call. There’s not just talking but shouting, wild gesticulations, mutterings of ‘I don’t see what the big deal is’ and even a little bit of praying. I confess, I also spoke, but it was only to ask my companion if they could spot the famous finger pointing panel painted by Michelangelo. The ceiling is an awfully long way away.
Do get excited. At the Treasures exhibit in the National Library, Canberra. I had to smile at a mother striving to get her kids interested in the ‘old stuff’. Suddenly, she squats down and pushes her face right up against the glass cabinet and gasps. ‘Oh my goodness!’ she mock whispers. ‘Kids! KIDS! Take a look AT THIS.’ They duly walk over and stare at an old gun. ‘Do you know what that is?’. They looked only a little impressed. ‘That there [finger poke] is a gun used by a genuine bush ranger’. Her eyes were wide open and she pulled the kids a little closer. ‘Imagine that! That might be Ned Kelley’s!’. The kids looked at the gun with new awe and respect. ‘Did it kill anyone?’ the little one asked. ‘Maybe!’ mum replied excitedly.
They stood there for ages chatting about it and she even managed to cram in some genuine Australian history that had them enthralled. She gave an astonishing and award winning performance. Those kids are probably still talking about their visit to the museum and the cool gun they saw.
And that’s the point, after all – a memorable but incident free visit!