Museums are such incredible places. They’re so full of potential. Potential knowledge, potential inspiration, and potential to pick up a new hobby, among many other kinds of potential. That’s why I always make a point to visit at least one museum wherever I travel. One could spend days or even weeks inside most museums and not have enough time to appreciate every work of art, read every plaque, or attend every exhibit, and yet they’re generally considered something done as day trips or even afternoon activities. There’s so much to learn, appreciate, and enjoy inside museums, and the experience is made much better when everyone follows proper museum etiquette. If you’ve ever wondered how to behave or whether or not it’s okay to touch something in an art museum, read on!
Want to explore some of the museums I’ve visited around the world? Check out my museum archives!
Above: Photograph of The Mona Lisa (aka La Jaconde) from my visit to The Louvre in Paris, France
Why Museum Etiquette Matters
Asking why museum etiquette matters is like asking why manners matter at all. By following these simple rules, we can all better enjoy the beautiful works of art created throughout the ages housed within museums. Not only do the rules help you better enjoy your time inside museums and focus on the art in front of you, but following these etiquette tips will also help ensure everyone else enjoys their time there too.
Above: The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York City
Growing up, I was taught to treat museums like I was visiting my grandmother’s house. In her house, I was expected to be seen but not heard (I know, I know), I wasn’t allowed to touch anything and had to keep my hands to myself, and I was expected to leave everything exactly how I found. The same rules apply to all of us when we visit art museums. Many people don’t know this, but if you damage art at an art museum, you may be expected to pay for it (even in cases where the art is considered “priceless”), and you may even face legal repercussions.
So, act like you’re visiting my grandmother and be on your best behavior!
*Someone was escorted out of the MET while I was there for vaping around paintings. It should be obvious, but don’t smoke or vape in museums!
Above: Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina
Don’t get too close. Some exhibits have alarms that will go off if you move past the ropes, floor markings, or within 1/3 of a meter / 1 foot of the art. For your safety and the safety of the art, stay back.
- Don’t stay in front of a work of art for too long or block others from seeing it. We all have a right to appreciate the exhibits, so enjoy your time as you’re entitled to do, then move along.
- If you’re sketching a work of art, be sure to do so from a respectful distance so that others can enjoy it too.
- Don’t block the art by standing in front of it and texting, Instagramming, or playing Runescape Mobile.
Above: Anila Quayyam Agha Exhibit at GRAM in Grand Rapids, Michigan
Backpacks, Bags, Coats, and Suitcases:
Traveling, bringing large bags, backpacks, or even suitcases to a museum is sometimes unavoidable, especially when visiting during a layover. Many museums will have coat and bag checks where you can safely leave your belongings and explore the museum galleries unencumbered.
- If you have a backpack or purse, you may be asked to either check your bag or carry it in front of you to preserve the exhibits & avoid bumping into/tripping others.
- To avoid discomfort and free up your hands, always leave your coat at the coat check and ask for a check tag to prove which item is yours. I recommend taking a photo of this just in case you misplace it during your visit.
Above: Hillwood Estate & Museum in Washington, D.C.
Food & Drink:
I have never been to any museum that allows food and drinks inside. I have, however, visited numerous museums that have their own cafés inside. This is particularly true of larger museums and museums with extensive art collections.
- Do not eat or drink in exhibit halls
- Only eat and drink in designated areas or cafés
- Don’t smack gum or anything similar in quiet museums
Above: Sherlock Holmes Museum in London, England
Groups & Guides:
Be sure not to monopolize your guide’s time and attention.
- Try to keep questions relevant, respectful, and at a reasonable volume.
- Check to see if tipping your tour guide is expected in whichever country you are visiting. Often times it is not, at least in the United States, but it is always appreciated. In some countries like Japan, tipping may be seen as offensive.
- Stay with your group unless you’re using the restroom or something similar, so you don’t get lost.
Above: Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit, Michigan
Generally, travel to your right as you enter a room. This is typically the way objects are arranged to be viewed in a gallery, so you’ll be able to better appreciate the exhibit. Once you’re back where you began, head straight (as much as possible) to the next room.
- Take care not to bump into anything or anyone.
- Do not step in front of those who may be admiring a painting or sculpture from a distance, so remain aware of your surroundings.
- If there are route markers (physical markers or lights shining on the floor to indicate the direction you should travel) follow those instead of the “go right” rule.
Above: The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California
Speaking & Cell Phones:
Enjoying art with others can make the entire experience that much better in many cases. However, whether you’re in a group or alone, the way we speak in museums should be respectful of everyone around us.
- Be quiet. Unless necessary, try to avoid talking, and if you must say something, do so in a hushed voice.
- If you have young children who can’t stay quiet, it’s best not to bring them to art museums where they may disrupt others. There are plenty of museums, especially for children, in major cities, and some art museums even have dedicated child hours where loud voices won’t result in you being asked to leave.
- Do not answer phone calls inside museums.
- If you use your phone to take photos, be sure it’s muted, so it doesn’t click, and turn off the flash so as not to disturb others or damage the art.
Above: The Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois
Consider how respectful what you want to do is whenever you’re in an art museum.
- No flash
- No selfie sticks
- No tripods/monopods (they’re a trip hazard)
Above: International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island
Touching the Art:
Don’t do it. You know better than that! Haha. In case you’re curious about why this is such an important part of proper museum etiquette, our fingers have oil, germs, and even dirt or other rough debris that can transfer to the art, discolor it, wear it down, cause the paint to flake off, and ruin the art. In order to preserve things for future visits and future generations, keep your hands off and look with your eyes, not your hands. I’d better not see any of you participating in the “licking art” challenge, either >:(
Above: Chihuly Garden & Glass Museum in Seattle, Washington
There’s nothing worse than someone running in art museum, barreling towards a work of art. I have seen people legitimately running in museums before, and it makes me wonder if there’s a fire or something. More importantly, you could trip and hurt yourself, others, or the art.
- Pay attention to barriers, floor markings, and other people
- Watch where you step
- Wear comfortable, quiet shoes (avoid stilletoes or other squeaky or distracting footwear)
Above: The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois
Don’t touch things, don’t be a menace – you’ve got this! Thank you for reading!
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Megan Rushing says
All of the pictures being taken of the Mona Lisa put a damper on the experience. I wish they’d read this guide before visiting the Louvre!
Stephanie chauvet says
My parents loved visiting museums in Europe. Beautiful photos you took. Thanks for the pointers.
Bailey Thornton says
Saving this for when my friends and relatives visit me in DC 😅
Sarah K says
These are so good to know. Thank you!
Danielle F says
Thank you for posting this! It drives me crazy when people so rudely disrupt others from having a positive experience viewing something so beautiful.