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Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Ministry Rants: your crazy visitor nightmare

We’ve all been there. You are about to go to lunch with the phone rings ominously. Maybe you tried to just make a quick dash through the gallery, or even worse, you are stationed there and not allowed to leave. ‘Excuse me, but I have a visitor here who says they are the distant relative of one of the artists/inventors/designers/owners/donors/makers of an obscure object on display.’ You cringe to yourself, knowing there is no way out but to head down to the gallery and into the firing line of what is sure to be at least an hour long conversation. Oh why can’t they just call in advance? Couldn’t they send an email?

What do you mean that object I donated in 1975 isn't in pride of place?!
When you arrive downstairs, your worst fears are confirmed. They are not here to ask you a quick question; they would like you to tell them everything there is to know about this object and its relationship to their family please. What-are you not currently an expert on this one item in your collection of thousands? What is the point of museum employees if they don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things related to your distant relative? But it doesn’t matter, because soon they have launched into their own soliloquy- explaining about their family/company history and its relevance to the object. You nod along, all the while thinking to yourself, what is it you want from me? Am I meant to be writing this down? Is this oral history? Are you expecting this to end up in a file somewhere? Do you think I have a tape recorder? 

The problem is essentially this- when you work for a museum; you become an embodiment of that institution for the public. I really doubt my crazy visitor could care less about telling me their life’s story if they met me in a pub. But here in this hallowed space, the relationship transforms. As a representative of the museum, I am the arbiter of everything important that happened in history and more importantly, of remembrance. This (probably elderly) visitor wants to know their family history (and in turn theirs) matters to someone whose job it is to literally look after the past. Your opinion on this or that thing they have brought in with them is somehow the final word on what is or isn’t significant. And woe betides you if you aren’t playing your part well enough.
You mean you don't care about my great-great-great grandfather's canning company?!
Museums are, at the end of the day, public spaces where the public can feel free to come and look around. Please don’t get me wrong, in museums we love the public- we really do! But how can you deal with a crazy visitor? Everyone who works in museums has their own story. Some people are enthusiastic, angry, sad or demanding. Personally I always try and remember that this over the top visitor isn’t really looking for me to give them all the right answers, I’m not even a person to them. Just a walking talking part of the gallery with a staff badge or t-shirt.

So what’s your crazy museum visitor story? And more important, do you have a trick for walking away alive? Share with the #problemvisitor and we’ll be posting the best ones on the blog!

Just to get you rolling:

‘My grandfather used to work at such and such a company and in 1960 you had a display about them, where is it now?’ 

‘My distant relative donated an object in 1920, where is it now?’ 

‘Can I see a rare archival document which mentions a distant member of my family?’ 

‘I have something that looks just like that at home, can I bring it in? Would you like to buy it?’ 

‘My father has a book bound in human skin, do you think it’s real?’

And just a friendly public service announcement to round this rant off:

Dear Member of the Public,
 Thank you for your interest in our museum. We are so thrilled that you’d like to learn more about the collection or think you have some interesting information for us about one of our objects. We’d really love to hear it! Acceptable forms of providing this information is to send us a letter/write us an email/get in touch via the collections email. Similarly, if you have a question about the collections, please use these same methods of contact and we will get back to you as soon as we can. But please understand that museums are perpetually under-staffed, and we are doing our best to reply. If you arrive unannounced we probably will not be able to help you (and we really want to). So for the love of all things history, please PLEASE EMAIL US FIRST!

1 comment:

  1. I answered a call from a local resident describing an object that we had in the museum, it looked very similar to something he found whilst fishing and could he bring it in to show us (apparently he had been using it to prop a door open). What he descibed was an anti personell shell. Trying to keep my voice level and calm, I asked him to put it into a bucket of water and to invite the local police round to see it. Definately not to bring it in, our museum does not accept old, possibly live shells. #problemvisitor