Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Sticky Situations: Gum in Museums and "NO" Signs

I was thinking about gum and "NO" signs the other day.

During a recent trip to a museum I had never visited before, I was struck by the gigantic sign (and I mean smack you in the face giant-size) immediately inside the front door with a list of "NOs."  No photos, no running, no food, no drink, no gum ... and "no fun" I thought.  It was hardly a welcoming experience, and it set a poor tone for the rest of my visit.

If any museum has a reason to put up a gigantic "NO gum" sign, it would be The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). A few years ago a 12 year old student stuck a wad of gum onto a Helen Frankenthaler painting, valued at over 1 million dollars. 

So what happens if you make the mistake of chewing gum inside the DIA?  I know from experience that a guard comes up to you quietly and reminds you that gum is not allowed in the galleries, and then hands you a small slip of paper.

The paper lets you know that gum is not allowed in order to protect the artworks, and politely suggests that you wrap your gum inside the slip and deposit it in the nearest trash can.  End of story.  No giant signs, no loud/rude guards, just a request for your cooperation to protect the art.

Even after the guard handed me the slip of paper, I enjoyed the rest of my visit to the DIA very much.

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  1. A colleague told me years ago "Try not to tell them what they can't do. Tell them what they CAN do". When I'm doing a presentation we try to use touchable objects. Occasionally there will be object they can't touch. I like to use a sign with a friendly pair of eyes on it that says "Eyes Only, Please", and to describe some interesting things that a visitor can learn about the object just by looking carefully. It works a little better than "Don't Touch".

  2. I recall seeing an image a few years back showing a museum that invited their visitors to deposit their gum upon a growing gum-sculpture before entering. Genius - turning your visitor's first experience from one of denial into one of creativity and being a part of something bigger. Unfortunately, I have had no luck in finding any photos or other evidence of this again. Anyone?

  3. Sometimes I wonder how big this gum problem really is. It takes a perfect storm of maliciousness, stupidity and chutzpah to stick a piece of gum onto an artwork in a museum. How often does that happen really? I like the approach described in the comment from Sue Stoessel on taking the positive approach, sounds much more effective. The bad first impression created by negative messages is something I refer to as the "conditional welcome", it's ineffective and off-putting to visitors. I wrote a post about this last week, if you're interested.