Are Museums Intimidating? First Impressions Count

…but I’d wager that the more appropriate adjectives for describing what reluctant museum-goers feel about museums include “boring,” “bewildering,” and “confusing,” because there isn’t enough way-finding information.

What is your experience of entering a large museum for the first time? And how should you proceed to get the most of your experience? Well, some museums are more helpful than others.

The above quote is from Judith Dobrzynki’s post  on  the Met Museum director Tom Campbell’s TEDtalk in which he talked about curating exhibitions for a general audience, enticing them to look and feel for themselves. In her post, Dobrzynski praised Campbell’s daring in ‘dropping an F-bomb’ but did also innocently drop a bomb (of sorts) of her own in the above  quote  – her real concerns about approaching a museum.

That led me to thinking about first impressions (personal impressions, as opposed to just being impressed) as a way to gauge a museum encounter. Like meeting a person for the first time, first impressions can determine many subsequent interactions.

In my experience, two museums in London stand out in this department.

Tate Modern, with its gargantuan Turbine Hall entrance, is one. I imagine a first time visitor, one who maybe even going to a museum for the first time, walking down (not up) a ramp from the street into the hall, all the way to the Turbine Hall installation. There is no need for choice or decision – you are safely in the middle of an immersive environment. Yes, you are already in a show. Think about Olafur Eliason’s 2003 The Weather Project here, which attracted an estimated two million visitors in its five-month run.

Once comfortable and oriented – and feeling part of the museum – you are more able to make a choice as to what to do next. There are themed exhibitions on the floors above. Or you could just wander about and visit the great shop, behind glass walls on the same level, with many artist-designed gifts and gadgets  and a vast selection of books for the more attuned. Or just chill out with a cappuccino in the  café.

The British Museum‘s Great Court is another brilliant example – one I enjoy even more, often going there without seeing any exhibition – maybe just to meet friends for lunch.

First of all, Norman Foster’s giant glass skylight which covers the original classical courtyard, is simply astounding – it’s like an umbrella with the circular old British Library as its stem. The court contains busy gift shops and cafés, and contemporary sculptures—and the occasional backpacker sitting on the pristine floor leaning on his pack, just grooving.

But that’s not all. Both museums are free and open seven days a week – so there really isn’t any need to make a decision about whether to go or when to go. That makes for an even easier first encounter.

I think the great museum entry hall as a welcoming transition zone may be an idea that has caught on.

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