On the 24th April I visited both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I felt that this time I went mostly as a tourist. Sure I still focused on details the average visitor would not, but I was there on a Sunday with a NY City Pass (booklet to get into multiple venues for a lower price) and in ‘holiday mode’ myself. I was also slightly delirious with sleep deprivation, having not coped very well with the volume of the New York nightlife noise that reached my bedroom the previous night.
I arrived at the AMNH at about 11am.There were already very large queues forming in the entrance hall. This introduction to the AMNH was not an enjoyable ones. It was not the queues that were the problem: long queues are often inevitable and can be a positive sign for a good visit. The large amounts of renovation occurring with temporary walls and signage was also not really much of a concern: I appreciate that Museums need to renovate, replace and repair. The discomfort I felt was caused by the somewhat confusing organisation and the manner of some of the staff.
When my husband and I entered the entrance hall we looked around for signs until we saw one that said NY City Pass, having found out online we could buy it at the first venue we visited. We then moved to where we thought the queue started. However as we joined what appeared to be the end of the line we were confronted by a security guard/front of house staff member, who gruffly said something along the lines of ‘this line is only for CityPass holders and members.’ We explained we didn’t have one because we wanted to buy a pass, then he replied ‘ok, well you can’t stand here, move over there. You’re out of line, this man was before you.’ At this point we realised that the line was split into two sections separated by a wide walkway, but there was little signage. We apologised and moved behind the man. For the next 15 minutes while we waited in the queue we were told twice more that we weren’t meant to be there because we didn’t have the pass (once by the same staff member). Also, about every two to three minutes one of the staff would loudly call out “move up everyone, there shouldn’t be any space between you, move up.” Then they would individually target people who had left perhaps 30cm between them and the person in front, to move up.
What I found so disappointing about this was that the time we had to spend waiting didn’t bother me so much, but the approach of the staff did. They were unnecessarily abrupt, untrusting and generally unhappy. I felt like a sheep being herded in to be shorn, and shouldn’t I be damn happy they were letting me in. Fortunately the ticket sales staff member was lovely, positive and took the time to explain how to find our way around.
The museum itself underwhelmed me. I’m not sure if it was partly to do with the vibe from the other visitors. It was so unlike the Smithsonians where people seemed positive, relaxed and enjoying learning as a family. This felt more like a shopping mall, where everyone was out to get the good thing for themselves, sometimes at the expense of those around them. Perhaps this was to do with the entrance cost, and the mentality that people wanted to get their money’s worth, but then I paid more for the Californian Academy of Sciences and that felt positive. I’m really not sure.
I think it was also that the museum felt unloved. It was a bit dirty in places and there were many damaged labels and information panels. But more the impression came from the feeling that neither the exhibitions or the staff really wanted to be there or share their stories with the visitors. The exhibits didn’t call you and draw you in and some of the staff seemed generally inconvenienced by you. I must clarify that this definitely wasn’t all the staff, but it was enough to have a negative impact. It was simple things like in the corralling area before the planetarium show a lady gruffly told a number of young families to get off the floor, that the couldn’t sit down. But there appeared to be no reason for this comment as there was more than enough space and she offered no other explanation.
However, having said all that, there were definitely some good moments. I wouldn’t normally open with the negatives, but that was precisely the experience I had… it started negative and I had to look a little for the positives. But they were there. The first one, and a big one, was the iPhone Map App. This was really great. The Museum is confusing, and not only did this provide a map, key items of interests and searchable features, but it also located you on the map in real time – aided by the free Wi-Fi.
The dinosaur rooms are much more alive and inviting. They feel much more like a 21st century museum and less like an old school trophy hall (see the Pacific Exhibits picture above). There are some interactives in this space too. Including a space to send a video to your family and friends. This was good fun, although the educational relevance could be improved. Perhaps this is where the museum is heading with all the exhibis as time and money allows.
There was a great little space in the Human Origins section, the Sackler Lab, which had a couple of staff discussing and handling fossils with visitors. This was a really relaxed and inviting space that gave the collection a voice. It would be even better if it opened more into the exhibition space.
There was also a nice little Discovery Lab for kids, although it wasn’t as full of families as the Spark Lab in Washington.
One of my favourite things was an elderly chap in one of the exhibition halls with a fold out table and a few items to make origami, just chatting to visitors and sharing his passion. It was such a warm and happy little corner of the museum.
I would have liked to go back to AMNH on a quieter day (if they have them), and perhaps see some programs in action. I wonder if some of the problems I experienced were because it was the holidays and the staff may have been casual. However, if that is the case, it just goes to show how much of an impact unenthusiastic or untrained staff can have. This museum also showed me how much the attitudes and behaviours of other visitors can affect a visit. Is there anything museums can do in this situation? It is also very hard to know as an outsider the internal situation of an institution, perhaps they have great plans develop their exhibits, but struggle to get the funds? Whatever the case, from what I experienced, I wanted this museum to have more love: love for learning and sharing, love of the collections and their history.
After I left AMNH I walked across central park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Before I even went in, I sat on the steps with a hotdog and took in the surrounds: the other visitors, the artists on the street… it was all quietly humming. Right from this point I felt like I was comparing it to AMNH. I knew I shouldn’t, they are completely different places with different visitors, collections and purposes. But I noticed the change.
Then inside I exchanged our voucher for a stylish little entry token/badge. There were no queues, no rushing, shouting or pushing. It was very relaxed. I first journeyed through the antiquarian sculptures. It was beautiful. Everything was respectfully presented, yet felt accessible. Many were not behind glass, but out in the open to be admired up close. And the building itself was stunning. It all just gave the place an enchanted feeling.
The staff seemed to sit quietly in the background. There would be one or two in most rooms or sections, but they rarely seemed to engage with the visitors. The only one who spoke to me, ask me to carry my backpack in my hand, rather than wear it on my back. A slightly strange rule, although probably necessary for the safety of the free standing collections (and I did appreciate not having to pay to check my bag in). But other than that, I didn’t see staff talk at all. It was as though they were respectful of your right to quietly take in your surrounds. It was peaceful and made you feel respected as a visitor.
This, on the other hand, meant there was little evidence of visitor interaction or involvement. There didn’t appear to be any spaces designed for children (although I did not see anywhere near all of the museum) and the only active engagement with the collection I observed was people, possible an art class, drawing some of the statues. Their skill and presence almost became another exhibit to observe. It made me wonder, maybe it was not the MET’s role to offer interaction or involvement for it’s visitors? Perhaps, as it has seems to have decided, it better serves its visitors by simply being a place of quiet and refrained reflection?
I think I would still like to see some more children’s spaces and spots for visitor involvement. Perhaps this is the kind of museum where these places can be tucked out of the way – or maybe they were and I didn’t see them?
The only real drawback I felt from my visit was the lack of maps available. I didn’t see any paper ones and there were not that many posted on the walls. There was also no map available on the website, which made finding particular sections somewhat difficult. Sure, it may have added a little to the dreaminess of the place, allowing you to get lost in the collection, but it did mean I missed some things I would have made the time to see if I knew they were there.
These two institutions are so different. I can’t really compare them for quality of experience as they offered such different purposes and choices. However I can comment on the stark difference in my feelings when I visited them. Where AMNH left me feeling a little agitated and despondent, the MET left me full of joy, awe and inspiration. I think it was the MET’s reverence and respect for its collections and visitors which, through the choices they therefore made, led to these positive feelings.