When Museums are Free but not Open


Before we begin, let’s get something out in the open: I really like museums. I like the way they smell of preservation; I like the deep rouge of the walls, the peculiarity of the mouldings and intricacy of the frames. I like that they are big and full and that, in a single painting, you can experience an entire world. All of this contributes to my appreciation for London, a city defined by an embarrassment of riches—and where many of those riches can be accessed for free.

This was the attitude that carried me to one of the Big Museums on Saturday, where I intended to see two paintings that I needed for a research paper. With purpose, I scuttled my way around the building until brushstrokes started to look painterly and rapid and the galleries became increasingly full. But when I turned into the room, it was blocked off with a sign that read “Private Drawing Class, Gallery Closed Until 1:15”. Classic.

When a museum is free and open to the public, those words should be—need to be—unequivocal promises that all are welcome and worthy of respect.

Before falling into despair, I whispered to the guard to inquire if there was any way I could get a closer loo—“Absolutely not. The class has paid to close this gallery”, and then he kept talking—and I stopped listening because amongst all of the sensations I could have been feeling, I only became attuned to my own worthlessness, as he ejaculated an arrogance I recognized only in caricatures of portly elitism. I did not press further (choose your battles, etc.), and I stepped away from the barrier, to see if the aura of the Artist could stretch to where I was standing. But Mr Guardian wobbled in front of my line of vision; eyes cooperatively throwing disdain my way. Petty much?

On a basic level, his behaviour was rude and unnecessary. But, on an equally basic level, I emerged unscathed. Yes, he belittled me, yes, I’ll have to go back to get a decent view of the paintings, but I will get what I need, and I will go back to this unspecified museum. Perspective tells me that I am an Oxford student who is not unused to rejection (mostly by the Christ Church porters) and with enough experience of museums to know that none of this matters on a personal level. But this treatment does matter on a broader level.

I’m writing this—essentially requesting guards to be nicer—because there is something larger at stake when museumgoers are treated this way: the idea of open access. Once perceived as sacred, separate, and elitist institutions of Victorian inheritance, museums have recently sought to rebrand themselves as accessible and diverse. With greater initiative than ever, they have dedicated themselves to outreach and visitor experience. Museums have reinvented themselves as conduits of community connection and supplemental learning experiences for all members of the public.

But when guardian fixtures in each individual gallery treat the museumgoers as less-thans, when they imply that gallery entry needs to be bought, that patronage is the One and Only Avenue, it comes off, unsurprisingly, as unwelcoming. And no, this doesn’t matter for me. But it matters for people who have declared they “hate art,” for people whose families did not or could not take them to museums. It matters for those for whom cultural institutions were barricaded by something much stronger than a velvet rope—financial and structural discrimination.

When a museum declares that it aims to encourage broad “access” shouldn’t that be true on every level, in every gallery? When a museum is free and open to the public, those words should be more than marketing ploys or conditional offers made to please a trickle of corporate responsibility, those should be—need to be—unequivocal promises that all are welcome and worthy of respect.


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