I recently had the wonderful opportunity to visit both the British Museum in London and the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. These facilities – the equivalent of our Smithsonian Institution – are quite large. Having spent my whole career in small museums, the sheer scale of these buildings overwhelmed me at first. To give you an idea, any one of the museums where I used to work would have fit neatly inside the British Museum’s Reading Room.
I wore two hats while I was there: one as a visitor and another as a small museum expert. After all, why assume a subordinate role by thinking that small museums can only learn from larger ones? It was more interesting to observe what large and small museums had in common.
Wearing my small museum hat, I couldn’t resist looking behind the wall hangings to note their mounting techniques. (Don’t most of us do this?) They’re the same as ones I’ve used; ditto for the object mounts in cases and vitrines. And as hard as I looked for a crooked painting or copy block, everything was straight, as it should be in any museum. While everything was larger and more expensive, nothing was technically different from what any small museum staff member would do with sufficient patience and imagination. If there was anything small about these large museums, it was the font size of the secondary copy. (Ha! I found one thing that I did better.)
I also paid attention to how these larger institutions accommodated and interacted with their visitors. The greeters at the door were courteous as they answered my standard questions and directed me to the specific exhibitions I wanted to see. Useful and visitor-friendly floor plans of the museums (something that’s absolutely necessary for large museums) were available. While floor plans may not always be necessary for small museums, they can save staff members or volunteers from constantly directing visitors to the rest room. Such hand-outs can also include information about visitor protocols, emergency exits, the museum store, and a brief note on the museum’s history, as well as publicity about special collections or upcoming exhibitions.
I was particularly impressed by the guards (who’d be volunteers at most small museums); they were unobtrusive, but present and informative when needed. Their level of consideration knew no bounds; if they were world-weary, it never showed. The National Museum of Ireland doesn’t permit photography, but I was, as were most visitors, surreptitiously snapping away with the flash off. I accidentally left my camera on a bench, where it was quickly retrieved by a guard and taken to the Reception Area. When I went over, suitably embarrassed, to claim it, they returned it without reproach. I felt as if they treated me almost as well as the marvelous objects and exhibits that I saw there.
From the standpoints of both the visitor and the museum professional, my visits to these national museums reinforced what I’ve always believed: that judging a museum by size alone is irrelevant. Budgets, staff numbers, and square footage mean little if clarity, organization, cleanliness, and uncommon courtesy aren’t also present.
Paul Katz, Ph.D. has degrees in art history and archaeology, and his career has alternated between directing small museums and conducting archaeological projects. His small museums include the Museum of Man (Ellensburg, WA), the Kampsville (IL) Archaeological Museum, and the Square House Museum (Panhandle, TX). He recently retired from the Texas Pharmacy Museum (Amarillo,TX) and is back doing archaeology.