June 21, 2018

Do This, Not That: A Visitor's Guide to Museum Etiquette

So, you’ve decided to visit a living history museum for the first time – now what?  What do you say, how do you act?  Do you ask that question and interact, or simply stand back and observe?  Never fear, we’ve got you covered!  Allow us to be your guides to museum etiquette:

School's out and summer's in, which, for many, means planning the perfect summer vacation!  Visiting local museums are often (or should be!) at the top of those "bucket lists."  As the third installment in a continuing, collaborative series of historical interpretation how-tos, this guide to museum etiquette is intended to answer common questions that visitors may have when attending a living history museum for the first, or hundredth, time.  It is also relevant to historical interpreters, providing both insight and ideas for improving customer service and visitor interactions.

Defining the “Living History” Museum 

Before delving into the do's and don'ts of visiting, let's define the living history museum.  When I tell people I work at museum, sometimes the reaction is along the lines of "oh, that's nice" followed with an "I'm not really that much of a museum person..."  Too often I fear people are turned off by the word "museum," picturing silent room after room of artifacts behind glass cases with security guards and alarms at the ready when people get too close.  While many certainly enjoy the more traditional gallery style museums, myself included, living history museums are so much more than collections of antiques behind glass cases.

Living history or open air museums are like no other sites, offering a dynamic and fully immersive way to experience history.  Visitors literally step into the past, walking through historic villages and structures and interacting with costumed interpreters.  All five senses are engaged from seeing the sites, to hearing the stories, smelling and sometimes even tasting the historic receipts or recipes - it's truly as close to time travel as we can get!

Consulting a more official source, the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM), defines the "living history" museum as:
"[A] site that incorporates historic objects, accurate environments and appropriate recreations [that] make the stories about the people who used those objects more multi-dimensional and effective.  In the effort to 'contextualize' their history, some sites try to recreate a particular time and place in the past, ignoring the intrusions of the present...[other] living history sites...bring history to life...in living animals and plants, in staff performing historic work or trades, and in the effort made to provide an environment rich in artifacts that focus attention on life in past times." - Excerpt from the ALHFAM webpage: "Living History Resources

While living history museums continue to challenge what was once associated with mostly static museum displays, there are still necessary barriers to respect and rules to follow.  "Don't touch" has become "please touch" in many cases with increasingly interactive, hands-on experiences.  However, in striving to provide an equally accurate experience, there are still priceless antiques and other hands-off exhibits.  With all of the excitement and lack of glass cases, sometimes museum manners slip our minds...So, with the living history museum now defined, let's discuss the best ways for both guests and interpreters, alike, to make the most of a museum visit!

The DO's of Museum Visits

Please note that the following guidelines are by no means all-inclusive, and that it is always best to refer to the official onsite policies of an institution. 

DO dress for the weather

When visiting living history or open air museums, as the name suggests, be prepared to spend some time in the great outdoors!  This means wearing comfortable clothing and appropriate footwear for walking.  Don't forget the sunscreen or umbrellas, or even winter coats and hats, depending on the time of year and daily forecasts.

DO dress for the weather
DON'T choose fashion over footwear for walking!

DO respect the interpreters, and expect respect in return

For visitors, this includes listening and, even better, engaging in conversation with the historical interpreters.  Don't overlook the power of just a simple "hello" or "thank you" to brighten someone's day!

DO actively listen & join in conversation

DON'T ignore attempts at engagement

For historical interpreters, this includes everything from greeting the visitors at the door, to sharing relevant, exciting information, and actively listening and responding to the guest's interests and needs.  Our job is equal parts education as it is customer service.

DO greet visitors at the door

DON'T be caught unaware!

DO ask any and all of your questions! 

Please, share your story and ask your questions, no matter how simple or silly, deep or profound - don't be shy!  We live these interesting discussions as repeating the same spiel to hundreds in a day can become tiring.  Challenge us to become better historians by asking that question, and we will do our best to provide an accurate, informative answer.

DO ask any and all of your questions!

DO ask before touching when the signs are unclear

Hands on or hands off?  At many living history sites, the majority of exhibits are not protected behind glass.  There won't be alarms that screech if someone gets too close, and, for the safety and preservation of the artifacts, it is always best to err on the side of caution.  Please assume that an exhibit is hands off, unless clearly indicated by signage or invited to touch by staff.  It never hurts to check with the interpreter, who will be more than happy to give the go-ahead when allowed.

DO look for signs saying "please touch!"

DO look for hands on activities!

DON'T handle hand off artifacts!

Failure to obey museum policies threatens
the safety and preservation of its artifacts

DO be mindful of personal items not part of the exhibit

In some places, there may be food items, clothing or other historical, personal effects that appear to be part of the display, when they are actually part of the interpreter's impression.  For instance, covered baskets may function as purses, concealing modern items or even that day's lunch.  Even things like bonnets or hats which can be costly investments, though tempting to try on, are best left to the owner's to handle, alone. Just as it would be inappropriate (and downright odd!) for us to rifle through your purse, eat your food, or try on your clothing, please, again, be mindful of personal items not part of the exhibit!

DO be mindful of personal items not part of the exhibit!
DON'T try on hats or go through covered baskets without permission

DO respect any ropes, barriers and closed doors

Ropes, barriers and closed doors solely exist for your safety and the safety of the artifacts in the exhibits.  Though it may be tempting to reach over the barriers for a better look at an object, see what's beyond the ropes, go upstairs or look behind a closed door, please refrain from tampering with these safety measures.  Try asking the interpreter your questions instead!

DO respect any "private" or staff only signs

DON'T open closed doors, especially those marked off limits

DON'T cross the ropes or take down exhibit barriers 

DO follow the food and drink policies in buildings

Many sites restrict food and open beverages within their historic buildings.  While sometimes inconvenient, enforcing these policies protect the buildings and their artifacts from accidental spills and critters.

DO follow signs regarding food and drink inside historic buildings

DON'T bring food, candy or open drinks inside,
unless permitted by the establishment

Accidents sometimes happen...
but by restricting open food and drinks,
we can protect our historic structures!

DO restrict cellphone usage to appropriate situations

Just like in any other interaction, frequent texting or lengthy phone conversations are best kept outside.  Inappropriate cellphone usage detracts from the other visitors' experiences and impedes interpreters from doing their job, which is engaging you!

DO feel free to use cellphones whenever appropriate
DON'T allow usage to detract from another's experience!

DO follow all photography policies & be courteous with your cameras

It's always best to look up the policies for photography and video recordings before a visit.  Each institution will have their own set of rules for where and when photography, with or without flash, is allowed.  In our historic village, visitors are welcome to photograph any building and interpreter, as we have all signed photo releases.  As far as courtesy, most historical interpreters are more than happy to be photographed, as long as it doesn't interfere with another visitor's experience or disorient us with flash.

DO feel free to photograph when allowed
DON'T forget personal space! 

DO share your experience and come again! 

Did you enjoy your stay?  Share your pictures and stories with family & friends!  Living history museums thrive on your positive, personal recommendations and feedback to better the experience for all.  Consider supporting the museum with a membership to save a bundle on your next visit.

DO share your favorite memories
and visit us again, soon!

Questions & Comments? 

Are you planning to visit a living history museum this summer?  If so, which one(s)?  What's the one piece of advice you would give to a first time museum-goer, and how might a museum better respond to that concern?

Do you have a historical interpretation topic that you would like to see addressed in the future?  Let us know!  (See the full list covered, here: Historical Interpretation How Tos)


Special thanks to Brian Nagel, Senior Director of Interpretation, Peter Wisbey, Curator of Collections, and the Genesee Country Village & Museum for permission to photograph and access to the historic village.

Special thanks to the GCV interpreters and friends, Judy Johnson, Ariana Nicodemus, and Allison & Stephen Schmidt for your generous time and contributions to the series!  I simply cannot "thank you" enough for pretending that it was summer in all of these pictures, when it was clearly not - you four are the best!



  1. Replies
    1. I'm so happy you liked it, Pam, that means so much to me!

  2. As an employee and costumed animator... well done.

  3. This is very nicely done. LOVE the photos.

    1. Thank you, Sarah! We had a great time staging them ;)

  4. Very well said! These are excellent tips that should help our public understand what we do and why. Thanks!

    1. Thank you for the feedback! That was just what I had hoped - to raise awareness and interest in museums!