The Chaos, Confusion, and Etiquette of Walking Through an Art Exhibit

Strange things happen at art exhibits. Shoulder to shoulder with regular old strangers. It's here that I remember about bumping, about the paranoia of being bumped.

Why? Why does it happen? Don't they see me?  

At the very beginning of the adventure, there is the point of entrance: the pre-line, up-and-down retractable belt stanchions.



You know the ones. I respect this waiting line device. It gives me a sense of calm.

Everyone is in their place, everything is fair — order is being maintained, chaos corralled. This concept of order is nice, albeit very, very temporary. I edge closer and closer to the front. I'm almost there, and it's exciting.

The line creates anticipation. It wouldn't be the same if you could just stroll right in.

I wait for a little bit but not long. There is a ticket man. He is serious. This is serious business. He's the only thing standing in between me and art. If the transaction goes well, he will let me in.

There are head nods exchanged, and he takes my ticket. Another head nod. I'm in. 

It's not until I enter the exhibit that I realize not only will order no longer be maintained, but the transition from order to absolute chaos occurs in only milliseconds. Stanchions are just a sweet memory now.

Here there is only chaos, and to survive I must try to shift from line mentality to ... something else entirely.

Those of us entering are led to the first painting in the first room. The mood could be described as antsy. I can see the painting ahead. I've been bumped. Or I bumped. It's hard to say. There is a block of text adjacent to the painting.

The introductory piece. I stand on tiptoes as if it would make a difference, it does. Like a periscope, I see a woman standing in front of the text with her arms crossed and her posture slouching. She is not going anywhere. The very first part of the exhibit and she is already making her stand. 

Source: (Fidenaut)

Source: (Fidenaut)

Those of us behind her are confused and must watch her because she has plugged the natural momentum of the line. The line must move forward; that is the nature of the line.

Unfortunately for everyone, the line is no longer sustainable. It starts to smush. There is no way past the woman reading the words on the wall. The line is expanding at the sides, a bulge forms. The woman reads on, firm in her stance, tireless in her pursuit to get that first painting interpreted correctly.

More people are being let in, and those who still truly believe in the line are being crushed by the pressure of still more people. 

The woman turns her attention to the painting. Then back to the text — three paragraphs long. The line will not withstand this. I peer forward hoping to discern some type of something from the art.

A second passes and I realize that I am at the bulge, in it in fact. I am being pushed outward and over and away from it all. I have absolutely no chance of seeing the first piece. How did that lady do it? I wonder. 

With luck, I find that the momentum of the bulge has propelled me forward to the second piece in the exhibit. This is better. I'll start here. Now I can begin to appreciate — to learn. Within a moment, a family of four surround me completely.

They are all short. I poke out in the middle of their circle as they begin to squeeze me out in unison, it appears to be premeditated. I am a fly in their web.

I am to be engulfed; they are hungry for outstanding viewing angles and positions. I am bigger but outnumbered, out motivated. The second piece of art, and me, were not meant to be.

The spot I am standing on ... is THE spot. It is the only explanation.

The family of four must come here often and when they do they immediately claim back familiar territory. I use pathetic defenses like fake coughs and stretching to retrieve some space for myself, to see if they are at least cognizant of my existence.

Can they see me?
Most likely not.
I've picked a bad time to be invisible. 

I find it difficult to appreciate the artwork, but I don't give in. How can I? I am only in the first room, at the second piece, I must establish my right to view. But this small family of four is a professional unit, merciless.

Their elbows are used to pry me out, slowly, from my established viewing space. Soon I am removed from the area completely. I find it all very impressive and efficient. I remain powerless.  

Back at the first piece the woman is still reading the text, and the bulge of the line has turned into a sea of distressed humans.

The museum protection staff stand stiff as stone with nothing but their eyes bouncing through the crowd, establishing nothing and apparently allowing everything.

No touching is the only rule. Don't touch the paintings.     

Exasperated, I flee to the second room. This one is nice, it is calm, people are settling down here. I can walk the room at my leisure; take up stances, nod my head at this or that, even cross my arms behind my back as I hold a wrist, all very casually.

A person arrives at my shoulder, which is an odd place seeing as there is plenty of space now. It is a man; he is peering over me, wiping his nose as he tries to squeeze his way into a slightly better line of sight.

I wouldn't believe that it was happening except that it definitely was. I kick-off and drift onward. I see a woman wearing six different scarves and for the life of me I cannot look away. She is wearing six scarves; I counted twice just in case. I can't even remember the last time I've been bumped. 

I've explored three rooms now. It's going well. I've seen things that I've never seen before. And then. An almost impossible act occurs. I see two men, in one room, both with ponytails. The museum protection staff remain still, ready to pounce, suits crisp, eyes everywhere. Two male ponytails. Does the museum have a quota to fill?

At all times, at least two men with ponytails are required to be in attendance of the exhibit? Should they be standing that close together? Spread the ponytails out, right?

Don't stare. It's rude. Of course, one of them is wearing cargo pants. Could it be any other way? Certainly not. The other has a safari hat. Next stop, a safari. They don't speak to each other.

A few moments pass. I almost touch a painting, by accident. I point at it while speaking about it to someone. Woops. Where's the museum protection staff when you need them?

What if this was a test? What if I were a museum protection staff inspector? Is there a back room with cameras and more protection staff, Bluetooth ear pieces, facial recognition? High threat alerts are being distributed based on eccentricity and the number of scarves you happen to be wearing. Am I being followed?

Finding myself zonked, and weary, I locate a sitting couch and sit. Relief. Standing around is extremely tiresome.

This is the halfway point. I imagine the lady is still back there in the first room reading that text, and the ticket man, hired for his poor judgment and irresponsibility, is just letting in everyone.

People are piling on top of each other, crawling and clawing just to get an eye on that first painting. Relief. I am far, far away from there. I'm in the portrait room. I find it difficult to remember which centuries are which.

Centuries are tough. 

I've found my stride now. I'm rested. Ready for anything. I'm reading texts, spending several minutes at several distinguished pieces.

This is what my life should be like all the time. Swimming in culture, in relevance. Look at that one, I see what he did there, beautiful, just beautiful. I'm strutting, I'm strolling, this is my kind of exhibit, everyone is chummy now. It's not like earlier, back when everyone was just fighting each other off left and right. This is sensible. I can do this.

And then, as quickly as I established an art viewing groove I become tired, it's winding down now. I can feel it, it's all part of the flow, from pre-line stanchion to post-exhibit gift shop treasures, and ultimately back to life, which is there waiting, with no line, leaving you free to pursue any direction or thing you desire.
The thought of a nap crosses my mind.

I meet up with those I came with. Everyone is safe. Happy to have done it. Enriched by the creations of a brilliant mind. Here in the final space at the very end there is more sitting.

I circle the last room over and over, waiting for others. I spend special attention at several of the paintings here. Wait. Maybe I missed something over there. I check it out. Good. That was a good one.

The gift shop is beckoning. I see artifacts for purchase. Books and decorative pencil sharpeners. There is a rack of fine letter openers that are selling like hot cakes. A coffee mug with dinosaurs looking at paintings and standing in contemplation.

For some reason, this room is full of butterfly merchandise. Maybe I'm the weird one. Do I need a butterfly net or is it a luxury? Playing cards. Playing cards are flying off the shelves. And the magnets. You should see these magnets.

And then, of course, I see them. The family of four. They've come to apologize. To admit to everything. But they don't. Not today. Not ever. I'm still invisible to them.

I buy a book of sketches. I pass on the butterfly net. And the world beckons.