This weekend, I’m in Oxford, I’m presenting at workshop on Users, e-Research and Web 2.0, so I thought I’d make the most of the time in Oxford and visit the brand spanking refurbishment of the Ashmolean museum. I was really looking forward to seeing what the refurbishment was like. The building is very impressive, and I was very excited about it, and then it began to go downhill. I entered via the spiny round door, you know the ones that you push, and they turn round and then you step out into the building. Hoorah. Genius design. However, that’s not how the ashmolean spiny door thing works. It’s automatic. If you push it, it stops moving and you’re trapped inside a glass tube. I got told off for pushing, the gentleman behind me was told off for leaning in the general direction of the glass. Yet there is a handle (for pushing) all the visual affordances point to the natural act of pushing yourself round, like you do in most doors of the kind. So not a good start, but I suppose I can put that down to my miss reading of the signals, I have a habit of pushing when I should pull, and pulling when I should push, but if you put a handle in front of most people you can guarantee they will either want to pull it or push it (no signs point to the fact that the door is automatic).
You cannot argue that the architecture is stunning, the staircase is magnificent. It is amazing what they have done with the space, the amount of white space and the glass vantage points are great. But it feels like a traditional stereotypical art gallery, and somewhat pretentious. Also due to the architecture, you have a tendency to breeze past the collections themselves to see what’s round the corner. And then…. we (my boyfriend and I) were approached by a museum member of staff. Telling off number 2 – my boyfriends backpack apparently ‘wasn’t under his control’ and ‘were you not informed at the door?’ No was our reply, ‘clearly because we are busy in the museum you were not informed but please remove the bag sir’ as he ‘potentially might rub his bag all over a 16th century painting’. Apologies were made, and the bag was then carried around rather than on the shoulder. I happened to notice that all the mature male visitors wearing backpacks were not approached and asked to remove the offending article. My boyfriend then told me about a programme he listened to on radio 4 that stated that no member of staff from a museum would approach you unless you have done something wrong, a prime example. Fair enough we carried on looking round the museum. And then we were approached by another member of staff, ‘excuse me madam, but we are encouraging all visitors with umbrellas, to leave them at the door, were you not informed when you entered?’ No, was the reply. I contemplated opening my dry umbrella in the member of staff’s face. But I refrained (I note, it was a dry umbrella, I could understand if I was leaving a trail of unsightly drips all over the expensive floor- I also note that it is surely my choice whether or not I place my umbrella into a stand, which isn’t obvious, or guarded, and could be stolen at any time, clearly my choice is not correct). I was made to feel like some flipertygibbit of a girl, who clearly couldn’t be trusted to behave in such an illustrious museum.
I have worked and enjoyed museums all my life, I do not run around wielding umbrellas at 2nd century Greek artefacts. I have always felt welcome in museums, and fully engaged with the objects on display, until Saturday 16th January 2010. I have never quite understood when people have felt intimidated and inherently unwelcome in institutions, but now I do. And it is a horrible feeling. It ruined my visit, and I lost all sight of the objects that I was looking forward to seeing, I was not engaged, and in fact I was upset. Who has the audacity to tell me that because of my attire I am not suitable to be in a particular gallery, exhibition or museum? 600 squiwillion million pounds may have been spent on making Britain’s first public museum, a museum of the 21st century. But, as an avid museum visitor, a member of the museum community, not to mention holding a master’s degree in public archaeology and museum interpretation, it does not appear to be very public minded, user friendly or engaging.
To try and cheer myself up I then went to the Steampunk exhibition held at the Museum of the History of Science (Steampunk is brilliant and engaging even having webcam installation of the visitors walking past and shock horror there were children running about and one of them was even holding a… umbrella! Surely not!). Whilst there, I came across a quote about the Ashmolean when it first opened, stating that not everyone liked the early Ashmolean, some visitors were shocked that access was not restricted to scholars and gentlemen: “it is surprising that things can be preserved even as well as they are, since the people impetuously handle everything in the usual English fashion and even women are allowed up here for sixpence; they run here and there, grabbing at everything and taking no rebuff” I imagine those women whilst running here and there and taking no rebuff were also opening and closing umbrellas widely and in an unlady like manner, causing no end of trouble and clearly should be forbidden entry into such illustrious institution.
I realise that this is just one experience and many visitors who go will have a fantastic time, but I do not believe that any visitor should be made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in a museum.