I'm spending this week vacationing on Vinalhaven, an island in Maine. It's a place where we spent summer vacations more than a decade ago, but our return has reminded me of a local habit that is one perhaps we all should adapt at the museums we work in. Here on the island, no matter who you drive by, you always wave. When you're driving, it's never a big wave, sometimes just a couple fingers lifted off the wheel. And on a rainy day, I learned that it goes even further. I had walked into town, and on the way back it began to rain. Almost immediately, the first car to pass me stopped and asked if I wanted a ride; I said no, and not very long after, but in much harder rain, a truck, driven by a young construction worker, also stopped to ask. I accepted the second, had a nice chat with a life-long island resident and got dropped at my door.
What can museums learn from this? It's just the lesson about being welcoming to everyone. How often have we walked in a front door and had the person at the front desk barely look up at us? If, as a regular museum visitor, this makes me feel unwelcome, think about how it makes new museum visitor feel? I still remember a visit to the Getty Museum, when one of the guards stepped forward to have a conversation with a boy and his father about a sculpture. It totally shifted the dynamic from guard to friendly museum staff.
Like being on an island, we need to recognize that we--visitors and locals--are all in this together, and the simple act of friendliness--eye contact, hello, small conversations--are one small ways that we can demonstrate our connectedness. Next time you're in the gallery say hello to a visitor or two; and if you supervise front-line staff, ask them to smile!