The History Anorak

The History Anorak

Friday, 29 May 2015

Threshold fear

Somewhere welcoming: Scarborough Art Gallery
Photo by Scarborough Museums Trust
Since launching this blog I have done extensive reading about museums and their management. This isn't primarily a museum-based blog, but by its very nature it will feature them frequently, so I felt I ought to do some research.

As part of my reading I have come across some interesting new concepts - and one of the ones I have been most intrigued by is the idea of 'threshold fear.'

I am not a museum worker. I am a museum visitor. I have visited all kinds of heritage site, stately home, art gallery and historic centre over the years.  I have to say I have rarely felt unwelcome in any of them, but apparently some people do. Some people find it impossible to walk through the doorway into a museum to enjoy what it has on offer. This is increasingly challenging for people whose job is to entice in new folk.

There are numerous reasons that might prevent people visiting their local galleries: lack of public transport links; high entrance fees; increased security; inconvenient opening times. Many museums around the world have done much to put right the things they can change. Many open late at least one evening a week, others have free entry on selected days.

But what do you do with someone whose perception of galleries and museums is that it's 'not for me' - it's just too scary to walk in?

It is very difficult to persuade someone who has not become a regular museum visitor as a child that there might be anything of interest to their adult self inside. If they have had little or no experience they have no parameters to imagine what might be on offer - let alone what might be worth their effort. And a poor past experience acts as a barrier.

Museums in the past were often dark and dismal places with over-crowded display cases cluttered with labels in complex language. Without putting in a great deal of work it was likely that a visitor would leave without learning anything, or engaging with a single artefact.

One of the biggest difficulties is apparently design of the museum building itself. Large buildings can feel foreboding, security barriers can appear unwelcoming, and even placement of the front desk can be a deterrent.

Until recently I would have found all this hard to accept. I started my museum visiting as a very young child and was fascinated by finds from my local area. (School lessons about the archaeology of my immediate vicinity helped there!) My earliest experience began a lifelong habit. However, in the last couple of years I have found myself in a number of modern galleries that have felt less than enticing.

I will not say which they were - or even which cities they were in - because that would be unfair. But in one I was met by several closed doors around a central lobby. There was no indication of where the doors led or whether I was allowed to enter. As a regular gallery-goer I was brave enough to push each one open slowly to see what was beyond. But less enlightened folk would have felt there was nothing to see.

In another case I was unnerved by a total lack of signage to give any clue about what was being exhibited or where to find it. This was an art gallery, and much of what was on show could be loosely termed 'installation art'. Not my favourite, to be fair, but I was not encouraged to stay and learn about it. The building has been converted, its original use included several small offices. In one room I found two people and a step ladder. They were clearly doing something, but whatever it was did not include any engagement with me. There was no attempt to make me feel welcome, offer help, even smile. I'm still not sure they weren't part of the installation. I left. And unless I see something very impressive advertised there I am unlikely to return.

Note: Photo by Scarborough Museums Trust


  1. I saw you on Going Gently and figured that anybody who can quote a snatch of a Camelot lyric has to be worth saying hello to. So...hello.

    1. Well, as soon as I started reading his post I started singing! You were clearly on exactly the same wavelength, Welcome!

  2. My parents never really took us to museums, but my husband and I really enjoy them. Now we take our 3 children to them regularly and they have learned how interesting they can be - so much to discover and learn. They, of course, prefer hands-on style museums, but are more than willing to read info cards and study costumes and paintings. I hope this love continues into their adulthood and they can take our grandchildren happily into museums too.


Why not add your two pennyworth?