Is your signage “crowd proof”?

Yes, yes, I know – I visited some of America’s most popular museums at the height of summer. If there was one thing I was going to have to contend with, it was crowds.

Crowds at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, attempt to catch a glimpse of ‘The Starry Night’ by Van Gogh

For those museums that are not at the top of every summer holidaymaker’s ‘must see’ list, the issue of too many people probably sounds like a happy problem to have. But not necessarily. The summer high season may well bring in valuable income, but all that crowding and queuing can lead to a less-than-satisfactory visitor experience – not to mention the maintenance costs associated with having hundreds of thousands of feet and fingers interacting with your building and your exhibits.

Now I should point out that I’m not very good with crowds and I’m an impatient queuer. Being short means I find it hard to navigate large numbers of people because my head is at shoulder height of many of the people around me. This physical characteristic combines with the psychological uncertainty that makes waiting in line torture at the best of times. In these circumstances I guess it was inevitable that some museums would have me in a twitching, toe tapping mess before I even crossed the lobby. At some point I decided to put this enforced waiting time to good use, and notice how well site signage was working under these very trying conditions.

Multiple desks, multiple lines, multiple signs

I arrived at the American Museum of Natural History just before opening time, and a fair few number of people had already begun to congregate on the front steps. The first bottleneck was having to clear security (In more or less every American museum there was security screening of some sort as you entered. An unfortunate sign of the times.). The next step was then to work out which ticket line was the right one to join. AMNH is one of the venues in the New York City Pass scheme (excellent value btw), which is meant to give you express entry although is sufficiently popular that in many cases it just means you get to join a shorter queue rather than walking right in. Security guards directed us to the right, and immediately to the right was a desk. But this wasn’t the right desk (still not quite sure what that desk was but the people behind it gave us vague onward directions), and it was a bit of a challenge to find where the right queue was and where it started.

The lobby of AMNH shortly after opening time. The green banner shows where the front of the line is, but where is the back?

As it turned out, the back of the queue was marked, clearly enough, by one of those standard signs you fit to tensabarriers. The problem is, there were sufficient number of people that this sign was obscured by people the majority of the time.

Ah – the back of the queue! It took a while for this sign to become visible among the throngs.

It really needed to be positioned a lot further back into the lobby than it was, or be reinforced by additional signage closer to the entrance. I encountered this issue on more than one occasion, where tensabarrier signs were positioned in such a way that they were obscured by people as the crowd overflowed beyond the anticipated area.

Now as I said at the outset, I was visiting in peak periods when visitor management strategies were being tested to their limit. So I don’t want to come across as too nit-picky about this (and I don’t mean to single out AMNH either).¬†However, with that number of people arriving all at once, even the slightest bit of ambiguity or confusion is likely to make the bottlenecks even worse. So for me it was a reminder that our signage strategies and visitor sight lines should be tested under all circumstances – what makes sense in the relatively calm periods when we often plan signage may be far less obvious at peak times.



So many (more) museums!

I’m now back from my whirlwind tour of the US, sorting through hundreds of photos taken in around 30 museums in Raleigh, Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York. I visited an average of two museums a day so now have considerable first-hand experience in museum fatigue!

Over the coming weeks I’ll post about some of the general observations I made over the course of these visits, as well as some reviews of selected sites and exhibitions. In the meantime, the following is a list of the museums and heritage sites I visited in Philadelphia and New York (the Washington ones are here) – drop me a line if you have any questions about any of these sites in particular:


New York


So many museums!

I can’t believe I’m now halfway through my USA museums odyssey.

Last week was mostly taken up by the VSA conference – I haven’t had a chance to really digest my key ‘take-homes’ yet, but as a way to organise my thoughts I’ve had a go at storifying it. Hopefully that will give a flavour of the conference and what was discussed.

After the conference I flew up to Washington DC to see as many museums and sites as I could.¬†So far I’ve:

Ticking as many off the list as I can . . .

And all that in the space of four days! Tomorrow I plan to finish of my DC adventures with a trip to the Newseum and a quick visit to the American Art Museum before heading up to Philadelphia to visit even more museums.

I’d hoped to blog about all this as I went, but my feet have scarcely touched the ground! Good thing I’ve taken hundreds of photos to jog my memory! It might take me a while to organise them all.