Adaptability and Approachability in Museums.

‘The Promenade’, 1901, Oil on Canvas. Theo Van Rysselberghe (1862-1926).

When visiting places, even for one day, I like to find museums, art galleries or exhibitions to visit. Particularly,  l like to visit exhibitions or museums that reflect the local culture of the city or town the exhibition is held in. With this in mind, I was  found the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels which piqued my interest with its collection of late 19th and early 20th century paintings. This period of art is by far my favourite period in art history, particularly the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. It was with great trepidation that I awaited my visit to the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels at the start of this month. I had ideas of splendidly hung paintings in turn of the 20th century decorated rooms with ample seating and adequate lighting. However, the paintings were not hung nor lit as I had imagined, a topic that I will discuss later in this blog post.

Instead my experience of the museum was negative from the start. The staff at the baggage search where unfriendly and threw our bags into the scanner area and failed to say sorry for dislodging the contents of my bag. Additionally, staff at the reception of the museum were unfriendly when I tried to share a joke about being over twenty-six and thus losing out on the discounted museum entry. A little smile or some decent customer service may have rectified my thoughts of the museum, but so far my experience was not a good one. One negative experience can put you off the museum you are visiting and thus you may not return to that museum in the future.

Heaven knows, I am not one to work with the public and abhor retail or front desk work, but I have always tried to be nice and fair to customers of all ages, races and from different cultural backgrounds. The customer service at the Museum of Fine Arts made me feel that I wasn’t worthy to visit the museum. In fact I felt that they were snobby to the extent they would have preferred if I was a rich donor visiting the museum to decide to donate money or art works to the museum’s collection.

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Museum staff need to be adaptable and approachable to people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures. To be rude and unwelcoming in an increasing period of austerity cuts for museums across Europe does not bode well for the future of any museum. The staff that I was served by should have adapted their approach to me and my boyfriend to explain the layout of the museum and where the fine art works were situated. Instead, we were given a map and rudely pointed to the main atrium of the museum to find our own way to the appropriate galleries. To be approachable is the key aspect of customer service in any cultural institution. To adapt your customer service technique to each and every customer is the cornerstone of all good customer service. The museum staff could benefit from re-training in customer service to make the museum seem more pleasant to people from outside and inside Belgium alike.

When we asked where the galleries for the late 19th and early 20th century were situated we were rudely pointed down a set of stairs by a museum attendant. This museum attendant also ignored my questions and attempt to be friendly to her. Once again, this museum attendant did not adapt their customer service approach to me and thus made my experience of the museum and increasingly negative one.

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We descended into the depths of the museum, only to find out that the art works were situated in the bottom tier of galleries in the basement of the museum. When we arrived the lighting was woeful, with harsh overhead lighting or strip lighting above and below paintings. The effect that for most of the paintings the surfaces had shadows where there was no shadows and a disproportionate amount of surface area in the dark. An example can be found in this picture above, entitled ‘The Promenade’ by Theo Van Rysselberghe. If I looked closely at the picture I could see the amazing neon-esque paint that was used to depict the sunset beaming of the women’s clothing. However, when I looked away from the painting the inadequate lighting made the painting sink into areas that were either over or under lit.

Sculptures also had harsh overhead lighting, such to the extent that the lighting skewed the viewing experience of looking at the sculptures. The worst lighting came in the final floor of the museum, some art works were not illuminated and some had such little lighting that I couldn’t make out what the labels said. I refrained from asking another museum attendant what the labels stated as he seemed too busy with his book and didn’t want to be disturbed.

Overall, if the Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels retrained their staff and re-hung some of their art works then maybe visiting the museum might be a pleasant experience. However, until this happens I’m afraid that people whom continue to visit this museum in the coming months and years may have an unpleasant experience as I did. It is a great shame that nothing more is done to re-brand or re-image this museum from an elitist temple of fine art to a museum accessible to all. This would no doubt change people’s experiences from a negative experience to a positive experience.

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