by columnist Tegan Kehoe

Sometimes, you just need to get up on a soapbox for a moment to get something out of your system. I have some thoughts rolling around in my head that have been bothering me for … I don’t know how long now… and maybe if I blog about them, it will be a step towards being less antsy and more pragmatic about the issue. Maybe readers will be able to help me figure out where to go from here.

Why don’t more loud museums have quiet days? We’re all familiar with the growing trend that museums are becoming more active, interactive, and generally loud. There’s also a fair amount of buzz about the backlash, from people who go to museums for retreat and respite, or who like to observe museum objects in silent reverence. (Recently, this controversial article and the many responses, including this one.) On the whole, I agree with those who say that noisier museums are a good thing, and I’m frustrated by the overtones of elitism that sometimes creep into the arguments for more quiet. Still, we know that many people do like museums for their ability to provide retreat (think of John Falk’s category of “Refreshers”) and I wonder if there isn’t some way we can compromise.

A smaller but equally persistent trend is for museums to pay more attention to the needs of visitors with autism spectrum disorders, particularly children. A common difficulty for people with ASDs is being very susceptible to sensory overload, so a busy museum environment can be uncomfortable, anxiety-producing, or just unbearable. Some museums are now offering “autism-friendly days” in which they turn down the lights a bit, turn down the volume and offer headphones for recorded sounds, and turn off things that flash or make distracting sounds or motions. The museums usually provide provisions to reduce other types of barriers common for people with ASDs, like extra maps for people who have a strong need to know what’s coming next. In most of these, families that include a person with an ASD are invited on a special day, and the museum is closed to the rest of the general public.

It seems like autism-friendly days (also called sensory-friendly days) are a hit for the communities they serve, but they are usually infrequent — once a month or a few times a year — making them special events rather than a regular part of the museum’s offerings. This is understandable, as they involve closing down the museum to other patrons.

What I wonder is why more museums don’t serve a variety of people who want a quiet experience by offering designated quiet days once a week or a few times a month? Turn down the volume on sound and offer headphones, cover up any interactives that encourage boisterous play (drums? Cannon simulators?), and set expectations from the moment visitors walk in that it’s a quiet day and they are expected to act accordingly. This could serve people who want to look at artifacts in quiet contemplation, people with sensory disorders (especially milder ones — this includes some but not all people with Autism Spectrum Disorders), and couples taking an afternoon away from their children who really don’t want to hear others’ babies scream. An astute marketing team and visitor services team could work together to make sure that as many people as possible visit on the day of the week is right for them: name the rest of the days of the week “make some noise!” days (or whatever is appropriate for that museum) and if a visitor complains that the museum was too loud or their favorite activity was covered up, give them a free pass to come back on the day of the week that suits their needs or tastes.

I haven’t been able to find many examples of this — although, admittedly, it is sort of hard to come up with search terms for this question. Are museums with designated louder and quieter days hard to find, or are they really not out there? I imagine that this type of program would be a little tricky at first, as both staff and visitors learned to navigate the new expectations, but I would think it would pay off.  They couldn’t entirely replace autism-friendly days for a variety of reasons, but they would expand the possibilities for visiting museums in comfort. Personally, (as a neurotypical person who is sometimes a Falkian Refresher) I’d probably visit my favorite museums on both loud and quiet days, depending on my mood.