A few weeks ago, I had requested books from the Metropolitan Museum’s Watson Research Library. I had a sanshin lesson later that day, and so had my sanshin with me. I live much too far from the city for it to make any sense to go into the city to go to the museum, go home to get my instrument, and then go back into the city for my lesson, and, I had nowhere else to leave the instrument, since public train stations and the like don’t offer public lockers anymore. So, I had my instrument with me. And, since I was leaving town the very next day, this was my only chance to get into the Library to get the books I had requested.
So, despite knowing that museum policy forbids musical instruments, I headed to the Metropolitan Museum, assuming that the staff there would say “let’s see what we can do,” and offer some kind of alternative solution. Turns out I was mistaken. As usual, as I entered the museum, I was greeted not by Visitor Services staff, or anyone otherwise charged with presenting a positive and welcoming atmosphere, but rather by a cohort of Security officers. Before I could even open my mouth to say “look, I know, but here’s the story, and could you possibly help a guy out?”, I was denied entry to the museum flat-out. No “I’ll see what I can do,” no “I sympathize with your situation, but…” and no “well, you could go down to the Guggenheim and see if they’ll let you leave it in their coatroom.” No effort whatsoever to be sympathetic or helpful. And so, after leaving my things in the Guggenheim, coming back without the instrument, getting into the museum and doing what I needed to do, I filed a complaint, and then spoke with the security officer in question. Suddenly, he was sympathetic and human. Suddenly, now, he said “Oh, I’m glad it worked out for you; listen, I sympathize, but, you know, policy is policy.” If only he had been so human and sympathetic before…! Saying “let me see what I can do” instead of “no” is so easy.. it’s not a difficult thing to do.
Anyway, today, I got this letter:
Thank you for the comment you shared with us following your recent visit to The
Metropolitan Museum of Art. Such observations give us the very valuable opportunity to better
serve our audiences.
Please be assured that the utmost priority is placed on training our staff to be
knowledgeable, courteous, and helpful to the Metropolitan’s visitors, and we emphasize the
importance of setting and maintaining the highest professional standards at all times in the
Museum. We regret that your encounter with our staff did not rise to our high standards of
excellence and apologize for any unpleasantness this may have caused you.
Please also accept my apologies for any inconvenience you experienced while attempting
to check your luggage. However, as is explained on our website (www.metmuseum.org), the
Museum maintains a discretionary policy as to what can and cannot be checked. We have had
to reexamine our former security procedures and continually make refinements to these policies
for the safety of all of our visitors and the collection. We believe this restriction is necessary to
ensure the safety of our visitors and we know that this same policy is being enforced by many of
our sister institutions throughout the world.
I want to thank you again for taking the time to forward your comments to us, and please
accept my sincere apologies for your visit not being the very best possible Museum experience.
With kind regards,
CC: John Barelli, Chief Security Officer
Suzanne Shenton, General Manager, Visitor Services
Here is my response:
Dear Ms. Peltz and Mr. Holzer,
My sincere thanks for taking the time to reply to my concerns; I hope that my concerns were shared with the Security department, and not seen only by those in Communications & External Affairs. I am sure that you must get thousands upon thousands of comments, and so I appreciate that you have taken the time to send me this form letter.
I would appreciate it even more, however, as would a great many of your visitors I am sure, if you would actually consider changing your policies. I adore the Metropolitan, and in fact I dream of working there someday. Your building is incredible, your collections are incredible, and your exhibitions are incredible. Unfortunately, the unfriendliness of the welcome at the entrances to your museum is also incredible.
There is an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, in which the famous novelist and art collector James Michener, who had arrived at the Metropolitan that day to donate a sizable art collection to the museum, was so rudely treated by the museum’s security that he turned around and donated his collection to another museum instead. A truly serious loss for the museum. Now, I am certainly not someone of Mr. Michener’s caliber, but that should not matter. You should aim to treat all of your visitors politely, and more importantly, sympathetically and humanly. No visitor should be refused admission flat-out simply because they are carrying the wrong thing. The priority should always be to help a visitor, with museum policies being second, and flexible. When the question is “how are you going to help me?” the answer should never be “I am not going to help you.” One should always, always, say “I’ll see what I can do,” or offer some alternative solution. This is a core element of the training and philosophy of any Visitor Services department, but, quite evidently, not of Security officers.
I eagerly look forward to my next visit to the Metropolitan, and hope that perhaps this next time I might be greeted not by security officers, but by Visitor Services staff.
Thank you very much,
Look, I know that Security are just doing their jobs. Believe me, I understand the complex dimensions of this situation. The Met is a prominent potential target for terrorism, it’s the most visited tourist site in New York, there’s a genuine need for security measures, blah blah blah. But doing your job doesn’t mean you can’t be sympathetic and human, and being a prominent museum doesn’t mean you have to make Security, rather than Visitor Services, the face of your organization.
Have you had any unfortunate run-ins with unhelpful or downright unprofessional museum staffers (esp. security)? Please share your stories.