Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Museum Visitors: A Behavioral Study

September 20th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Rather than spend another post discussing curating practices or the pros and cons of government subsidies for museums, I wanted to write about the behavior I’ve observed in visitors to museums because, as a psychology major, this is what interests me.  First, one can definitely tell the difference between English visitors to museums and tourists visiting museums.  Tourists walk around looking up or looking sideways, gawking and paying no particular attention to where they are going.  There was woman in the Map exhibit in the British Library yesterday who was wheeling around a suitcase behind her as she went through.  Madam really, you are currently taking up enough space for three people.  This doesn’t surprise me much, as I’m used to tourists in America being clueless and gawking as well.  What I find more fascinating is the behavior of British visitors.

First, English visitors seem to come to museums with a specific purpose in mind.  They seem to know exactly what they want to see and exactly what they want to learn or get out of their trip and proceed to the appropriate location efficiently.  I’ll admit that it’s true that British visitors, especially Londoners, are at a bit more leisure to do this, since they live here and can return as often as they like while we tourists need to cram in as much as possible in a short period of time.  In addition, some of these people are students with notebooks who must be on assignments concerning a certain painting or exhibit.  An interesting mission that I’ve seen English museum visitors pursuing is educating a child.  I’ve seen this several times, but I’ll share the example of a mother and son that I saw in the National Portrait Gallery.  The mother had a notebook and was trying to convince the son (who seemed about 4 or 6 years old) to choose a picture he liked and try to draw it to “show Daddy later.”  The son was reluctant and threw a few fits (as big of a fit as an English child would throw) but the mother was very persistent and kept telling her son, “We’ll look at just one more, one more picture.”  When I saw them again later on, the son seemed a bit more engaged, but I just thought it was interesting that parents would bring their children to museums with such a structured purpose.

The second behavior that I’ve observed seems to relate to the English privacy rules and the social dis-ease mentioned by Kate Fox.  I’ve noticed that if an English person is looking in a case or at a sign, and I walk up next to them to look at the same object, they will either apologize and leave, or give an embarrassed smile and leave.  I still don’t really understand what they are apologizing for, but it’s almost like they think more than one person cannot occupy the same object (or 3 foot radius) as another person, like each person needs their time alone with whatever sign they are reading.  I remember looking in the Museum of London at the Docklands at the hanging bird cage thing in which they would put pirates for birds to come eat them and a small child ran in front of me, pressing his nose on the glass, and asking his father to come look.  The case was rather large, the print on the sign rather large, and the child rather short.  He was not obstructing my view at all, but the father scolded him “Don’t stand there; the lady is trying to look.”  I protested and said something like “Oh don’t worry he’s fine” to which the father gave an embarrassed laugh and quickly walked away.  This behavior seems strange, awkward, and overly polite, but it makes some sense when we apply what we’ve read in Fox, and in light of other examples of social dis-ease that we’ve experienced in England.  I suppose I prefer it to the behavior of American tourists, who will actually obstruct your view of something, and run you over with a suitcase while they’re at it.

Tags: 2010 Kaitlin

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. A**hole that yelled at me on Tottenham Court

September 12th, 2010 · 3 Comments

I’ve been fascinated by the effects of alcohol ever since I read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in my freshman year, the same time I was introduced to college drinking social norms. By day students go to class and make self-aware, well thought out comments and criticisms of society, and by night drink and do all manner of scandalous things to gossip about in the morning (obviously not everyone, but a sizeable portion). We’ve been talk about the British social dis-ease, but I wonder if American social customs are really all that different.

Kate Fox notes that our expectations of alcohol’s effects are cultural rather than purely biological (261). England is known for its aggressive drunks and that expectation, and possibly a little national pride, is a self fulfilling prophecy. As the drunk insane asylum manager from everyone’s favorite show, Bedlam, says as he stumbles around the stage, “We’re English. It’s what we do” to which the audience responded with a proud cheer. For whatever reason, boisterous drunkness is a major source of identity for England, even if it’s also a symptom of the inability to socialize without a lubricant to put you in a liminal state. As a result, while Latin American countries associate alcohol with more peaceful states, England gets bars in Covent Square Garden that forbid the wearing of football colors to prevent bar fights.

I’ve tried to visit a few different types of pubs, and I’ve found so far that no matter the atmosphere, the clientele, or even the level of drunkenness, when it comes to alcohol the Brits are not the friendliest bunch (You see what I did there? Understatement. I’m so assimilated). I’ve managed to get over the occasional obvious refusals of service when pubs close at an oddly specific time if they see a group of five Americans coming toward them. The slightly more expensive pubs I’ve gone to have not been as bad. I usually just get a server who refuses to make any form of polite small talk or eye contact with me, unless he is joining in the group glare that I often receive from everyone in the room when I speak, stand in the wrong place, or exist. The younger, louder pubs were pretty nice because fewer people could hear my accent and it was too loud for me to hear angry throat clears. Unfortunately, the minute I got outside, a few drunk men took it upon themselves to fix that by yelling obscenities and telling me to go back to America (In their defense, I think I might have offended them when I was praising the benefits of Razor Scooters as they walked past. Hot button issue).

During the day, besides the occasional angry glare when I use my 6 inch voice instead of my 4 inch voice in the library, people have been generally friendly, which leads me to believe that Fox is right about the British extremes in behavior.  They’re excessively mild and polite (Jekyll) until they drink a potion that makes them grow fur on their hands and have a strong desire to beat me to death with a cane.

Tags: 2010 Jesse

The Cold-ish British

September 9th, 2010 · 4 Comments

In her social analysis Watching the English, Kate Fox explains that, to the English, their car is their own private space, insulated from the entire world (169). The English also seek to “maintain as much privacy as possible, by pretending that… [others] do not exist” on the tube, bus, and other systems of transportation (139). Similarly, the strategic placing of a phone on a nearby table/counter in a pub can act as a social guard that makes an impenetrable magical barrier, protecting the user. Lastly, if the user holds the phone, they often feel connected to friends stored in the address book, reassuring them that they aren’t alone (86). I have noticed all these things in different locations, and I consider them all symptomatic of the “social dis-ease” that Fox discusses in her book. However, I have noticed similar results in many different other areas as well, in general and specifically on a long walk I took to try and find some famous street art.

Take, for instance, the incessant displays of public affection. People “snog” on the escalator going down to the subway, sitting at booths in pubs, at stoplights on scooters, on the street corner, on the tube, everywhere. There are also a superfluous amount of twenty-something couples holding hands, in a variety of social settings. Couples walking at five o’clock in suits and formal dresses hold hands. Couples drinking in pubs hold hands at or under the table. Holding hands, though in America generally limited to teens, is standard protocol for much older couples.

There are also an incredible amount of these young adults (23ish-35ish) waiting at tube stops for their significant others. Literally, people line the walls surrounding the stairs leading down to the tube. It’s amazing. They are so committed to their other (or at least want to appear so, or are afraid to ride the tube by themselves) that they are willing to sit there and wait, for a decent amount of time, for their significant other. Perhaps I’m just heartless, but I think this is silly. These are examples of two phenomenon mentioned in the first paragraph: both isolating oneself, as couples create mini-worlds in which only they exist (and make out), and a constant thirst for human connection, reinforcing that one matters/one is cared for.

This miniaturizing and need for affection is, in my opinion, because the rest of the culture is essentially cold. Walking down the street, I tried to look at people and give them friendly (yet not creepy) looks to see if they would be returned. I received a few quizzical looks, but people mostly either looked the complete opposite direction of me, or down at their shoes. Also, practically whenever we walk into pubs, we are either greeted by ominous stares or silence. Yes, this could just be because we’re Americans, but I’ve also noticed that when other Brits walk into pubs, they aren’t often greeted by bartenders or other patrons with smiles. When you drink at a pub, you do not mingle with other customers – you are there with your friends, and you stay within this microsphere. Talk too loudly on the tube, and you will be shunned, shushed, or yelled at. There are countless other examples of this similar type of behavior. No, Brits are not friendly people.

All of this makes me miss America in a small way. If you smile at someone on the street, they will usually smile back at you. Saying “hello” to a stranger will usually be reciprocated (and you won’t be considered a crazy person). Because of this social warmth, people do not feel the need to make out all the time in public spaces, reinforcing that they are together, that they are not isolated. The actual acknowledgement of others’ existence would also render excessive snogging a bit awkward. Twenty-five year old couples don’t hold hands nearly as often, because they don’t need to. American society is more open, and coordinately, people act less insecurely. Our expressions of love are privatized, as our society is, as a whole, more open.

Tags: 2010 ChristopherB