On appropriateness in public places

19dy59dmoqh07jpgThis story has been making the rounds lately; I saw it first on Gawker and it’s popped up on Facebook and Twitter a couple of times since then too.  To nutshell:  little kid crawls all over multi-million-dollar art installation in museum, horrified onlooker scolds parent, but not until after taking a picture and putting it on Twitter, Internet falls on heads of everyone involved.

Put a pin in that.  Lemme tell you a story.  It’s 2012 and I am in Washington, D.C. with thirty-some-odd adolescents.  It is the first day of the trip, meaning that we’ve spent the entire night on the bus getting to Washington, D.C. and then went directly into touring with no chance to shower or rest in between.  We are at the American Holocaust Museum, surely one of the most emotionally draining spaces in North America. I am ushering a small group of my kids through the museum.

In case you’ve never been there before:  the whole museum is damned upsetting, as you can probably imagine it is.  But there are parts of it that are decidedly more upsetting than others.  These tend to be set off with little walls, so that you have to deliberately walk up to them and lean over to see whatever they’re showing you, so that really little kids and people who just can’t handle any more evil don’t get accidentally exposed to whatever soul-shattering horror they’re letting you bear witness to.

The first of these is in one of the first relatively wide-open spaces in the entire museum.  As a rule, the museum is cramped and narrow, and never much more than the first floor after you get off the elevators, which I swear is trying to give everyone claustrophobia.  The weird thing is, even though there are always millions of packed people in those first few halls (and I’ve gotten to the point where I just tell my kids to ignore the first few exhibits and just push through the crowds until they get somewhere where we can breathe) it generally isn’t as bad for the rest of it.

Anyway, yeah:  first wide-open space, claustrophobia, no sleep, kinda smelly, exhibit where you have to deliberately view it that I’ve seen three times before.  I wave the kids over to it if they want to see it and then lean back against a bench set into the wall.  I set my elbow on the bench and kinda lay my face into my hand a little bit.

And then catch the look on someone’s face, who is glaring at me.  And I notice what I’m actually leaning against:  actual goddamn barracks from an actual goddamn concentration camp that somebody probably starved to death on.  There’s a teeny tiny plaque a few feet from my head suggesting that maybe it might be kinda nice if you didn’t touch them.  And I’m practically taking a nap on the thing.

I was horrified, of course, and I yanked myself away from the thing like it was electrified and shot the lady who’d caught me an apologetic look, which didn’t seem to mollify her too much.  But here’s my point:  in my current not-entirely-attentive state, those barracks really looked like something I should be leaning on, so I did.

And damn if that multimillion-dollar art installation doesn’t look a lot like a bunk bed, or a ladder.

As an educator I find myself constantly having to think about space and how to use it, and about classroom policy and how it will actually work in the context of having dozens of potentially argumentative and/or apathetic and/or actively destructive teenagers exposed to it.  In some cases, spaces themselves sorta set the agenda.  You know why kids tend to run in hallways and wide open spaces?  It’s because the wide open spaces themselves scream “Run!”.  And when you’re dealing with tired people or little kids who can’t be expected to know any better, sometimes shit happens, and if you can anticipate shit happening, which you ought to be able to do, it’s sorta on you to set up your art installation or classroom or museum in such a way that it minimizes the chance of inattentive or young people being able to misuse and/or destroy either millions of dollars of art or priceless historical artifacts.  You don’t want anyone groping the brass boobies or the protruding nose on the priceless African brass statue?  Maybe you don’t put it where we can reach it, then.  People grabbing boobies is kinda predictable, y’know?

None of this justifies the mother’s reaction.  Civilized people teach their kids not to do shit like this, or correct them when they do, or when they transgress on their own they’re apologetic and not argumentative about it.  But I can’t pretend I don’t get the “You don’t get kids” response on some level or another, even if I do think saying it out loud kinda makes Mom an asshole.

Because, seriously: that thing begs to be climbed on.  And the museum should have been smart enough to have anticipated that.

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Luther M. Siler

Teacher, writer of words, and local curmudgeon. Enthusiastically profane. Occasionally hostile.

7 thoughts on “On appropriateness in public places

  1. I won’t lie…the only thing I can recall from this post is ” People grabbing boobies is kinda predictable, y’know?” 😉


  2. I took my students to the Bronx Zoo and there’s a dark inside exhibit (spiders or bats or something) and one of my fifth graders thought it would be a great idea to lie down for a while in the middle of the floor where no one could see him. Suddenly people were tripping and falling in a pile. Fun times with kids. 🙂


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