I've linked to two articles about museums as social spaces or the behaviour of the public in museums; one refers to virtual and the other to physical space but the issues are related.
In museums, social situations, control and trust, Jennifer Trant says:
as soon as you put museum collections in a public place, the public will do what they do …. search logs show us that many look for 'nude' … and if you let people comment, they will: they will tell you about your typos; they will tell you that their child could have made that painting; and they will argue about the significance of works. they will also tell you things that you might never have known, and you can learn from that. but what happens when two branches of a family choose your museum's site as the venue for a dispute about what was 'true' family history?
She also makes the point that museums "can't demand control" and have to trust that users will respect their content when they allow users to use their collections in the users' personal space.
This is one issue that probably causes a lot of anxiety within museums at the moment. We'll only really find out whether users will respect our content when we let them respond to it. What kind of visitors have the means and self-motivation to comment on, link to pages or display images, or otherwise respond to cultural heritage content?
On another note, is it worse to be disrespected or ignored?
I'm just quoting one more bit from her post before I go on, because I thought it was worth repeating:
"there are a number of different value propositions for distribution of reproductions of works of in their collections. there may still be some great icons that will sell. but in many cases the value of having a collection known may outweighs worries about lost revenue, particularly when the images being released on the public web really aren't large enough to do that much with."
So from visitors respecting content, to visitors respecting other visitors, and perhaps to whether museums respect the visitor experience…
Giles Waterfield relates his experience of the crowded New York MoMA in The crowds swamping museums must be tackled – soon and makes some good points about "the over-population and over-use of the museum space":
"the predominance and ready availability in our society of visual images can mean that apart from the (sometimes over-exposed) icon, works in a gallery risk becoming another form of rapidly-absorbed consumer fodder. … visitors at many contemporary art museums now often behave similarly, pausing only to take pictures of celebrity works"
This matters because:
"looking at art is a difficult experience, one that has to be learnt and that requires concentration. Little art was created specifically for the museum or gallery, at least until recently, and the museum is not necessarily the best place to appreciate it. If the museum experience becomes one in which the visitor is regularly concerned with negotiating a way through the crowds and avoiding noise, the status of the museum as a vehicle for displaying art becomes highly questionable.
…the series of subtle, intense and inter-linked experiences that are created require an appropriate environment. The Demoiselles may just about survive, but quieter works of art drown and the carefully considered relationships between them disappear when the pressure of visitors means it is hardly possible to concentrate or to view more than one work at a time, if that."
His article is specific to art galleries, and the types of attention, learning and reflection may well be different for art works and social history objects; but the effect of interactions between the space in which the object is seen and of encounters with other visitors is interesting.
In my own experience, I have to force myself to go see blockbuster exhibitions because I dread the crowds – not only can is be really difficult to have a decent look at the art or objects; the sheer number of people means that tempers are shorter and the atmosphere is slightly more 'Oxford Street on a Saturday' than 'quiet temple of contemplation'.
If you give up waiting for a chance to read the captions or panel text over someone else's shoulder, it's easy for objects to appear only as visual entertainment.