News & Opinion


The Golden Rule if You’re Going Out: Shut the Hell Up

The Daily Beast

May 12, 2015

Of course students should go to art galleries, and of course schools should, must, organize these excursions. The idea to enrich young minds is valuable, and right.

But say you were in the Guggenheim Museum in New York the day Brooklyn’s Science Skills Center High School was there. You may have thought, “Yes, enrich yourselves, young people—any day but today.”

Some members of the school party ran amok that day last month, leading to the whole party being ejected from the museum. Then the school itself was banned—in error, the Guggenheim now says—from the institution.

The Guggenheim rushed to clear up its side of the mess Monday, but that fracas isn’t isolated: Participate in any cultural activity outside the cushioned prison of your Internet or cable addictions and you run the risk of loud, rude, uncouth idiots of all ages, classes, and genders apparently determined to ruin the experience for you. Or too damned selfish to realize they are.

Theaters, cinemas, galleries, and museums—far from being places of delicious retreat, far from being places we all go together, to sup up some culture, collectively—have become no-go areas, unless you’ve taken a pre-show Xanax.

The Brooklyn school’s Guggenheim controversy unfolded in a twisty-turny way all day Monday.

The April school trip of about 80 ninth- and tenth-graders to the Guggenheim on the Upper East Side, reported the New York Post, ended after just 20 minutes, when “a student allegedly spat off the museum’s swirling rotunda lobby and another threw a penny off its winding walkway. The coin was rumored to have hit a security guard.”

There was reportedly “very little supervision” from teachers, as students shouted at each other across the Guggenheim’s famous rotunda.

The Post also quoted Asha Walker, a worker at the Guggenheim, who suggested there may have been a racial element to the museum’s ejection of the school.

“This is the first time since I have been there that there are a majority of black students…and the first time I am hearing about a school being banned.”

Stung by being perceived as a bastion of metropolitan white privilege, the Guggenheim said in a statement Monday that its policy for school groups recommended one adult for every 10 children.

“This policy is communicated to all schools, including the Brooklyn Science Skills Center High School, in advance of their visit,” the museum said. “The Brooklyn Science Skills Center High School group was admitted to the museum in spite of the fact that they did not meet this threshold. During their visit, the students in this group were not appropriately supervised by their chaperones and put the museum public, staff and artwork at risk by touching artwork and throwing objects from the ramps.

“The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has a heightened sensitivity to safety given the unique architecture of its landmark Frank Lloyd Wright building, where throwing objects, even coins, is not only disruptive but also potentially dangerous.”

The Post story said the school had been banned from the museum. The museum initially denied this.

“After security spoke to the chaperones about this behavior, the group left of its own accord,” the museum said. “Neither the Brooklyn Science Skills Center High School nor its students have been banned for life. The Guggenheim welcomes school groups on a daily basis and is widely regarded for its citywide art education programs.”

The Science Skills Center High School did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast, though the Guggenheim vigorously denied any racial element to the Brooklyn school being ejected. “We are disappointed that the events of this story have been twisted as to appear be racially motivated; those accusations are baseless and offensive,” the museum said. “The Guggenheim Museum is deeply committed to arts education, runs in-school programs in the five boroughs, and proudly welcomes more than 16,000 students a year to the museum without incident.”

Without incident. That sounds like a miracle, because anyone who attends theaters, cinemas, and galleries knows “without incident” rarely happens. One cannot judge the kids at the Guggenheim too harshly: Their behavior mirrors the already parlous standards of behavior of those much older than them let loose in theaters and cinemas, bars and shops.

And yes, I can also racially type the noisy offenders in Broadway’s finest theaters: They are white, in their 50s and 60s, and capable of shelling out more than $100 a pop for a night at the theater.

They talk, they rustle candy wrappers, they knee the backs of the chairs in front of them. They talk to each other during performances of plays. They sigh and kvetch over plot developments.

They may not be lobbing coins at the Guggenheim, but they also totally ruin the experience of going out.

Going to the movies is similarly perilous: more talking, more rustling of papers, more cellphone tippy-tapping as people text away.

The delight of going to a movie or a play or a gallery used to be that you were watching, or drinking in, whatever was being shown to you; and there was an added thrill that you were with others. That was part of the experience.

Now you cannot wait to leave. You breathe a sigh of relief if the person next to you isn’t chomping from a bag of toffees.

So here are the golden rules should you be attending anything—a play, concert, movie, musical, art show. It’s so easy. Shut up. Be quiet. Be still. Don’t take up space that isn’t yours, don’t invade other people’s. Look at what’s in front of you, observe, listen, appreciate. Sure, laugh if something is funny, but don’t then turn to your friend to continue a conversation about whatever made you laugh.

There is plenty of time for group therapy or shock and shared bewilderment after you leave. Then you can talk as animatedly as you like with your buddies. But while you are wherever you are, shut the hell up.

You may feel the treatment of the Brooklyn students was unfair, but the Guggenheim was not just right to admonish them—actually being thrown out of a museum, and shamed for behaving so badly, can only be for the good for them. Having access to culture is one of the great educational gifts children can experience, but the gift is not only seeing pictures on a wall but experiencing the public world around them, and their role in the flow of that.

The next time they go to a gallery or museum, they will know what is appropriate behavior.

The thing that informs poor behavior in public spaces, of all ages and classes, across all cultural lines, is selfishness, and the notion that your needs and desires, and what you feel you need to say or do at that moment, trump everyone else’s—and everything else around you.

But the thing about sharing a space with other people is that you need to consider them. Considering others is a foundation of community, even a temporary one of five minutes in front of a picture at MoMA.

To have to state what seems so obvious is sad in itself, but the standard of behavior in our public spaces is so appalling it clearly needs to be repeated over and over again.

Most of us who are quiet sit or stand in suffering silence while dreadful people spoil the atmosphere around them because we are—quite reasonably—too scared to intervene or admonish. I, the coward, silently cheer those who do shush and tell off the selfish.

The Guggenheim controversy will bubble away for a while yet.

Late Monday, the museum released another statement in which it acknowledged that one of its staff had banned the Brooklyn school, though in error:

“This turn of events is the unfortunate result of a terrible misunderstanding. Neither the Brooklyn Science Skills Center High School nor its students have been banned from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

“Much to our chagrin, a letter was sent to the principal of the school informing her that the school would be prevented from returning to the museum for a period of time to be reevaluated within a year.

“This is not our policy, and the letter was not sanctioned by museum leadership. We regret the confusion it has caused and we are disappointed that these events have been twisted to appear racially motivated; these accusations are baseless and offensive.

“The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is deeply committed to arts education, runs in-school programs in New York City’s five boroughs and proudly welcomes more than 16,000 students a year to the museum. This was a rare incident. We have reached out to the principal of the school to let her know that we would welcome her students back to visit the Guggenheim Museum.”

Good for the museum for so thoroughly examining and admitting its own errors, though I hope it will still not think twice when louts of any age start throwing coins or shouting or misbehaving within its confines. They should be reprimanded appropriately.

However, don’t rush to condemn all the children from the school, either, because some were rightly pissed off at the irresponsible behavior of their classmates.

Messiah Grandoit, a 10th-grader, told the Post: “For future kids, I feel sorry, I want to apologize myself for what my peers have done. It’s really bad, because I know a lot of people would have enjoyed seeing that museum.”

Indeed, lesson learned—and one hopes not just by the students from that Brooklyn school.