Warning! Museum! Do Not Touch!

Some signs stand out just from the nature of the message.
Some signs stand out just from the nature of the message. No cars were damaged during the shooting of this photograph.

Recently on the ALHFAM listserv a member, who is dealing with a horse nipping problem at their museum, wanted some advice on signage as they are ” . . . discussing posting more warnings/signage of some sort but also don’t want to litter the landscape with dire threats and graphic warnings in blood red and blaze orange.” I appreciate their dilemma and also their colorful description of signage options.

All museums and public buildings are required to post signs to comply with certain laws or codes. Often, there is little we can do, or would want to, to change this type of signage. Exit, AED, fire extinguisher, and similar signs benefit from their uniformity. Most of the population knows what to look for when they need to find these things and that’s the point.

What about the rest of our non-interpretive signage–especially the ubiquitous museum “Do Not Touch” sign.

Taken at the Nebraska History Museum in a quilt exhibit. Quilts are displayed on slant boards with stanchions but are otherwise out in the open. Each slant board has one of these Do Not Touch signs.
Taken at a Nebraska History Museum quilt exhibit. Quilts are displayed on slant boards with stanchions but are otherwise out in the open. Each slant board has one of these Do Not Touch signs.

The signs in the image above are the most basic. We need to let visitors know the quilts aren’t for touching but the commonality of Do Not Touch signs calls into question their effectiveness. There are so many you just stop seeing them (like Starbucks). Some might have the red circle with a slash image that universally means “NO!” or a few other words depending on what’s being dealt with–Do Not Touch the Dollhouse, Do Not Pet the Goat, etc.–but the message is all the same and likely, eventually, invisible.

So how to make them visible again without “graphic warnings in blood red or blazing orange.”

Sometimes the message alone is enough. Like the vulture warning in the top image (captured during a family vacation to the Everglades). The sign is boring, standard issue NPS but the message is quite unique. I was so intrigued I hastily inquired about car-damaging-vultures at the visitor center. Needless to say, the message alone caught my attention.

The sign in the image below works for a different reason:

At the Nebraska History Museum there's no flash photograpy in the photography exhibit. Irony works to the museum's advantage here.
At the Nebraska History Museum there’s no flash photography in the photography exhibit. Irony works to the museum’s advantage here.

This one, though, is my favorite from my personal “collection:”

Taken during a family visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Mountain Farm Museum.
Taken during a family visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Mountain Farm Museum.

This was clever. It was on its own on the side of a building in an area with nothing of note nearby. That alone made it stand out. The title was intriguing and the “Don’t Vandalize the Buildings” message laid out like exhibit text. Of course, after reading the sign I noticed all the words/names carved into the building (you can see the evidence in the picture).

More effective than your typical “Do Not Touch” sign? Not sure, I didn’t talk to staff about it. It was, however, a novel approach that made me stop, pay attention, and think about the message. Isn’t that what we want?

Please share your anecdotes and images of unique and effective museum signage.

As an aside: I take odd photos at museums while on vacation. Recently I took a picture of a recording hygrothermograph at a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago with my fifteen-year-old. She rolled her eyes at that but was really disturbed when I shared it on Facebook. How could I not? I’ve never seen environmental readings so stable!

-Deb Arenz

13 thoughts on “Warning! Museum! Do Not Touch!”

  1. I’ve found that using humor in signs, like some of those above, makes people laugh… but then they remember the sign. I have used this at past museums to make signs for around the office, including one in the bathroom that listed things not to flush down the toilet; it include the things we were actually concerned about, like paper towels, but I also added “bricks” and “squirrels” to the list. Quite a number of people left the bathroom saying, “Squirrels?” …but we stopped having problems with things being caught in the pipes. I’m not sure how much of that you can get away with using around the public though! Humor is a tricky thing.

    1. Humor is a great idea but, you’re right, you need to be careful with humor in public signs. Perhaps mild and judicious use of humor is the best bet. Love your internal sign though. Certainly would have captured my attention.

  2. This implies that people still read. We have Parking signs with arrows leading drivers into the parking area, from both sides of the lot — most people still drive directly past the signs and try to park on the lawn where there is clearly a No Parking sign! I’ve had people MOVE a “do not sit” sign to sit on the most fragile chair in the collection! I’ve had them move the “fragile, don’t touch” sign to pick up the oldest book on the collection! I changed that one to “Don’t touch — electrified” just to see what would happen.

  3. Unfortunately I don’t have a picture of the most memorable sign I ever saw because photos weren’t permitted in the area. On a trip to Malaysia I stumbled on an off limits area near a historic site. How did I know? The sign on the fence had words in several languages including English but it was the drawing of a person being shot by a soldier that made me skedaddle out of there. I guess there was a military base nearby.

  4. Glad to hear I’m not the only one taking pictures of the signs while visiting museums! With all the incidents at Yellowstone National Park this year, I was interested to see what kind of signage they would have. At the entrance ranger station, the message board read, “PLEASE NO SELFIES WITH BISON TODAY, TOMORROW, OR EVER, THANKS, YNP.” The sign that they didn’t put up, but was included in the handouts I was given, was one of those images like on a caution street crossing sign, but it was a bison goring a human.

    1. Thanks Jeana. Yellowstone has been using the bison goring human image for decades (I worked there in the early 90s) but I can see the need for the selfie sign now too. The rangers have their work cut out for them there. Fortunately most visitors are respectful.

  5. I have two great signs, one is from the Battle of the Little Bighorn which said “rattlesnakes can be found beyond these signs” and it did keep people on the trail. And I later worked for the superintendent who put them there. And the latest one is from Don Edwards NWR in San Francisco, which is “Drones are not allowed here, we leave the flying to the birds.” and according to staff it does work.

  6. Ha! I did a brief blog post about “do not touch” signs a few years ago. It wasn’t as thoughtful as yours, but it was fun. And yes, I did sort of get yelled at for taking the photo at London’s Royal Academy, but I pointed out to the guard I was taking a photo of the sign, not the artwork and he stood down. I wish I could have taken photos of the art–it was a David Hockney exhibit!
    Here’s a link to my post: https://maryseelhorst.com/2012/09/

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