Places of Quiet

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston. March 3, 2013.

During a recent museum visit, quiet so pervaded the rooms that one person with a happily babbling kid had to repeatedly shush her, once placing a hand over her mouth. My friend and I spoke in hushed tones—as did everyone else in the space.

At first, I thought the subject matter compelled quiet. We’d gone to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, to see the acclaimed war photography exhibit. Photographs from war zones encourage respect—and people often pay respect with silence.

Yet elsewhere in the museum: Silence. I harked back to other museum visits. (I love museums.) Quiet.

Interesting. Why?

Silence should prevail in chapels and in spaces dedicated to meditation. Libraries, too. Anywhere people need to find quiet in their heads for communion or focus should and do demand quiet.

So why museums? For certain museums, such as those chronicling the Holocaust and other atrocities, quiet makes sense. Yet art museums? Natural history museums? Even the sculpture garden across the street from the MFAH feels sheltered and hushed.

Perhaps we practice quiet in museums to allow for focus on what the pieces on display want to teach us? Perhaps art inspires meditation?

Yet should art and culture and history inspire quiet always? Shouldn’t they inspire jubilance sometimes? Provoke debate here and there? Call for vocal outrage at moments?

And then I mused on other spaces in which people hush without ostensible reason. Bookstores fall in this category. So do jewelry stores. And some oo-la-la clothing boutiques.

Where else encourages quiet? Why do these spaces seem to demand it? And should they?