Water Water Everywhere and Not a Drop to Drink: The Water Bottle Debate

I am a somewhat shy person. The idea of being in trouble makes the five-year-old kid in me want to run screaming in the other direction. The rules of behavior in a museum have probably been ingrained in me since the same age. Eating or drinking in a museum gallery is unthinkable to me. Is it, however, the best course of action? Might it alienate a visitor? I have read that the museums of the future will be more like coffee shops than the galleries we are used to. Perhaps it is time to rethink food and beverages, and water bottles might be an acceptable first step.

For several weeks, I have been contacting museums across the United States, inquiring about their policy on bottled water. Is it allowed in the museum? Is it allowed in the galleries? If it is, can the visitor drink from it in the gallery or must it remain capped and stowed? What kind of signs express this policy to the public? After interviewing thirty museums, there is almost no pattern other than a sharp divide between history and art museums, history being the more lenient. Otherwise it is totally dependent upon the institution, and the wording of their policies is just as varied.

As an intern I am in no position to suggest to the National WWI Museum and Memorial whether or not they should amend their “no water” policy in the galleries. I can, however, give them suggestions on how to implement either policy. Writing the policy as clearly and specifically as possible is key. For instance, “Food and drinks are allowed in designated areas” is perhaps the least helpful and yet most common wording I have come across. “No food or drinks is allowed in the museum galleries” is better. If water bottles are allowed then spell out where and what kind. Make sure that there is one policy and that it is the same on signs, websites, and by word of mouth.

This issue goes back to the buzz word, accessible. A museum’s success depends on its accessibility to the public. Therefore, what seems like a trivial issue, becomes highly debated. Is the artifact or the comfort of the person viewing it more important? Would allowing people to drink water in the galleries really increase the number of happy visitors? It depends on who you ask. Until a conclusion can be drawn, I will leave you with my favorite policy from The Jewish Museum in New York, “We know visiting museums can really work up an appetite, but eating and drinking in the galleries just isn’t kosher.”

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