Duane hoffmann / msnbc.com
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/5/2008 11:30:02 AM ET 2008-06-05T15:30:02

They're out there now, striking fear in the hearts of bus drivers and tour guides. They're pushing slow-moving pedestrians off the sidewalks. And they're forcing museum docents everywhere to interrupt their well-rehearsed presentations to shout “Here we use our inside voices” and “Please! No climbing on the artwork.”

One grizzled guide affectionately, I'm sure, calls them her “dreaded year-end nose pickers.” You may have your own, perhaps unprintable, term for them. But if you're headed to a museum or some other educational attraction this season, you won't be able to avoid them: students on year-end class trips and, soon, clutches of kids on camp trips and on summer vacations with their families.

No more teachers, no more books ...
... No more teachers' dirty looks?  Not quite yet.

The school year is already over in some parts of the country, but many students still have to show up for class for a few more weeks. And as you may remember from your own school adventures, scant learning takes place inside classrooms this time of year.

That's why field trips were invented.

But what happens when a busload of kids on a field trip crosses paths with a bunch of leisure travelers who have just paid $20 admission to tour what they expect will be a quiet museum?

Last week in Toronto, for example, I was pleased to discover that my itinerary crossed paths with a touring exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum about the life and work of Charles Darwin. I looked forward to seeing the famed naturalist's journals, his microscope and some of the original specimens he collected. But I walked into the exhibit hall behind a rowdy school group and couldn't see a darn thing.

What could I do?

My first thought was to politely work my way past the kids while mumbling something about “age before beauty,” but I was seriously outnumbered and made no headway.

I considered asking for a refund and coming back another time. But I was leaving town that afternoon. I had to stick around.

I did ask the teacher to please get his students to settle down and share the space. That didn't work. In French, I think, he said: “Why do you think I brought them here in the first place?”  Or maybe it was, “It's survival of the fittest! Evolve!”

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So I waited. Sure enough, in a few minutes the teacher rounded up his kids and herded them back on the bus. For awhile, I had Darwin's diary doodles and what turned out to be a live giant green iguana all to myself.

Not exactly proof of that survival-of-the-fittest theory, but evidence, perhaps, that sometimes all a well-mannered traveler needs to do is sit tight.

Learn from the experts
“You did exactly the right thing,” says Lorna Walsh of the Smithsonian-affiliated Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture (MAC) in Spokane, Wash. Last spring and summer, the museum hosted a traveling exhibit about “Sue,” the best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex ever unearthed. “Sue” breaks attendance records wherever she goes and she taught Walsh and the MAC staff some valuable lessons about making busloads of school kids and “everyday” museum visitors feel welcome.

Walsh says, like MAC, most museums have procedures designed to keep school groups orderly and will often ask teachers to distribute memos outlining proper behavior in a museum (No running, no gum, no touching the artwork, etc.) At MAC, Walsh says, “The kids are whisked into a classroom that is separate from the gallery. When they're in the galleries, they sit quietly in front of the piece they are discussing while the docent describes it. Many of the regular visitors actually will stand with the group and listen to what the docent has to say.”

Sounds nice, but it doesn't always work out that way. So Walsh shared some tips for well-mannered travelers hoping to actually see something when they visit a museum or attraction this summer.

Call ahead
Sure, it's an extra step. But if there's a special exhibit you're intent on seeing, odds are many others are heading that way too. Call ahead to find out if any tour groups are scheduled to be there when you plan to visit and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Bide your time in another part of the museum
Walsh says most groups don't spend more than 20 minutes in any one gallery, so instead of giving up, hanging around the doorway tapping your toes or pushing your way into a mob of teenagers, go exploring. While waiting for the Darwin exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum to clear out, I poked around and found a great dinosaur exhibit and then stumbled upon a delightful display of 20 antique typewriters from the 1880s and 1890s. (Talk about dinosaurs!)

Time your visit and go late in the day
Walsh says school groups rarely stay at a museum past 2 p.m. “They need to get everyone back to class and then home,” so popular museum exhibits are often less crowded late in the day or during a museum's evening hours.

Come back another time
If you do find that a group of rowdy kids is ruining your visit, ask a docent or museum staff member to intervene. If that doesn't work, ask the front desk for a voucher good for a visit on another, quieter day.

But don't be fooled. It's not always kids on school trips or even camp outings that cause problems at museums and attractions. Walsh at the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture says they once had a four-year-old pull a fire alarm. “It was red and it had a handle ...”  And when the T Rex exhibit was at the museum, “we had one kid who tried to get over the fence and climb on the dinosaur. He wasn't part of a field trip, but his parents obviously weren't paying attention to their kid or to proper museum etiquette.”

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.

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