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Many US museums permit backpacks only when they are carried on one shoulder. Here are some examples:

  • Philadelphia Museum of Art:

    Backpacks and large bags must be checked. Smaller bags may be carried on one shoulder or handheld.

  • The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

    Bags larger than a standard backpack need to be checked into coat check. Any backpack sizes or smaller can be worn on one shoulder.

  • Smithsonian American Art Museum

    Backpacks may not be worn on the back, but must be carried on the side, under the arm, or on the front of the body.

There's a number of additional sources quoting this requirement:

Why is that? I first thought it's an easy way of implementing a size/weight limit. However, personal experience shows me that even when you are allowed to bring a backpack that is small enough to be carried on one shoulder, you have to wear it on one shoulder the all the time.

One possible reason is given here, but it's not very convincing to me:

Packs on the back are risks for the art. People turn around quickly and knock statues or scratch paintings with the packs when worn on two shoulders across the back.

  • 3
    I have a bag I can use in backpack style and as one shoulder or cross body bag and when in a museum I select that last style, with the main part of the bag about hip high on my side. I do not feel that a 'two shoulder backpack' worn on one side is more safe than when worn on both shoulders. – Willeke Sep 22 '16 at 17:41
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    I suspect this is a way of outlawing backpacks while permitting purses, without being overtly gender-specific. – Mark Sep 22 '16 at 20:16
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    Museums I've been in say NO backpacks. – WGroleau Sep 22 '16 at 21:58
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    I have been to museums that allowed no backpacks, and at least one where I was asked by staff to carry my small backpack by hand instead of carrying it on one shoulder. The reason given in the latter scenario was that a backpack presented a risk to paintings even when carried on one shoulder. – njuffa Sep 23 '16 at 4:15
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    @JoeBlow Sorry, but what are men supposed to use instead of purses? – user23030 Sep 23 '16 at 21:41
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Because if your bag is large enough to be only carried on your back (i.e. you cannot carry it on one shoulder), you'll much more likely to bump into, and do some damage to objects/sculptures/other people while turning around. This is because you don't see your bag, and it is much harder to estimate how big it is when maneuvering. It is much less likely when your bag is on your side, as you can see it.

Also with a large back on your back you're taking up to twice more space, which may be a problem near crowded exhibitions.

Update: Clément provided a link which confirmed the above theory, at least from Smithsonian Museum of American Art:

For the protection of our artworks, suitcases, large umbrellas, large bags, and large backpacks are not allowed in the galleries. Smaller backpacks and bags are permitted, at the discretion of the museum’s security officers, if they are hand-carried. Backpacks may not be worn on the back, but must be carried on the side, under the arm, or on the front of the body. These limitations help us protect the artworks from accidental damage.

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    You forget that a bag carried on one shoulder moves much further away from the body and as such is a greater risk. – Willeke Sep 22 '16 at 17:58
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    I don't find your answer really convincing. I could come up with, I think, equally good reasons not to carry your backpack on one shoulder. Do you have any source? – Clément Sep 22 '16 at 20:59
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    If that is the real reason, then the people making those rules don't live in the real world. I can't remember the last day that a person didn't accidentally hit me with their purse... slung over a single shoulder. It's like these people have no idea that those purses actually extend beyond their bodies, or just don't care what they hit as they traverse pathways much too small for themselves and their over-the-shoulder-cargo. – RockPaperLizard Sep 23 '16 at 0:51
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    Anyone who's ridden the subway knows that the people you're worried about have backpacks on the back, not on one shoulder. – Joe Sep 23 '16 at 17:55
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    Also, consider that by requiring you to "keep your backpack on one shoulder", they're asking you to do something consciously. This is probably the greatest benefit - because yes, we all knock into things even with it slung under our shoulder. But at least now, everyone is conscious of their bag, regardless if it's on their back or under shoulder. – BruceWayne Sep 23 '16 at 19:28
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People wearing backpacks sometimes forget it is there and inadvertently knock into/over things when they turn. I have not heard of the "one shoulder rule", but in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery I was asked to either hold my backpack or wear it backwards (on my front) while perusing the museum.

I've been whacked this way myself while waiting in line for a bus/airplane, and done the same to others, so accidentally swinging into things seems like a good possibility to me. In addition to people being more cognizant of a bag on one shoulder vs both, should they bump something with the bag, it is more free to move and will not hit with such force as with both straps.

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    I don't find your answer really convincing, and I don't see on what it differs from the other answer. I could come up with, I think, equally good reasons not to carry your backpack on one shoulder. – Clément Sep 22 '16 at 21:02
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    @Clément such as? – Tim Sep 23 '16 at 23:44
  • @Tim Backpacks wore on both shoulders are less incline to swing, hence permitting to keep control. They are also less incline to fall, hence reducing noise. So, wearing your backpack on both shoulders reduces the possibilities to break objects and to make noise, two things museum are definitely looking for. – Clément Sep 27 '16 at 1:53
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    @Clément yet on the back people are less aware of the size of the bag... – Tim Sep 27 '16 at 6:22
  • @Tim I'm not saying your arguments are wrong, I'm just saying that there are argument both supporting your thesis and against it. Hence, I find it primarily opinion-based. For instance, "on both shoulders people are more free to run, hence to escape the museum in case of fire / shooting / whatever" is an argument supporting the "both shoulder theory", since Museum are concerned with the safety of their visitors. – Clément Sep 27 '16 at 21:05
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While I like the optimism of George Y's answer, ultimately it relies on trusting the source to tell the truth.

However, as well as seeing this in US museums, we see this in US sports venues, where small handbags are allowed, but small backpacks are forbidden. In sports venues, bags are forbidden in order to prevent people from bringing in their own alcohol (and bombs). There are no artworks to protect in a sports stadium, so clearly there must be some other reason why handbags are allowed and backpacks aren't.

http://www.rosebowlstadium.com/visitor-center/code-of-conduct

Additionally, Australian museums do not draw a distinction between type of bag, but have a clause that covers all backpacks and bags, and is based on size.

Backpacks, umbrellas, and water bottles, and bags and packages larger than 30cm x 40cm, must be checked in.

https://www.mona.net.au/visit/facilities/

So no, the 'backpacks will destroy the art' hypothesis does not fit. Places that have no art have the same 'anti-backpack' policy, and places with lots of art to break will allow backpacks.

I suspect the answer is a much simpler one. Handbags are generally worn by adults, who pay and donate more to get into venues, and they often get jobs deciding on the bag policy to implement at venues. Backpacks are generally worn by children and teenagers, who make noise, damage things (whether they have a backpack or not), laugh at the willies on the statues/paintings, don't donate, don't vote, and don't get jobs as museum curators. Generally, they are considered a nuisance.

Ultimately, museums would like to ban all bags. They have made the decision that banning handbags would be more cost than benefit, so they permit them. This has painted them into a tight corner, and some are now allowing backpacks being worn like a handbag, because the only way to not allow it would be to admit the real reason handbags are allowed and backpacks aren't.

Australian sports and museums are both making separate pushes to try to attract younger people to their events, which may explain the lack of backpack bans down here.

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    While I agree with the facts that you present, I find your conclusion ("US museums are trying to ban kids by trying to ban backpacks by trying to ban backpacks too big to carry on one shoulder so as not to reveal that they are trying to ban kids") outrageously speculative. But I enjoyed reading it :) – bers Sep 22 '16 at 22:15
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    Indeed, anything after 'I Suspect' in my answer is speculative. Although I wouldn't quite say they are trying to ban kids. They are trying to ban all bags. Banning backpacks has a benefit of reducing bags that get in (positive to the museum), and inconveniences kids (very slight negative). Banning handbags has the same positive to the museum, but a larger negative, because it inconveniences adults. – Scott Sep 22 '16 at 22:21
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    I agree with your answer. It's also why so many places have ridiculous laws: they were written only by people to whom those laws will never apply. – RockPaperLizard Sep 23 '16 at 0:55
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    The fact that a sports stadium has a similar rule does not in any way imply that they have a similar REASON for that rule. Stadiums make lots of money from concessions, and smuggling in food and drinks cuts into profits. Bombs are not the real concern, it's profit. Museums do not make any money by selling beer and hot dogs to the people wandering through the museum, and in fact almost certainly DON'T want food and drink around the art. The rule may be similar, but the reason CANNOT be similar. – barbecue Sep 23 '16 at 17:29
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    You're assuming that two organizations that do the same thing must do it for the same reasons. This is simply not true. – David Richerby Sep 23 '16 at 19:53

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