Saturday, August 24, 2013

The old ennui

That sums up a recent piece found on CNN's travel web site with the iconoclastic, attention grabbing title,  Why I Hate Museums. The article was written by James Durston who is billed as "a senior producer for CNN Travel, who has visited many of the major museums around the world."

Mr. Durston apparently sees himself as a modern day Hans Christian Andersen recounting the tale of "The Emperor's New Clothes." In his updated version, he portrays the child who is not in on the myth that museums are supposed to be good for you; he only sees them for what they truly are, a dreadful bore.

Mr. Durston's list of things he doesn't like about museums is very predictable, in case you're interested, you can read it for yourself here. These three sentences sum up the article pretty well:
Kids do seem to have a good time when pushing buttons, pulling levers and magnetizing soap bubbles (right up until they stop having a great time and turn into wailing bundles of hair and tears only a little more bored than the parents).
But where's the equivalent for adults? Why should over-16-year-olds, who still make up the significant majority of museum-goers, be subjected to stiff, dry, academia-laced presentations as if fun were a dirty word? 
Where's your joy gone, museums?
Mr. Durston believes that museums don't do a good enough job infusing life into their subjects. It's not enough for example to say such and such an object was made out of this or that in 5th Century BC Persia; you have to tell a story. In other words, you must make your exhibit exciting and above all, relevant. As the late Kurt Cobain sang in the refrain of his anthem to the apathy of his generation called Smells Like Teen Spirit: we are now, entertain us.
In order to attract new visitors, museums like other institutions in this day and age of ever shrinking attention spans, are forced to balance new ideas of presenting their collections, with keeping focus on their mission. There was a time when no one batted an eye if a museum displayed an object with a label that simply listed what the object was, when it was made, and in the case of an art museum, the artist who made it. It was assumed that the visitor given that information would be able to put the object in its proper context, or short of that, would have the wherewithal to go and find that information for himself or herself. Today it's almost mandatory to write didactic labels, describing in detail the object in front of the visitor, its creator, the circumstances under which it was made, and any number of useful tidbits. There's certainly nothing wrong with a museum presenting relevant information to the viewing public. The issue I have is that it's not uncommon to see visitors spending way more time reading about the piece on a label rather than actually looking at it, which in my opinion is a tremendous wasted opportunity.

The ability to behold a special object before your very eyes is the whole point of visiting a museum. That point seems to be lost on a growing number of visitors who go to museums, like the author of the CNN piece, to check off another item on the "to do" list, rather than something done out of interest or passion. In my days as a guard in the Art Institute of Chicago, more years ago than I care to remember, the question most asked second only to "where are the bathrooms" was this: "where's the original?", particularly in front of Grant Wood's American Gothic.

Here the "s" word comes in to play. There are those who view art lovers as snobs. Frankly that view is supported by some art lovers themselves, those who see art, or history, or whatever, as rarified subjects intended for a select few, namely themselves. Those are the folks who would scoff at the poor patron standing in front of American Gothic asking where's the original. I must admit to having done my share of scoffing myself. But thinking about it, a sense of awe inevitably came over those people the moment they learned they were standing in the presence of such a famous,  iconic object, and frankly it was humbling to be able to witness that. Their understanding of the role of the museum changed right before my eyes.

I believe that many people while not particularly enjoying museums themselves, still understand their importance. They respect, and even take pride in their community's great institutions of learning, even if they never set foot in them. I touched upon that subject briefly in my recent post about the Detroit Institute of Art.

So do museums owe it to those people to be more accessible to them?

I truly don't believe they do.

While some folks might find art or history fanatics to be snobs, they're really just people following a passion. In that sense they're no more snobs than anybody else following a passion, whatever that may be.

In this blog I write about some of my passions: art, architecture, the urban environment, music, sports, my children, you name it. I seldom write about things I'm not interested in because honestly I know little or nothing about those subjects, and as such have little to offer. For example, I must admit having hardly any interest in ballet. Not that I don't have tremendous respect for dancers and choreographers and what they do; not that I don't think the world would be a much poorer place without it, it's just that ballet is not something that particularly interests me. Should you the reader care in the least about my feelings about ballet? Hardly. So what would be the point of writing a piece about how ballet could be more appealing to me, when ballet is perfectly fine just as it is without me?

In the sentences from the CNN article that I quoted above, the author notes the push button exhibits so common in children's museums, and how museums geared toward adults should take a cue from them. Well that's happening as we speak as technology enables the introduction of more and more "interactive" means to display objects in a museum. Again I have mixed feelings as you can imagine. I've spent a great deal of time in museums with children pushing buttons and pedals and turning cranks. I've noticed that the act itself of pushing those pedals, cranks and buttons becomes the object of interest, not what the exhibit is trying to demonstrate. It's the same for the adults, where a technological device becomes the focus of the exhibit instead of the object.

The irony of all this is that today's fingertip access to information of all kinds would seem to make the spoon feeding of information to visitors in a museum gallery quite unnecessary. There once was a time when museums employed a sizable staff of lecturers who would regularly give gallery talks discussing the objects on display. It used to be common to stand in a gallery and be able to catch up with a tour of the collection given by a passionate museum professional. The good lecturers, and there were many of them, would encourage a give and take with the public where observations and ideas could be exchanged. Budgetary constraints have forced museums to lay off many of these valuable people who have been replaced by recorded guides. Visitors tune into devices through headphones so only they can hear the "voice of God" so to speak, telling them what objects to look at and how to feel about them. Gone is the dialog and the lone voice in the crowd crying out: "but what about...?"

Don't get me wrong, I think technology is a wonderful thing that contributes much to our lives. But for every great innovation, something is inevitably lost. Museums have been around for a good long time and have served us well over the ages. Like libraries, which the author of the CNN piece also seems to have disdain for, they are the repository of our collective history and culture. If they are not everybody's cup of tea, well so be it.

The great baseball writer Red Smith once said of the game: "Baseball is dull only to dull minds." Obviously the same can be said about museums. I'll end with another less elegant, but just as relevant quote:

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

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