get off my (museum) lawn!

Maybe it’s just me but is it “dump on museums” month? First arts writer Judith Dobrzynski bemoans how participatory museums have caused “high culture” to hit the skids. Then CNN Travel senior producer James Durston makes a point of telling us why he thinks museums suck. All of a sudden, museums have everybody’s knickers in knots.

My first reaction was of the “Oh, no they didn’t!” variety. The museum industry is my baby and resisting my first instinct to tear into this conversation like a rabid mama wolverine was pretty challenging. So I took a deep breath, read both articles and the comments multiple times, and tried to unpack what was before me. 

I’m showing my Gen-X stripes here but I read most of Ms. Dobrzynski’s “High Culture Goes Hands-On” in the voice of comedian Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man: “In my day, art museums were elitist and stodgy and nobody talked or had fun and we liked it.”

Grumpy old man

Take this passage:

In ages past, art museums didn’t need activating. They were treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal. Visiting one might be social — you went with friends — but fairly passive. People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way. Museums housed their heritage, their raison d’être.

True, museums are repositories and stewards of human material culture. But since when has visiting anything been a passive experience? Even a seemingly mundane trip to the grocery store involves multi-layered engagement. How do you expect people to find that beauty and inspiration without activating their senses? And to suggest that the “uplift” gained from quietly viewing so-called masterpieces has more inherent value than engaging in robust conversation surrounding contemporary art is the epitome of hubris. Is the experience worthless because it isn’t the way you prefer to engage with art?

Just for grins, let’s visit the other end of the spectrum with Mr. Durston’s “Why I Hate Museums” where he takes issue with museum funding:

Many of the world’s biggest and best museums are dependent on public money. London’s Natural History Museum needed £82 million ($128 million) to operate over 2012/2013, and nearly £46 million of this, 56%, came from government grants. The Smithsonian has been government funded to the tune of $811.5 million for 2013 — 65% of its total costs. Yet these are still cited as among their country’s best ‘free’ activities.

And while he admits he hasn’t given much thought to how museums contribute to economies, he goes on to say:

But the collect-and-cage policy that defines the visible exhibits, much of which is not even visible most of the time, is anathema to an engaging experience.

More experience, not less. Caged objects, no food/no photo policies, mismanagement, and museums that glorify their architecture over their contents give him the blues. Drama, excitement, and theater should be the order of the day. On its face, this is an argument I can agree with. Audience engagement is central to what I do as a museum employee. Unlike most of the commenters, I don’t assume that Durston, a self-described “museum-phobe”, is a dundering, uncultured idiot. He’s right. Some museums come off like their administrators are allergic to fun. But isn’t saying that museums are important while simultaneously insinuating that none of them are worth supporting financially the worst kind of backhanded compliment?

These articles present as thirsty click-bait, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is the rancid divisiveness that’s sprung up as a result. As others more eloquent than me have pointed out, applying an “either-or” mentality to this discussion is ridiculous. All humans aren’t alike, so there’s no way to craft a singular experience that appeals to everyone. Yet we continue to focus on the differences when we should learn from the commonalities. It’s a distracting shell game that accomplishes nothing except pitting one side against the other in a tiresome, age-old argument.

Despite the disparity of their arguments, Dobrzynski  and Durston are saying the same thing: Museums are letting me down. So instead of name-calling, let’s put our collective brains together to figure out how to create open, encouraging environments that allow the peaceful co-existence of a variety of experiences, from quiet contemplation to boisterous activity.

That’s the only way to serve us all.

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10 thoughts on “get off my (museum) lawn!

  1. I believe that art should be a reflection of culture, and that at this moment our culture is being driven by the packaging of experience-as-a-product. If experience art is what our culture craves and is what best reflects our collective desires, then why am I, as an artist, reluctant to make this kind of art? Why am I increasingly drawn to the opposite approach, to making my own oil paint and improving my craft as it is traditionally defined? Perhaps it is because I cannot shake the feeling that art is fundamentally different from experience.

    Full essay response to High Culture Goes Hands on on my website: http://underscoreg.com/art-review/experience-is-not-art

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