Museums SHOULD be about enlightenment, inspiration, or quiet reflection.
Museums should NOT be about fun and entertainment.
Frankly, I’m a bit sick of these blanket pronouncements, from both sides of the aisle. While CNN’s opinion piece “Why I Hate Museums” laments how boring museums are, the New York Times bit “High Culture Goes Hands-On” rails against not just people having fun in museums but even people having a shred of “engagement” in museums. You can see more examples of black and white arguments about what museums should and shouldn’t be (and what “good” and “bad” visitors are) in the comments on the CNN article and in letters to the NYTimes editor.
Let’s meet halfway
Well, I for one think museums and their visitors exist in a much more fluid realm. We all—the people who work in museums and the people who visit—need to do a better job of meeting halfway. Clearly James Durston writes from the perspective of someone who thinks museums are important and wants them to succeed—he’s just disappointed that they aren’t living up to their potential.
Calling the author lazy, uncultured, vapid, or unintelligent is wildly unproductive, not to mention rude. Surely every person who has failed to be wowed in a museum is not categorically any of those things.
A little introspection on the part of people who love museums just as they are is required.
What (and how much) we say is important
Let’s talk a little bit about bringing museums to life, something Durston mentions more than once in an attempt to get at what might make museums more compelling. One way of doing this is through telling captivating stories. We’ve all had moments in life when someone’s narrative enthralled us. What is it that museums can do to make this style of conveying information more commonplace? I agree with Durston that “tombstone” labels with maker, date, and place of origin are inadequate for nearly all visitors.
On the other hand (and as one commenter pointed out) too much text (or audio or video) is off-putting to many visitors, who can feel overloaded or impatient with reading, particularly when they are visiting in a social group (which many museum visitors do). Museums know this from studying their visitors, observing their behaviors, and (yes!) asking them what they want. We know that some people like to be told why something is important; others at least want some better clues so they can connect the dots themselves.
Durston references today’s tough economic realities but chaffs at the idea of museums using funding problems as an excuse to bore people, especially since his taxpayer dollars seemingly support said dull experiences. At a minimum, nearly all museums have the budget to do some rewriting of their labels in order to provide more paths for engagement with objects. Here are ten excellent label writing tips from the V&A. Good label writing is truly an art, just as good storytelling is, but there are some great tidbits in these guidelines, such as:
We should be looking at the approach used in journalism, in which the ‘hook’ or the most important point comes first
Most visitors have no idea what ‘trope’ or ‘iconography’ mean.
On being welcoming and being open
Successful museum visits require give and take. Museums need to give visitors not just more information but more information that is shared in a compelling way and sounds like the voice of a human being, including that oft-avoided element: emotion. In return, visitors will get the most out of their visits when they are willing to take some time with an object, think about its history/beauty/innovativeness, make connections between this object and our lives today, and offer their own thoughts and feelings on the subject. Involving the body (beyond shuffling along from object to object) can help too. When is the last time you mimicked the pose of a sculpture in an art gallery?
The technology-supported museum interactive pictured above is a lovely example of encouraging kinetic engagement. But such technology can be expensive or hard to maintain. A written or verbal prompt plus a visitor’s own camera can also do the trick (but first museums have to stop yelling at people for taking photos!). Museums must also create platforms for visitors to ask questions, share their experiences and opinions, and interact as fully as possible (and yes, of course, while protecting the artifacts for future generations). In exchange, visitors who are otherwise bored by museums (*ahem*) might be surprised by how much they enjoy the experience when they are willing to give a little too.
The thing about “WOW!” is…
Think of a time when you discovered something. Remember that “wow!” sensation you experienced? It probably didn’t come from simply watching or listening to someone explain something or try to entertain you. It probably came from active participation in a process of discovery; perhaps something that involved multiple senses?
In his response to the New York Times piece, the ever-eloquent Ed Rodley reminisces about a visit he once made to a meteorite collection, in which the person leading the tour:
picked up a vial with some meteorite fragments in it and said, “Want to know what another world smells like?” Um, yes? I can’t remember anything else about that visit, but just writing about that moment triggered a strong memory of it. I smelled another world once.
Museums can create more fertile ground for the process of discovery by asking provocative questions, offering up the transformative power of objects, and providing experiences that visitors can’t get anywhere else. But visitors must also come with the energy and interest in actively participating. (Yes, you want to smell another world!)
For those who simply want to view and reflect, you’ve already got “Vase: Iran; circa 15th century.” For everyone else, let’s work TOGETHER to make museums a little more “wow.”