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Opinion: The guy who wrote “Why I hate museums” is not lazy, uncultured, vapid, or unintelligent

August 22, 2013 | By | 9 Comments

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.

Flickr image by Marshall Astor

Flickr image by Marshall Astor

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

and

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?

Strike a Pose - CMA. Image credit Idiom Interactive

Strike a Pose, Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo credit: Idiom Interactive

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.”

Isolated Striated Cube Photo Credit: Natural History Museum London by Flickr user kevandotorg

Comments

  1. Dead on, Dana. In on vacation typing on a phone, so to be brief: I completely agree that under the rhetoric lie important lessons we should take to heart, regardless of how they get delivered.

    They call them “tombstone labels” because it’s where your interest in an object goes to die. But museums keep writing them.

  2. *applause*

    You’re right, when you peel away the blanket statements, there’s useful nuggets underneath. Yes, museums should be engaging. Yes, museums should teach you something. Yes, museums can be dull. All of that is true. But trying to frame this as an “either or” situation is ridiculous and impossible to sustain. I’m with you, “Wow” is what I aim for in my work.

  3. Luis Marcelo Mendes

    Let’s face it, there are museo-phobes in larger number then we like to admit. We should listen to them, understand, and think how we can provide better services. Even for those who hates museums.

  4. Yes and Yes and Yes, by setting up these black and white, either/or situations we are only adding fuel to the fire. I don’t think the author intended museum professionals to go on the defensive, for statements that let’s face it, we already know. I like to think James Durston was instead using hyperbole as a call to action for us to solve a problem. If museums expect to stay relevant, we must as you say “meet our guests half way”.

  5. A couple of folks have commented via Twitter about the merits of the original article, particularly the hyperbolic nature of the headline and generalizations rather than rigorous research about an entire field:

    “I still think the original author was being lazy in his (often valid) criticisms.”

    “agree that he makes some points, but his tactics were so contentious. Sigh, I guess that’s today’s Internet writing style.”

    “Why I Hate Lazy Clickbait Journalism That Takes An Outrageous Stance On Museums To Generate Web Traffic”

    I can see that the efforts I put into a response might imply that I don’t see the flaws in the article or the un-nuanced approach to big topics that many media outlets seem to be running these days. All I can say is that the comments riled me up just as much as the original piece because they were just as dismissive and unproductive. We need to be prepared with better responses to this kind of criticism while keeping our core values intact.

    I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna here–I am fine with snarky responses to flip dismissals of a field we all adore and dedicate our lives to. I just don’t think they do an adequate job of illustrating that passion and dedication for making museums truly great and inspiring. Belittling our audiences won’t make them more open, willing, or appreciative and it certainly won’t help us rethink how we can do our jobs better.

  6. I enter into this conversation from the theater perspective. When my husband (also a theatre artist) and I were speaking about both of these pieces he summed up our feelings as such: “Some people say ‘I just want to go the theatre and see a play.’ And that’s fine. I just won’t be there.”
    Multiple points of entry, a range of options targeted at different learning approaches and engagement behaviors/ preferences, is integral to increasing excitement and participation in the arts.

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