Do we say “museums are not for everyone” and leave it at that? Or should we have meetings this Monday morning to figure out how our institutions can address visitors with the same opinion as James Durston, senior Producer for CNN Travel, who wrote “Why I hate museums” last Thursday?
I generally avoid reading comments on websites, finding them usually to be full of trolls, drivel, and poor manners. The most volatile comments mostly accused Durston of being culturally ignorant and poorly educated, suggesting he stay home and watch Honey Boo-Boo, youtube, etc. But the majority of comments discussed preservation, education, audience, fundraising, and so forth as champions of museums rushed to rebut his declaration. Even Railway Preservation News was a-chatter regarding railroad museums, which can look like rusting piles of metal on token pieces of rail, awaiting their turn at restoration (Thanks Mr. I. for bringing this to my attention).
Durston’s main beef appeared to be with art museums, declaring them “graveyards for stuff. Tombs for inanimate things.” He argues not that museums are shiftless, indicating the scientific museums drive research and discovery, but that they do not connect to their audiences. My difficulty with Durston’s often-whiny approach in the “article” (I wouldn’t say it was exhaustively researched, though he did reach out to Ford Bell, President of the American Alliance of Museums with a few questions), is that while he wants museums to engage audiences in new ways, he doesn’t give any examples of what he wants to see or do. In the comments section, when he is chastised for aimless whining, he washes his hands neatly by saying that he’s not a museum professional, you figure it out.
I do agree with him that many museums target a kid audience, who look like they are having fun, while adults are bored out of the gourds. The 90 million school students who visit museums annually are a primary audience. But museums were founded to educate everyone, especially during eras when education was not easily available to working classes. The Metropolitan Museum’s of Art much-abused “suggested donation” policy ($25, but pay what you can) was instituted not for the stingy to argue with the cashier until they get into the most encyclopedic museum in the world for 25c., but so that no person would be turned away due to their economic standing.
But more concerning is that the targeting of exhibits and label texts to an under-10 audience bores everyone, including the under 10 set. Kids of the 1970s, remember when you went to a museum or historic site and had to struggle to understand something? Maybe you tried to read it, maybe you ran around the gallery instead, but learning is based on striving to understand new concepts. I particularly have a bone to pick with science museums catering mostly to school-age audiences. With the rise of ignorance and religious evangelism against science and technology demonstrated daily among politicians in this country, it is evident that continued education targeted to spark the interest of adults is in order.
In the comments, Durston finally suggested he liked the approach of the Singapore Zoo, letting non-dangerous animals roam the park freely. It’s a mind-bender for a museum professional to connect what he finds successful in a zoo and how that can be applied to an art museum. I know he’s not alone. I went on a trip to Rome and Sicily in 2007 facilitated by a chemistry professor from my college. He dismissed museums as an attraction worth seeing, along with eating (we were in Italy!!) and shopping. If every gallery requires an interpreter to speak to you about the objects, a music or dance performance, an activity station where people try painting or weaving, or an interactive touch-screen with a quiz, no museum can meet that demand. As the importance of discovery declines in our culture, so does the funding of our cultural institutions that pays for education programs.
So if you have a problem with museums, give. Volunteer. Advocate. Get involved.