Sunday, August 11, 2013

What kind of experience can you get in a museum?

"THE quest for an experience has taken over giant portions of our lives."

Writing in today's NYTimes, Judith H. Dobrzynski complains that museums are going too far down the road to provide experiences rather than merely displays:
Some of these initiatives are necessary, even good. But in the process of adapting, our cultural treasuries are multitasking too much, becoming more alike, and shedding the very characteristics that made them so special — especially art museums.
One should remember, however, that museums are relatively new institutions. Though they have earlier roots, museums didn't begin flourishing until the 19th Century. Now the times they are a changing.
Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, has seen the future. In a speech he gave a while back in Australia, he noted that museums had to make a “shift away from passive experiences to interactive or participatory experiences, from art that is hanging on the wall to art that invites people to become part of it.” And, he said, art museums had to shed the idea of being a repository and become social spaces.

He qualified those thoughts a bit, saying he was speaking mainly of museums that dealt primarily with contemporary art. But I’m not sure of the thesis or the qualification — or the application. I’ve seen museums offer people the opportunity to participate in curating exhibitions, choosing which artworks from their collections should be sold to raise money, deciding whether an altered painting should be restored to its original condition, advising on the design of gallery installations and more. Shouldn’t those decisions be left to the experts? If not, what do they do? Why study art history?

In another manifestation of the trend, museums are embedding interactive displays in their painting galleries. They are gamifying them. Some are retooling their lecture programs — which attract older audiences. As Alexander Bortolot, an art historian and the “curatorial content strategist” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, told me last year, younger people want museums to connect them to the creative economy. They don’t want to listen to some art historian flown in from New York; they’d rather network with members of the local arts community and take part in a conversation.
After the terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon in April, Thomas P. Campbell, the Metropolitan Museum’s director, reached out to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with the offer to lend three paintings, all dealing obliquely with contemplation, for a special free exhibition there. At the time, he said, “Great museums are places of solace and inspiration, particularly when tragedy strikes a community.” When so many people go instead for an experience, that aspect of art museums — a key part of their identity — is at risk.

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