This is by far the longest period that Engaging Matters has been “dark” since its beginnings over ten years ago. And as time has passed the negative inertia has gotten overwhelming. As a result, in attempting to resume my writing I’ve been thinking I should find a way to ease back in.
Fortunately, Seema Rau at Museum 2.0 recently wrote a post (Do We Really Want People to Visit?) that makes it possible for me to venture back largely by highlighting her points. (Thanks Seema!)
The question that serves as her post’s title is not just a provocative one. It’s an earnest one. She says that if we do want them to visit museums we really, really are not acting like it. I was particularly taken with her response to the suggestion that people need more education about museum norms. She said, [M]any people full well understand [those norms]. After getting yelled at by guards on a field trip as a kid, they get that museums aren’t for them.” And the message people receive if they go back as adults is that they are not welcome. As but one small example, the design of some museums can be “user hostile.” Take, for instance, the lack of places to sit, much less sit comfortably.
The core of her premise is that “[P]eople don’t need museums. We don’t need to exist. Society would continue without us.” She also pointed out that since museums are not a “necessary amenity, I find it surprising that we’re not more focused as a field on survival.” I know that many will say yes they are necessary, but her point, I believe, is that they are not perceived as necessary by people we are hoping to reach. As she put it, “How much good can we do when people don’t use us? In other words, we must help people see us as valuable. Rather than asking people to bend for us, we must work to meet them.”
She also had a highly astute observation about the core mission of museums and how that mission should impact the work we do. “For whom do you do this work? If you are deeply committed to scholarship for its sake alone, then why spend the time on galleries? A book is easier to share and it’s timeless. Instead, if your goal is to educate or share, then what’s wrong with investing in amenities? Do you force your friends to stand when you invite them for a four course meal?”
Certainly, Ms. Rau’s observations are focused on museums; but my experience is that the same (or very similar) concerns can be expressed about much of the nonprofit arts industry. The artcentricity of our field gets in the way of thinking about the people we want (and need) to reach. Ultimately our work should be about connecting people with our art. To do that we must be concerned about them, get to know them, and design our offerings to make them feel wanted.
Thanks again, Seema.
Jerry Yoshitomi says
Thank you for this post. It would be important for every arts organization to ask ourselves what’s important here: engaging people or preserving/presenting art forms? Would it be sufficient if we did our work, yet no one came?
How much of our end goal is about the art? And how much of it is the impact on those who encounter the art?
Bob Ginsberg says
The post you quoted (thank you) is full of interesting ideas.
I am not in the arts field, but I do regularly go to art exhibitions in museums (recently having the good fortune to see the Medici (Bronzino) exhibition at the Met and the Holbein at the Morgan). From years of experience I can wholeheartedly support the notion of more seating.
However, I wonder if there really is a way to interest people in the visual art of the past, or the present. We are swamped every minute of the day with images. Most people seem to have no interest whatsoever in history, except nowadays to disapprove of it. To a casual observer, a Holbein portrait or a Bronzino portrait might not look so very different from a staged photograph. The technical skill, the imaginative genius, the magic that go into creating painted images are not themselves visible. The people I see in museums are often more interested in reading the labels or taking a photo or reading their messages than in looking at a miracle of art. I truly have no idea how to break through that barrier.