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My Experience With, And Rationale For, “Experience Museums”

For those of you who may have missed it, the front page of the Sunday New York Times’s Review section this week carried an essay I wrote, headlined High Culture Goes Hands-On. Print readers also got a deck: “Visitor engagement and participation are changing the nature of museums. And not always in good ways.”

8168456020_c93e8bda73_cSo I’ve had a couple of very busy days. Everyone who has written or called me, naturally, agreed with my thesis, which is not easy to boil down to one sentence. If I had to, it would be something along the lines of this: Art museums are on the verge of making a grand mistake, luring visitors by giving them participatory art experiences rather simply providing them with the opportunity to experience viewing glorious works of art. As I wrote:

In this kind of world, the thrill of standing before art — except perhaps for works by boldface-name artists like van Gogh, Vermeer, Monet and Picasso (and leaving aside contemporary artists who draw attention by being outrageously controversial) — seems not quite exciting enough for most people.

Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, advocating for “experience museums,” put it this way in a speech in Australia:

…museums must 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.

Needless to say, most museum directors and curators are doing this with good intentions — they are trying to attract more people in an age of split-second attention spans and multi-tasking.

4845929129_efa9f7e6a4_oI think this is an important issue — and readers must have agreed, as my essay landed on the most-emailed list for a while. It’s important because museums — like businesses — “train” people to come for visits, and with these experience/participatory activities they are training people to come for reasons that are not core to the museum. When people don’t find those expectations satisfied, they won’t go.

Here’s a parallel: When museums trained people to come for special — often blockbuster — exhibitions, they soon discovered that many people didn’t visit their permanent collections. Now, in troubled economic times, as special exhibitions have become fewer and have lasted longer, museums have tried to retrain people to come to see their permanent collections — and it’s a tough slog.

It’s also important because looking at great art actually is an experience on its own — or should be. People may be losing that ability, given the current environment, but should museums hasten its demise? I don’t think so.

I could go on about this topic, but you get my drift.

The Times opened the piece to reader comments, and last I looked more people agreed with me than not — though there were some major dissenters, one of whom accused me of “sour grapes.” Another said I was “cranky.” Some thought I was being exclusionary. I’m not — I want museums to be open to, and attractive to, everyone, AND for the right reasons. Not, as one commenter put it, because the museum is a “playground.”

I had two favorite comments:

From David Underwood: “Does this mean when I go to a presentation of Salome, they are going to offer me a head on a platter? Or am I going to get burned at the stake instead of Azucena?”

And a limerick from Larry Eisenberg:

Museums must become interactive?
I wish they were more retroactive,
A Velasquez one views
Is a joy to peruse,
Museums will be counterattractive!

Photo Credit: Martin Creed’s Work No. 965: Half the air in a given space, Courtesy of Far-Flung Travels (top); Big Bambu, at the Met, bottom






  1. Traditionalist says

    Thank you for all of your insightful articles, and for providing this forum for public input. Your volunteer efforts on this blog are much appreciated.

    I believe that museums have over-expanded to the point of unsustainability. This applies to the frantic levels of programming, the enormous scale of the buildings and the bloated staffs. In my opinion, what should be scholarly institutions have been co-opted into mass marketing ventures. Over the past several decades, not-for-profit institutions have been forced into a vicious cycle of money-raising, and are now obsessed with finding commercial possibilities to keep themselves afloat. Some of these new strategies are in fact antithetical to the original purpose and function of these institutions, which should be gardens for cultivating the mind, and instead have devolved into tools of social engineering.

    I understand perfectly the well-intentioned democratizing principle behind opening the doors to the greatest number of people, and I agree with it. But the goal should be to invite people into high culture by providing the educational keys to an authentic high culture experience, not to distort high culture into something approximating an amusement park or shopping mall, just so that it is familiar and thereby automatically entices the greatest number of people. What is the point of just bringing in bodies, except to bring in money, if the experience is no different than what can be had elsewhere?

    Certainly maximizing attendance is a worthy goal, but it should not come at the expense of what makes the experience worthwhile.

    Unfortunately, the two may be mutually exclusive. My feeling is that the experience of looking at great paintings requires a quiet, contemplative atmosphere. It should be a private conversation between the viewer and the artist. This type of experience is getting harder and harder to achieve with the throngs of people rushing through the galleries—because political correctness enforcers have declared it “elitist” and therefore taboo to explain to new visitors that a quiet demeanor is appropriate in museums.

    Where are people supposed to go for a high culture experience if not to museums, the symphony, the library?

    The solution would be for institutions to stay small and manageable, and to cater to their natural constituents rather than to try to masquerade as something easy and fun. What’s so wrong with a catalogued repository?! It wasn’t the populace who preserved culture through the dark ages, it was solitary monks toiling in monasteries.

    Our government needs to support scholarly institutions regardless of the fact that they may seem dull and unappealing to the majority of people, who are accustomed to mass media hype and expect to be entertained at Hollywood movie levels. Unfortunately, it seems as though everything has to be popular to have its funding justified in today’s culture. The fact is that scholarly institutions are essential to a civilized society. Not because they are “popular” but because they contain artifacts which embody the humane principles that distinguish mankind from animals and which keep us from descending into chaos. It is ironic that we are inviting chaos into these institutions.

    The answer to growing audiences is not to distort the institution but to educate people into understanding how a contemplative experience is worthwhile. We need to have meaningful arts education throughout the school years. Then the “natural constituency” for the arts will grow in a way that is not destructive to the authentic experience.

    • Thank you for your comment and compliment. Ordinarily, I don’t publish comments this long — after all, it’s my blog, my soapbox. However, you’ve articulated the context for my article (which could only be so long, needed a focus, and wouldn’t have been new had it concentrated on this long-standing argument for “high” culture). I agree with much, but not all, of what you say here.

    • “The experience of looking at great paintings requires a quiet, contemplative atmosphere. It should be a private conversation between the viewer and the artist.” How true, which goes to prove that audio guides are mere money-making devices and that personal interpretive comments by curators on wall labels are intrusive and condescending.
      The focus of your remarks is “high culture,” specifically paintings (and, by extension, sculpture). I applaud that.

  2. The interactive, hands-on experiences happening at art museums are not at the exclusion of private one-on-one contemplative experiences that can be had. They are offering more options–diversifying if you will. Not everyone enjoys the private experience, just as you and others don’t enjoy the hands-on opportunities. It is not or shouldn’t have to be mutually exclusive.

    If it feels like a shopping mall, then they’re not doing it well. But I give museums a lot of credit for adapting to a changing audiences.

  3. You write “readers must have agreed, as my essay landed on the most-emailed list for a while.” Um, no. Many readers probably emailed it for the same reason that I did: surprise that this conservative, reactionary opinion was positioned on the front page of the Sunday Review. You note, rightly, that museums “train” people to visit. Museums should be training people that they (the museums) are public resources, open to all people.

    • Thanks for your comment, but you have misread my post: I wrote that they must have agreed that the issue was important: “…I think this is an important issue — and readers must have agreed, as my essay landed on the most-emailed list for a while…” Perhaps you might also re-read my actual essay.

      Not btw, I agree that museums should be open to all people — nothing in my essay precludes that.

  4. A substantive provocative essay (I missed commenting). Congrats! I’m not sure, however, what to make of your remark that museums “[lure] visitors by giving them participatory art experiences rather simply providing them with the opportunity to experience viewing glorious works of art.” Sounds as if you’re advocating only the latter. If that’s the case, museums would exclude works in “the spirit of” Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 965,’ which one cannot just view (and are not art in my estimation). I may have misunderstood you of course.

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand (2000)

    • There will always be differences of opinion on what art is. I do not advocate excluding works like Creed’s from museums. In fact, in Cleveland the piece occupied only a small corner gallery. I am wary of the participatory spirit in Creed’s work, as an example, taking over art museums. Some parallels: the way “spectacle” musicals are so popular on Broadway and special effects have taken over large chunks of the movie business.

  5. It has taken almost three decades to arrive at this stage, when such a question is finally being openly discussed to this degree.

    It may be another three decades before museums return to the proper balance; which is defined as collect, exhibit, interpret and preserve – artifacts.

    Had there been less economic incentive to become schools, restaurants and gift shops to which are attached “a nice museum,” then interactivity and mobile devices would never have been allowed to surface in the first instance.

  6. Your piece seems to have struck some chords. Today’s Times’ letters section has four letters in response to your ideas, all of them supportive of your ideas in varying degrees. That’s not to suggest that they didn’t receive letters taking a contrary view, but I believe the Times attempts to publish a representative sampling in proportion to what they’ve received. It is an important topic. Here is an excerpt from Deborah Markow’s letter that says a lot: “I believe that rather than creating rain rooms and the opportunity to meet the artist, we should be educating all our children to love, appreciate and feel at ease in the presence of the great art…Only then will museums truly fulfill their purpose and their role as a place of contemplation and appreciation.” If I understand your stance correctly, that sort of education cannot be achieved through the experiential model currently in vogue in some museums. Entertainment is quite different from education.

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