Monday, August 09, 2010

Interpretive Dance (or..."Here we are now..entertain us!")

I don't do things that make me feel stupid. I'm smart enough, exactly as I am. And anywhere I go that doesn't reinforce my sense of self-satisfaction is obviously being run by people I cannot trust, so I won't go there.

That's the accumulated feedback today's museums seem to be trying to address with a wide-range of what's being called "interpretation" initiatives. The thinking seems to be that encouraging visitors to interpret a work via their own experience is the best way to keep them from getting bored while in the museum (and keep them coming back). ARTNews' summer issue has a well-considered article on these interpretation efforts at America's museums. Here's a small section, but please do read the entire thing:

As art museums have become destinations for more socially and culturally diverse audiences, they have been working hard not only to attract visitors but also to keep them engaged once they are inside. They have come to realize that visitors who feel bored, overwhelmed, confused, or stupid are unlikely to return. "Interpretation should be the biggest priority," says Sara Bodinson, director of interpretation and research at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Using both staff members and outside experts, these institutions are running focus groups and observing people strolling through the galleries. They have clocked how much time viewers spend in front of an object and how much time they spend reading a label, and noted whether they look back at an object after reading about it.

They know how many words visitors can tolerate in object labels (about 50), room labels (no more than 150), or longer introductory texts (300 is the maximum). They know that most visitors spend ten seconds in front of an object—seven to read the label, three to examine the thing itself. They know that for most people museum fatigue sets in after about 45 minutes. And they have learned that the issues and questions on the minds of visitors are often the most basic:

  • I don't know where to start.
  • I don't know what to look at first.
  • Have I looked at this long enough?
  • What does circa mean?
  • Your labels make me feel stupid.
  • How did the artist make this?
  • Why would a museum put this on display?
  • Is this really art?

"We cannot make assumptions today about what people know," says Geri Thomas, founder of the art consulting and staffing firm Thomas & Associates.

I'll cut to the chase in my response to this trend : catering to the public's insecurities is the work of Madison Avenue, not America's museums. Further, I'm personally not convinced by the arguments that seem to be hiding behind the "service" side of a museum's mission when it feels that increased attendance for its own sake (any paying body through the door, regardless of the impact of experience for everyone) is the driving force behind such changes.

In fact, the first sentence I quoted above bears repeating:
As art museums have become destinations for more socially and culturally diverse audiences, they have been working hard not only to attract visitors but also to keep them engaged once they are inside.
I read that to mean the museums have been successful in getting more socially and culturally diverse audiences in the door, but not in providing a rewarding experience for them once they paid to get in. The implication in that seems to be that although you can lure them in once, unless you can convince them they received value for their entrance fee, they won't return.

That in and of itself is fine. (And I'm not in the camp of people worried about curators "dumbing down" things for viewers...helping people, whatever their background, understand the work is one of museum curators' prime responsibilities.) What I think the new "entertain them", er, I mean..."engage them" initiatives (with their tactics of holding visitors hands to ensure they get more from the artwork they're viewing) entirely miss, however, is that it may not be possible to understand or "get" a work of art in the first or second or even the 67th viewing. It may require someone multiple viewings to understand a work of art. Therefore, museums may actually be providing a disservice by suggesting to visitors that they now "understand" a particular work because the museum went to such great lengths to rush some personal connection for them.

In other words, leaving a museum scratching your head is actually an OK experience, in my opinion. Rather than these silly (and in my opinion condescending) efforts (such as "spectacular high-tech projection[s]" or "fictional narrative[s] about a housemaid displayed in a storybook") in the interest of speeding up the understanding process (i.e., things that distract you from having to form your own opinions), museums should IMO contextualize the art viewing experience so that visitors feel OK about not getting the work right away. It doesn't make you "dumb" if you don't get it. It means you can still look forward to having that epiphany one day in which you connect the dots and that artwork screams back through your memory into your consciousness and exhilarates you like nothing else you've ever felt.

That, to me, is an experience worth paying for.

Labels: art museums


Anonymous Gam said...

You are right Ed that Art (and museums and galleries) dance a precarious balance of getting you to trust it enough to amaze you. Sometimes stumbling and simply confounding us and now it seems, simply coddling us. It's an exquisite dance to learn.

Some of the museums Walt Disney style pre-marketing testing of content effort seems to fall into that coddling - manicured lives syndrome. Yet this is really a sign of the times.

From over at is the idea that "we should all follow strangers on Twitter. We naturally lead manicured lives, so that our favorite blogs and writers and friends all look and think and sound a lot like us. "

art is a seduction, propaganda is a take or leave it proposition.

8/09/2010 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Kristine Campbell said...

I had someone say to me the other day that it must be wonderful to do abstract art because it can never be wrong. My head wanted to explode.
What I heard as the subtext was, painting a recognizable subject, because of the technical skill involved, would always be more difficult and therefore valued.
How to begin to explain??

8/09/2010 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

How to begin to explain??

...but isn't that the quandary?

Should we explain? If we unravel the punchline, haven't we taken away the experience of "getting" it? The humor in a joke couldn't exist then.

Maybe art is similar, maybe it really is but a koan.

8/09/2010 01:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Tippycal said...

Sorry, but your essay appears to be more than 300 words. I take offense that you think I have the time to read so many words of your choosing. Well, I choose not to read them, so poo on you.

8/10/2010 12:22:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

"anywhere I go that doesn't reinforce my sense of self-satisfaction is obviously being run by people I cannot trust, so I won't go there."

If people really thought that way, most of them would never show up at their jobs.

8/10/2010 02:43:00 AM  
Blogger Charles Kessler said...

This is the result of what Lewis Hyde ("The Gift") referred to as the "triumph of the market economy." Museums now think of visitors as customers that they need to please. The same thing is happening with churches. The Times had an op ed a few days ago complaining of just this: "Congregations Gone Wild," By G. JEFFREY MacDONALD, August 7, 2010
"... churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people."

8/10/2010 05:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If America's children received a quality art education (nothing fancy, just thorough), then I doubt America's museums would feel compelled to go these lengths. People are insecure for a reason. The gulf, for many, between what the eyes gaze upon and what visual information can be absorbed to develop an opinion worthy of the viewer's intellect is huge. It's not like being handed a contract to sign that you can't read, but with no foundation, what is supposed to be an enlightening and enjoyable experience can instead be a painful reminder of what you're lacking.

It seems as though the museums are saying the equivalent of, "Hey, even though you're 35 years old and never learned to eat with a fork or expand your horizon beyond tater tots, that's OK, sit at the table and enjoy a five course gourmet meal. We value your opinion.


8/10/2010 11:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Serena said...

Another great and thought provoking post!

In my opinion, the feeling of being too "dumb" in a museum might require looking more deeply at the legacy of museums. The museum has historically been venerated as a site of high intellectualism, elite social status, and exclusivity. The first museum admissions were put into place to maintain this.

Though museums now have educational departments, this feeling of non-belonging is a problem that persists. They are intimidating for me and my fellow art history classmates because of their magnitude, and the wealth of information it seems to suggest, which is beyond the comprehensibility of any individual. There is no easy fix to this problem.

I agree that confusion is an appropriate and even healthy attitude. A rewarding experience is one in which I can leave the gallery thinking, "Geez, I didn't realize art could behave like that. That's a lot to process." Perhaps there is a way to encourage curiosity rather intimidation in the museum space, but it remains to be seen.

Thank you again for a great post. I also write about museums and art theory, and I always look forward to reading your blog.

Best regards.

8/12/2010 11:54:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home