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