Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What is the Optimal Museum Viewing Experience? | Open Thread

Of course it depends on the type of work being exhibited, but Charlie Finch's recent response to news that the Metropolitan Museum of Art was launching a "Visitor Engagement" campaign got me to thinking. The New York Times describes "visitor engagement" as ": a social science aimed at trying to reach every patron, from the first-timer to the seasoned scholar. " Here's a snippet of Charlie's response:
Metropolitan Museum director Tom "Wet Dream" Campbell (so-called because he just announced in the New York Times that the Met's new show of guitars is "a teenager's wet dream") told the Times' Randy Kennedy that not only is the venerable museum about to become Wi-Fied, but that he is going to trap, fold and mutilate every poor soul who arrives with something called "Visitor Engagement."
You can read the rest of Charlie over on artnet, but here I wanted to open up a discussion about the basic concept of an art museum experience.

Through most of my life, walking through a museum was an experience of mostly silent awe and the occasional whispered veneration. Museums were like libraries. Even when the work itself celebrated fiery passion or depicted murder or rampage, the appropriate response was not (as permitted in a cinema) to loudly gasp or applaud or squeal. No, silence or hushed tones were the expected behavior.

Now I'm no more a fan of information overload in an art viewing context than Charlie is, but I do wonder if this "hall of sacred wonders" motif most museums have been built as isn't also a bit too far the other direction. Yes, we need space and context for serious scholarly study, and yes, I prefer to not have running and screaming around me while I'm trying to view most works of art (my fantasy would be to be locked in the Met by myself overnight), but I stop to think about the boisterous/interactive work certain artists are making today, and the notion of people silently observing it seems silly. Some contemporary art still asks for silent reflection, obviously, but not all of it....just like not everything at the Met can be truly understood in static silence. (I've always wanted to see those marvelous suits of armor activated, for example...how did people move in them or look moving in them?)

Personally, I think museums can experiment with new experience motifs, but they should do so in ways that don't obligate anyone to view the exhibitions in a way that's not right for them. Flexibility seems the answer. Consider this an open thread on what makes for the optimal museum viewing experience.

Labels: art museums, art viewing


Anonymous Terri said...

I'm a fan of people letting me view the art. Art museums are one of the few places (libraries also, and some hospital waiting rooms) where respect for your fellow visitors is still practiced -- at least to some degree.

Loud art can still be admired in silence -- I don't need to feel another person's angst at viewing one work while I am viewing a completely different one, and they don't need me barging in on their experience either. (Politeness is what stops the human race from killing each other.)

After just reading Charlie Finch's very brief article, he gives no actual information about the museum's approach to "visitor engagement", other than indicating that it might present historical data about the work. This practice has already been in effect in many art museums throughout the world for decades, so I don't see the issue?...

Maybe you have more information about it?

2/15/2011 02:19:00 PM  
Blogger Saskia said...

My kids sometimes run in the museum, but rarely scream-- giggle, maybe.... Woops, sorry about that (! !) but some parts of museums are just too tempting to run in. Mostly my kids are well behaved in museums, though...
I struggle with what makes the best museum experience, but I tend to agree that exhibits with an abundance of curatorial content tend to make me a little overwhelmed and I end up spending more time reading than looking at art-- and also, sometimes I feel like it puts too much focus on what the curator wants me to see in the art rather than what I discover in it.
But then, I have a lot of knowledge to draw on already, so I'm not sure if I am a good case study for an average museum visitor.
In college I worked on a few exhibits in which we made rather extensive 'learning centers' in an adjacent room to the exhibit that contained most of the curatorial content as well as interactive content and activities for the visitors, from kid to adult, to enhance their experience, and to display community outreach projects & have other community programs during the run of the exhibit. Though that was more gallery than museum, it worked out really well in the context, and allowed visitors to take as much or as little supplemental material as they wanted. It really engaged people, and I've rarely seen it's equal since. A year or two ago, I took my kids to a museum that had a very kid-friendly exhibit on view-- at the end there was even a kids drawing activity, but there was only an adult-sized standing height counter on which to draw, so kids were sprawled out all over the floor drawing, since their heads didn't even reach the bottom of the counter... um, a few small tables and chairs would have been logical, inexpensive, nice touch there...

2/15/2011 02:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

...y I rmbr whn the art was the engagement...

the museum kinda gives new credence to McLuhan's the media is the message.

actually I don't know what I think yet - need my java

2/16/2011 07:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Donald Fox said...

Two museum experiences came to mind while reading this post. One happened years ago in the NC State Museum of Art in Raleigh. A gallery had been set aside for blind patrons where the experience focused on tactile appreciation of the displayed works. A wooden hand rail led the patrons through the exhibit. Braille inscriptions on the inside of the rail described the pieces that were within easy arms reach. Sighted patrons were offered blindfolds to facilitate a tactile experience. What a wonderful interactive exhibition.
The second situation ocurred in the Hermitage in the late 80's. A friend and I did a silly dance in front of Matisse's mural size Dance II. Immediately the matronly guard ran over to us yelling, "Nyet! Nyet!" Our brief pas de doux became a brief pas de trois of absurd proportions.

2/17/2011 11:34:00 AM  
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3/03/2011 02:22:00 PM  

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