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Not Hating or Loving, but Empowering With Museums

August 26, 2013
Parque Litico

Parque Litico, Museo Arqueológico de Ancash, Huaraz, Peru

James Durston, the senior editor for travel at CNN recently wrote the op-ed Why I Hate Museums.  The piece generated a polarized reaction similar to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s 2011 trashing of Anthropology and Spike TV’s American Digger.  In a minority, are the reasoned responses that recognize Mr. Durston’s thoughts do not come out of thin air.  There is a basis for his concerns. When Durston’s fictive or real docents command “No photos” and “No food” I am reminded of my granddaughter’s loud admonishment by a guard at a Memphis art museum that a 10-year old cannot stand by herself in a gallery but must have an adult within a few feet – not for her protection but for the protection of the art.   As a blue-collar kid who first visited an art museum during my freshman year of high school, I tried to put myself in my granddaughter’s shoes on this formative lesson for her about how museums work.

Durston’s op-ed also sparked some fantastic discussions.  Dana Allen-Griel’s Engaging Museum post is an excellent example.  In responding to Durston’s critique on uninteresting and uninformative labels, she concludes “For those who simply want to view and reflect, you’ve already got “Vase: Iran; circa 15th century.” For everyone else, let’s work TOGETHER to make museums a little more “wow.”

Another good reference point for discussing Mr. Durston’s op-ed is from John Cotton Dana’s nearly 100-year-old publication The New Museum.  Dana writes:

Museum purposes and methods change daily, as do all other community enterprises in these days.  Therefore, do not try to develop a museum after a plan. Learn what aid the community needs: fit the museum to those needs. (p. 38)

Below, I discuss implementing Allen-Griel’s “wow” factor and Dana’s community needs that often are a simple and low or no cost addition that address Mr. Durston’s concerns.

I am curious what Mr. Durston might think of one of my favorite museums – The Pearl Button Museum in Muscatine, Iowa.  I first blogged about the Museum a couple of years ago and last year posted an interview with the Museum Director.  In Mr. Durston’s op-ed he asked “Where’s the relevance?”  The Pearl Button Museum is the very essence of relevance for Muscatine, Iowa.  If you want to understand Muscatine’s past, present, and future, you will not find a better place.  The Museum is a participatory institution, not because you can rack pearl buttons as was done 100 years ago or leave messages on the memory board.  The Museum is participatory because the entire community’s collective memory and experience compose the very fiber of the institution.

From Muscatine, you can drive about 100 miles up river to Dubuque, Iowa and visit the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.  Here I suspect Durston’s comment holds that “Kids do seem to have a good time when pushing buttons, pulling levers and magnetizing soap bubbles (right up until they stop having a great time and turn into wailing bundles of hair and tears only a little more bored than the parents).”  I have been to this Museum once and doubt I will return.  The new section is squeaky clean with an aquarium and educational water playland for children.  I watched kids totally transfixed by the four-foot-long albino catfish.  But what I remember most about the visit were the large and presumably expensive digital touch tables that were all out-of-order.  The old section of the museum was, well the old section with lots of unconnected stuff without a coherent story.  I don’t recollect any docents or guides – just lots of families seeming to have a good time.

The next time I am driving down the Great River Road, I will stop in Muscatine, but will probably by-pass the Dubuque Museum.  I suspect lots of other folks will do the reverse.  That does not make either museum good or bad – just different.  This difference means that not all museums are equal and by design they will attract different visitors.

I thought about this difference several years ago in another setting.  A graduate student in my Native People’s class was to create a banner exhibit on prehistoric plant use in our newly established hands-on archaeology lab at the C.H. Nash Museum.  The student proposal was a 2 x 6 ft banner exhibit that contained a few images, hundreds of words in an 18 pt. font, with the bottom six inches composed of bibliographic references in a 14 pt. font.  The archaeology lab is geared to a 6th grade level.  The proposed banner layout was not going to work.  However, the student compiled very useful information, some of which would interest to  perhaps 2% of our visitors.  This incident allowed us to begin thinking about our exhibits differently.  We considered how a single concept like prehistoric plant use might be presented in multiple formats to different interest levels throughout the museum.  We took the original concept and created a revised banner of about 100 words along with images and other interactive materials for the archaeology lab.  We created a separate banner in our main hall that contained an abbreviated version of the original without the bibliography.  We planned for the bibliographic references to be accessible through a QR code or web link.  Finally, we planned to include information from the original panel into audio tour stations along our nature trail that includes many of the plant species discussed in the exhibit.  The audio tour can be drilled down at each stop for more information.  Might Mr. Durston consider such an approach as accommodating those wanting only the most basic label  information and visitors seeking considerably more relevant detail?

A final example that addresses a concern expressed by Mr. Durston is from my recent visit to the Museo Arqueológico de Ancash in Huaraz, Peru.  The Museum’s outdoor Parque Litico contains a large collection of Recuay Monoliths from Chavin de Huantar.  I toured the Museum with Peruvian archaeologist and PIARA Co-Director Elizabeth Cruzado  Carranza.  We discussed the representations in the Recuay Monoliths, but noted the museum had little interpretive information or labels about the pieces.  Although the outdoor setting contained benches to relax and view the stone carvings, I, and I suspect Mr. Durston, would find the exhibit lacking in contextual information.  At the same time, Elizabeth and I acknowledged the aesthetics of keeping the garden uncluttered of signage.  During our visit, we quickly hit on several solutions ranging from a single page handout with basic information on each monolith, a small multi-page guide, QR code links to a web page, or a smart phone audio tour.  All of the solutions can be cost-effective products created by interns or students.

In summary, Mr. Durston’s op-ed piece should not be dismissed as the grumblings of a curmudgeon museum hater.  In my experience, I have voiced many of the same issues as expressed in Durston’s op-ed piece.  However, I find at least two differences in Mr. Durston and my approach.  First, I accept that I will not enjoy all museums.  There is not one correct way to exhibit works of art, historic documents, or other cultural materials.  I appreciate that there are stuffy traditional mausoleum-like institutions and then there is my favorite art museum, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.  I appreciate that someone else might write “there are all of these experimental art centers, and then there is my favorite art museum, the tried, true, and traditional Met.”  Second, as a museum director and professor in museum studies, I have the opportunity to explore and educate students who are the next generation of museum professionals on the “wow” advocated by Dana Allen-Griel and the community needs raised by John Cotton Dana.

For these reasons, I do not necessarily love museums, but I do see the potential of museums as essential educational and empowerment tools in the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage.

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