First there’s lights out, then there’s lock up
Masterpieces serving maximum sentences
It’s their own fault for being timeless
There’s a price you pay and a consequence
All the galleries, the museums
Here’s your ticket, welcome to the tombs
They’re just public mausoleums
The living dead fill every room
But the most special are the most lonely
God, I pity the violins
In glass coffins they keep coughing
They’ve forgotten, forgotten how to sing
-Regina Spector All the Rowboats
I am not an angry person. I pride myself on keeping a level head in the face of aggressive drivers and stubbed toes; but upon seeing James Durston’s op-ed entitled “Why I Hate Museums,” I just about lost it. “Who was he to insult all major cultural institutions?!” I thought (originally with a few more expletives). I could hear my fellow art nerds fuming as well. Yet as I read on, I noticed that Durston does make some valid points.
The author cites the inherent snobbery of museums, along with pointless exhibits in which “the connection to humankind falls short.” Shows that feature objects of historical significance which lack the excitement and interest that is offered up by more playful children’s museums leave the Durston to wonder, “where’s your joy gone, museums?”
I confess that museums can be snobby, and walking through multiple rooms of antique vases and spoons may be less exciting than the bubble machine at a science museum, but in light of our technological environment and new curatorial decisions, we have to take a step back and re-examine what museums are really like.
The type of museum experience Durston attacks is a traditional one. The conventional museum experience of wandering big rooms filled with stuff was established centuries ago and was practiced among activities like taking long strolls or embroidering napkins for your dowry. Let’s say for argument’s sake that there are no traditionalists; no old souls that enjoy long-established pursuits or get a rush from seeing a 15th century dish or sculpture (aka, those who still believe in the aura of art). For the average Joe who is continually bombarded with technology and has adapted to the art of multitasking that our rapidly paced society now demands, a slow stroll among static things is just not enough.
Luckily, major museums have picked up on this fact and have begun to adjust their shows accordingly. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York in particular each have recently put out shows that go above and beyond the average exhibit
1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art – Punk: Chaos to Couture
Over the past few years the MET’s summer costume exhibit has gained the reputation of being somewhat of a spectacle, and this year was no exception. Curator Andrew Bolton created a gritty and glamorous experience by transforming the multiple showrooms with music, lights, videos, and even a replica of the CBGB bathroom. The sensory overload helped bring the clothes to life and drive home the theme of the marriage of punk rock and high fashion.
2. The Whitney – Robert Irwin: Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1977)
Robert Irwin’s Scrim Veil, which was exhibited over 35 years ago at the Whitney, was reinstalled this summer. The massive minimal work breaks up the room in multiple ways and plays with the natural light from the window, meaning that it is constantly changing as one moves through the space. Visitors will find themselves Ducking under the screen, venturing to the corners of the room, or making shadows by the window. The show also has a separate room filled with drawings and documents from the original exhibit that can be accessed on multiple iPads, along with a painting game to help you create your own minimalist work.
3. The MoMA – Applied Design
Just a few months ago, MoMA opened their Applied Design exhibit, which, among other cool objects, features a number of classic video games. Visitors can play the games, which are installed into the walls. This access allows for people to truly experience how the games are designed and how they interact with users.
As you can see, museums are working hard to change up their style in order to push the envelope and attract new visitors like Durston who are no longer satisfied with the classic “stand-and-look” approach. While some of these shows have been criticized for pandering to a more commercial “uncouth” audience, one could rationalize that the purpose for these exhibits is to act as attention and monetary boosters for the more traditional collections that us old-school art nerds love so much. If you have a problem with that well, suck it up, because that’s the nature of the beast. As beautiful as history is, all museums need money to keep going.
Which brings us to Durston’s final point: a mockery of museum gift shops. Here, I have to agree with him. Personally, I find most of the stuff there pretty kitschy and unnecessary. As much as museums may need our love (ie money), do we really need more Van Gogh-themed sticky note pads?
What kind of muesum-goer are you? Do you like more traditional shows, or out-there exhibits? Or should we just do away with museums altogether and watch some TV instead? Let me know what you think!