broadsideblog

What’s A Museum For?

In antiques, art, behavior, business, culture, education, entertainment, History, parenting on August 26, 2010 at 1:35 pm
NEW YORK - MARCH 13:  A woman looks over print...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Interesting piece in The Wall Street Journal:

Not so long ago, directors were proud to say museums were “cathedrals of culture,” collecting, displaying and preserving the best art. Today, that’s regarded by some as elitism, and it’s not enough. Reacting to demographic and social trends, they are bending the art-museum concept to reach new audiences and remain relevant. “We live in a more global, multicultural society that cares about diversity and inclusivity,” Ms. Feldman says. “We’re thinking about how we increase our service to the community.” …

There’s no shining line separating the generations, of course. Some directors have been preaching the “populist” gospel for years, often translating that into exhibitions about guitars, hip-hop or “Star Wars” paraphernalia and live music nights with cocktails, DJs and dancing.

Current thinking goes much deeper. Many young directors see museums as modern-day “town squares,” social places where members of the community may gather, drawn by art, perhaps, for conversation or music or whatever. They believe that future museum-goers won’t be satisfied by simply looking at art, but rather prefer to participate in it or interact with it. “The Artist Is Present” show by Marina Abramovic at the Museum of Modern Art—silent, one-on-one encounters between volunteers and the artist, which viewers hung around to watch—is a recent, popular example.

New technology and social media, from blogs to Facebook to YouTube, are helping to drive the trend. “We’re on the cusp of a huge change in the way technology will change the visitor experience and how people learn about art,” Ms. Feldman says. Adding to the pressure are changes in the art world, which is growing more global and more interdisciplinary, and in education, which skimps on the arts and is forcing museums to provide more context.

I recently visited the Metropolitan Museum, my goal to marvel at Big Bambu, a rambling, growing, insanely unlikely structure made of bamboo poles atop its stolid, sober, gray roof. It was a golden summer afternoon and the place was a mob scene: kids, tourists, hipsters, investment banker boys in their $3,000 suits. There was a giddiness to it all that was lovely, and unlikely, and engaging. This was art you could touch and stroke and walk on and peer through, the towers of Manhattan like some distant Oz captured between fronds and poles.

Then I wandered the museum, visiting my favorite object, a Hungarian shield from the 15th. century, covered with carnations. I admired Greek funerary statues and some cloisonnes and, when I got lost, was told to “turn left at the table” — a stunning pietra dure splendor in itself.

I don’t think museums are just for amusement or titillation. I think they are, and should remain, a place to slow down. To stand very still and contemplate — without the desperate need to interact or touch or listen to a noise — what extraordinary things man has created for milennia. In the Greek galleries, I saw, and coveted deeply, a pair of gold earrings, a pair of doves each ridden, with reins in their beaks, by a cherub. Want them!

I was very fortunate in growing up in a home where my father was a painter and artist in his own right, as well as an avid collector of all sorts of objects, from Japanese masks to Eskimo sculpture and prints to lithographs and engravings. I took for granted that my life, somehow, would always (as it has) include great visual beauty.

When I visit a museum or gallery, I feel deeply refreshed. Beauty feeds my soul. I need to remember, we all do, that every culture, in every century — whether working in clay or gold or gouache or plastic — has made objects worth contemplation.

How many young students now feel the joy of making lovely things with their own hands? How many will ever go on to appreciate that others, too, have created and continue to make, things well worth an hour or two or three of our time?

A recent study of museum-goers found that, on average, most people were spending barely a minute in front of any one piece.

Kids now spend seven hours a day engaged with technology, things that buzz and beep and tell them they are extremely cool and connected. It’s a closed, comforting repeating tape loop of narcissistic fantasy.

How, if at all, to bring them — to bring anyone — into a place of quiet beauty?

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  1. I love the small-town museums. The hole-in-the wall’s of history that some local preservation group has fought tooth and nail to open. Our local PO has a small space dedicated to the history of the Redlands Postal Service. Last summer my wife and I spent a day at the Huntington Museum, Library, and Gardens. This place was built by a robber baron with a passion for collecting. Similar to the Met in New York, a day does not cover much at the Huntington. My daughter and husband took my ten year old grandson to the “Mummies” exhibition at the Natural History Museum in LA a few weeks ago. Digesting the histories of several dozen extremely old dead people, lying in front of you behind glass, can ignite an imagination. Tom Medlicott

  2. I hope to get to RI this fall and on the way to the Whaling Museum in New Bedford. One of my favorite possessions, one of the first antiques I ever bought, is a small, wood, square seaman’s chest, with the name Lewis Proctor on it. I have wondered ever since who he was and where he, and it, went.

    I can only do a few hours, at most, in any museum because I absorb so much and come away — like you — spinning with ideas.

  3. This summer I finally was able to get to the Museum of Visionary Art in Baltimore, Maryland. It was definitely worthwhile.

    A number of years ago I was in a group exhibition with a photographer who had begun to move into video work who had read a similar study about the length of time people actually spend in front of a work of art. He said that knowing that affected the work he did. I suspect the length of time has always been shorter than we’d like to think.

  4. I wonder why people spend so little time with art. Is it because they can’t see anything in it? What does this (if anything) have to do with a lack of art education when young?

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