Category Archives: Design process

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part Two

Curation, stuff, people, meanings. Fear of change vs fear of irrelevance. Framing debates and the need for new frames. That was Part One of this series in a nutshell. Getting through it without answering snark with more snark was more of a challenge than I expected, so what had been one really long post with a happy ending got split into two posts. For background framing of the curation/participation issue, go back and read it. It features a picture from I Can Haz Cheezeburger, so it’s worth it.

In this post, I’d like to look more at examples of work people are doing that take on issues around curation, and maybe serve as exemplars. I’ll start with some provocative thoughts that are a wonderful antidote to the pearl-clutching tone of some of the other recent articles, then we’ll finally explore two of the smallest museums that I referenced at the beginning of Part One.

Let your voice be heard!

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

Lolly Hopkins cheers on the Braves with megaphone.
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image from Boston Public Library

In response to my first post, Seb Chan from Cooper Hewitt offered another possible way forward: clearer voice, than the standard 20th century disembodied “institutional voice” that is still prevalent in the field. I’m just going to repost big chunks of it because it’s that good:

“My view is increasingly that museums need opinions, and that means that more than ever their exhibitions benefit from being opinionated. Sometimes the opinion that needs to be stated is that of those voices least frequently heard in museums (some – but not all – participatory exhibit projects might fall into this category) and well served by ‘community sourcing’, but other times it’s a need to have an upfront, loud, curatorial voice.”

I think this perceived lack of voice often afflicts participatory projects, which is why they get characterized as messy and chaotic. The Memory Jars project at the Museum of Art and History at Santa Cruz or Object Stories at Portland Art Museum I think ar egood examples of projects where visitors’ voices come through loud and clear, which may be why I like them. The perceived lack of loud curatorial voices reminded me of Max Anderson’s 2011 “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” which included this gem, “One solution is for art historians and curators to devote more pages and column inches to explaining why art matters and why it should move us, and to be less patronizing about the relevance of our discipline just because the public does not see the point.” Amen, brother!

And lest you start feeling smug, I think that admonition applies to us all, not just art historians. If your audience doesn’t get what you’re doing, is it the audience’s fault, or your museum’s?

Interpreting the language of objects
This communication problem ties into the curation/participation dynamic. Often, the adherents of traditional practice take a dim view of interpretation of any stripe. They want straight curatorial wisdom and nothing else. “Let the objects speak for themselves” is a refrain I’ve heard more than once. And I think it’s all well and good, if your audience is an already-informed one, like say art critics, and fellow museum professionals. If the audience includes people who don’t already speak that language (be it art, or science, or history, or whatever), then not so well. Seb, in his comment,  continued,

“The big caveat being that that voice needs to be able to heard and understood by a significant proportion of the visitors to be valuable (cue “more interpretation”, “better exhibition design”, “exhibition design as coherent argument”, “audience research” etc). Curation has to be more than just ‘choosing’. When its done well, it is, and obviously so. Too often what is celebrated by those against more participatory activities in museums are opaque exhibitions with curatorial arguments obfuscated with a thick dose of International Art English.”

I agree completely. Curation as a form of sense-making requires strong interpretation. Regan Forrest published a great, short post on the language of objects [http://reganforrest.com/2014/10/the-language-of-objects/] that picked apart this question of interpretation that’s worth reading. She notes that ,

“the ‘objects are mute’ vs ‘objects speak for themselves’ debate may be missing an important nuance: perhaps objects do speak, at least some of the time, although we as visitors may not necessarily be conversant in the language any given object speaks. And if not, the object is as good as mute to us.”

I like the model of the “language of objects” being spoken with a strong voice, and interpreted for an audience who may not be fluent in that language. Unfortunately, interpretation often gets a bad reputation as “pandering”. I wrote about this almost exactly a year ago and the world hasn’t progressed far since then.  Regan Forrest and I bounced the idea back and forth across a couple of blog posts, in which she asked the question,  When does interpretation cross the line from mediation – providing a hook or a link between audiences and content – into interference: “over-interpretation”, where it’s simply getting in the way of a meaningful experience? Does this line shift depending on the audience? On the subject matter? Whether its science or its art?” Striking that balance is hard. Which made me wonder about other interesting models people are pursuing that come at curation in interesting ways.

Here are two examples that were at my famers market last weekend. One thing that unites the two is that both try to take the museum experience outside of the museum and meet visitors where they already are, and invert the model of the visit. Another is their clear, definitely opinionated curatorial stance.

The Mµseum

The Mµseum opened in 2010 in Union Square, not far from my house. Billed as the world’s smallest museum, it occupies a niche in a wall between a sub shop and a restaurant in a busy pedestrian square. Judith Krausner and Steve Pomeroy wanted a way to showcase the works of regional artists in an intimate setting that was also free of the constraints of getting into a gallery or museum space. Why not make a space where people already were, and bring the museum experience to them? Thus was born the Mµseum.

Go to their website and you’ll see their program, though truly tiny in scale, has all the hallmarks of a traditional museum endeavor, and boasts a very clear voice. Their statement about “accessibility” reads, We want art to be something that is approachable to everyone. By bringing art right up to the viewer, in an unstaffed, pressure-free environment (a place you’d be anyway, just walking down the street!), we hope to make art both physically and psychologically approachable.” They want people walking down the street to stop and see some art made by artists working in the area. Somerville, MA apparently has the largest number of working artists per capita of any municipality in the United States, so there’s no shortage of materials.

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers' Market in Somerville, MA

The MMoAA parked the the Union Square Farmers’ Market in Somerville, MA

The Mobile Museum of American Artifacts is the brainchild of Laurelin Kruse, a California-based artist and arts educator. After a brief stint at the Calder Foundation, she became fascinated by the way a single person’s life could become the focus of so many people’s work; collecting, cataloguing, conserving every little scrap, no matter how quotidian. What about the artiacts of ordinany Americans, the countless stories and lives that surround us? Who was going to find, collect *their* objects and stories? Thus was MMoAA born, and it’s curator.

After finding a suitable gallery space (a converted 1968 Cardinal camper), and kickstarting its retrofitting, Kruse set out from California, stopping along the way for brief periods of time, setting up shop, and soliciting objects and stories. By the time we met in Somerville, she’d already been across the country once, and was preparing to lay up for the winter before setting out west again.   The Museum, big enough to hold three or four adults comfortably, can be visited in a few minutes, more if you use the video booth. Though she’s collected quite a bit, the exhibition is well laid out; not too many objects, labels that tell a complete story quickly. They hint at the lives that intersected with them, and some are quite powerful; a bundle of love letters from the 1910s, found in the attic of a house, bits of soap made by a woman with her long-dead grandmother during yearly summer visits, now long past. A knife given by a junkie to the bus driver who drove him to rehab. These little narratives

The MMoAA, like the Mµseum, the Museum of Broken Relationships, and others, I think reflects the current increase in interest in curation as a democratizing force and a counter-narrative to the perceived aloofness of museums as institutions. They all say “This happened! It was important to the people involved!”, the same impulse as Kennicott’s “struggle against oblivion”.

What are other examples you’ve come across that are innovative models of modern curation?

 

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse, Part One

This past Saturday, my lovely and talented wife and I made our weekly trek to the local farmers’ market in Union Square, Somerville. It is, I think, the best market in the Boston area, and draws not just local farmers, but all kinds of craftspeople. You never know who you’re going to meet there. And this weekend I met a mobile museum and it’s curator. Union Square already boasts one museum, so it was even nicer to have two museums for a day. And talking with the curator about her project brought together a number of ideas that had been battling in my head since the latest wave of “How to properly visit art museums” articles crashed over us. I talked about them here and here.

So what I’d like to do is beg your indulgence while I touch on some of the recent articles about museums’  use/abuse of participation in traditional curatorial preserves, unpack their premise of curation and participation as dialectically related principles, problematize that concept a bit, and then in the next post look at two recent examples of museums that embody (some might say appropriate) the best ideals of curation in ways that don’t look like traditional museums.

Oh, and in case you missed it, both museums were located at my famers’ market. Two! How’s that for awesome?!

Curation – Fad and Fact

Curator Anne Pontégnie at Kelley Walker's exhibition (Wiels contemporary art center, Brussels, B). CC BY-SA 3.0 image fr Wikimedia Commons by Marcwathieu

Curator Anne Pontégnie at Kelley Walker exhibition in Brussels
CC BY-SA 3.0 image fr Wikimedia Commons by Marcwathieu

The sudden rise in prominence of the term “curation” over the past few years has been both amazing and distressing to many in the museum field. What was once the arcane domain of a privileged few is now open to seemingly everyone, especially on the Internet. And that raises some interesting existential questions about that core museum activity. What does curation mean in the 21st century, who gets to do it, and why is it OK/not OK?

The word “curator” (and its back formation “to curate”) comes from the Latin verb curare “to take care of” which points at curators’ original roles as the persons primarily responsible for the collections under their care. As museums have institutionalized and professionalized, large parts of those tasks have moved to specialists. We now have registrars, conservators, handlers, security staff, and more who all “take care of” museum objects. What’s left to curators? Acquistion, research, exhibition and more. If I had to characterize the essence of present-day curation, it would be “sense-making”. Curators assemble collections and contextualize them to tell us something important. In a world so full of information and inputs, making sense of it, ordering it, and deciding what is important to focus on and what isn’t, are valuable skills to cultivate. So, I’d think that teaching visitors the importance of that skill, and giving them practice in doing it would seem to be a clear winner among the opinion renderers and arbiters. Not so…

“Outsourcing” the curatorial impulse

Outsourcing  CC BY-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user icanhascheezburger

Outsourcing
CC BY-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user icanhascheezburger

“Not an art expert? Not a problem. Museums are increasingly outsourcing the curation of their exhibits to the public—sometimes even asking the crowd to contribute art, too. The institutions produce quick and often inexpensive shows that boost ticket sales. As crowdsourcing initiatives go mainstream, the roles of the museum and the artist are getting rethought. It’s no longer only the highly trained professionals who decide what belongs on the gallery wall, but the audience, too.”

Thus begins Ellen Gamerman’s Wall Street Journal piece called “Everybody’s an Art Curator” which provoked me enormously, as we’ll get into below, but also really put into sharp relief the mindset of people who are upset by different (read, non-mid-20th-century) models of how museums might engage in creating the things they exhibit to visitors. And Gamerman’s paragraph hit the nail right on the head in the way it uses the term “outsourcing” when it’s really talking about “crowdsourcing”.  And that idea, the idea that letting visitors engage in that part of curatorial process is the same as not having any curatorial involvement is, I think, at the heart of many of the complaints lodged against participatory projects. Outsourced=getting somebody else to do it for you, and also carries all those icky financial perjoratives of trying to not pay somebody skilled when you can pay somebody else who’s willing to do it for less. In everyday English, I can’t think of a context in which outsourcing is used in anything other than pejorative way.

Everybody’s an Art Curator?
Well, no. But everybody could learn about curation.

My problems with Gamerman’s article are many, but they break down into a few large clumps. There’s this false tension between scholarship and popularity/financial gain, a ton of generational baiting, and lastly, some fascinating observations about the museum industry today.

Scholarship versus popularity

Left: "EL Sukenik 1951" by Department of Archaeology, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem CC BY 3.0 image via Wikimedia Commons  Right: Doll popularity contest CC BY 2.0 image via Flickr user West Vancouver Archives

Left: “EL Sukenik 1951″ by Department of Archaeology, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem
CC BY 3.0 image via Wikimedia Commons
Right: Doll popularity contest
CC BY 2.0 image via Flickr user West Vancouver Archives

One of the most damaging insinuations of the piece is that visitor involvement equals curtorial absence. In discussing the MFA’s recent “Boston Loves Impressionism” exhibition, where the museum’s curators handpicked a pool of Impressionist works for the public to look at and choose their favorites, Gamerman chooses to frame the process in terms of the MFA deciding it was “acceptable” because of this curatorial involvement. Not that it was a good idea, and an opportunity to raise public awareness of how the museum does its work. Just “acceptable”, like a vegetable offered to a balky child.

To support this, she asks Helen Molesworth, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles whether this was an acceptable idea. “You’re left with 10 paintings that may or may not make sense together, or may or may not be interesting together, or may or may not teach anything about the history of art—it’s not the stuff of knowledge or scholarship,” This of course assumes that the curator at the MFA did a terrible job of choosing the 50 works selected (from which 30 were selected) and that nobody at the MFA did anything other than hang those works wihout any attempt to provide context. I think there is a valid concern about how *much* scholarship goes into exhibitions deemed to be blockbusters, but Molesworth’s position strains credulity.

Former MAH curator Susan Leask quit because “she grew discouraged after the director asked for more ‘spontaneous exhibitions’ rather than shows that took deeper thought and up to a year to develop”. The kinds of shows director Nina Simon wanted more of included an exhibition on collecting “an event so popular she hopes to repeat it” but rather than discuss the merits of the concept, Gamerman informs us that it “featured contributions from residents that included an array of historic American flags and an assortment of dryer lint.” Get it? Curators=scholarship+thought. Participation=dryer lint+popularity.

This is by no means an isolated view. This notion that *any* audience involvement means complete loss of curatorial control is supposed to be widespread. According to Molesworth, “When museum crowdsourcing is raised privately among curators, she said, the subject prompts a reaction of ‘silent dismay.'” And there’s a big problem – the silence of the curators.

The silence of the curators

Silence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Alberto Ortiz

Silence
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Alberto Ortiz

If you’ve read any of the opinion pieces that have come out in the past few years about the state of museums and their attempts to stay relevant, you often find traditionalists pitted against progressive practitioners. On the traditionalist side you find commentators, usually outside of the field but allied to it – art critics, journalists and the like – sneering at projects that upset traditional practice. And on the other side, you will usually hear museum directors, and other staff with weird job titles with words like “engagement” “audience” and “digital” in them.

Where are the curatorial voices in this? All too often, they are silent, or only talking amongst themselves. Molesworth and Leask, two curators interviewed in Gamerman’s piece are such exceptions, that Judith Dobrzynski goes so far as to call them “brave” in a recent Real Clear Arts blogpost for standing up to the juggernaut of political correctness.  Projects like Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One is a clear outlier, where they mobilized staff from across the institution to conceive, develop and interpret an ambitious attempt to interact with their audience in new ways, and then act as spokespeople for the project and museum. Would that were more of them.

If you have any good examples of curators out in public engaging with these issues, I’d love to hear about them.

Let’s be clear, though. Molesworth’s and the silent curators’ dismay is not entirely unfounded. I think if you were to look at a large sample of museum projects with participatory elements, you’d find plenty that had poorly thought out and articulated goals and dubious educational value. Which is something that the field as a whole could stand to look at closely. If the debate about the value of participatory projects is to be answered, it has to be answered with evidence that these projects achieve institutional goals as well as, if not better than, traditonally produced projects. And that evidnece is hard to come by, in my experience, in anything other than really coarse measures like attendance, and anecdotal reports of “engagement”.

Send me studies, if you know of them.

A little ageism, anyone?

Get Off My Lawn by Deviantart user Karkan

Get Off My Lawn
by Deviantart user Karkan

I have to say I was particularly dismayed that the author chose to introduce Nina Simon as, “a 33-year-old former engineer with corkscrew hair, a treehouse tattoo that matches her husband’s and a 14-month-old daughter named Rocket” when no other person in the article was treated to the same kind of physical scrutiny. The implication seems to be that her age, and non-mainstream appearance means she’s “not one of the club”. It is worth noting, that the only time age gets mentioned by Ms Gamerman is in the discussion of MAH. Simon is 33. Her new curator is 32. An artist who clashed with Simon is 55, and Susan Leask, the former curator who quit rather than work on Hack the Museum is 66 and “has worked as a curator for 25 years”. Why aren’t we treated to descriptions of anyone else’s hair? Nina’s hair is indeed very, very curly, but it’s a needless bit of snark more at home in a Buzzfeed or Jezebel article than the WSJ, and does nothing to advance the argument of the piece.

Oh yeah, and the illustration shows a chaotic, messy gallery full of people not silently communing with individual works of art. It’s a salon style hang, too. Many of the people look young, too.

I know that has nothing to do with the author and is a job assigned to a graphic designer by the paper’s editors after the article written. I had some back and forth with Dobrzynski about an earlier Times op-ed she’d written, with a similar kind of illustration. Her defense was that she had nothing to do with the image and it didn’t represent her writing. That may well be, but I also know that if people closest to the story and the author figure that it’s an accurate representation of the piece and publish it, then it’s fair game.

What does it say about us?
Probably the biggest takeaway a novice museumgoer might glean from the article is that there’s this conflict going on in museums between curators and people interested in art and learning on one side, and young popularists, interested in…something… on the other side. The dominant narrative is that proponents of participatory projects are only interested in getting bodies in the door.  The existential threat of declining participation in cultural organizations like museums is real and many institutions struggle. A director might be forgiven if she prioritized keeping the place open over scholarship, but the implication is clear that the pendulum has swung too far towards visitors in too many museums, such that curators are rendered speechless and impotent to change it. The less charitable frame the whole thing as a scam or a sham put over on gullible publics by heartless administrators who only want to cash in and don’t give a hoot about any of the rigor or scholarship that has defined art museums in the 20th century.  They seem to be the most active unfortunately.

In Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post piece, among other gems that he offered the museum going readership was the exhortation not to “waste your time with educators who indulge the time-wasting sham of endless questions about what you are feeling and thinking.” This was merely one of the “deceptive promises made by our stewards of culture”.

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight and blogger Lee @culturegrrl Rosenbaum recently tweeted at each other about  the “scam” that participation really is.

I’ll leave it to your imaginations to guess what Judith Dobrzynski thinks of this.

For me, the biggest takeaway from this (aside from disbelief that educated, career museumgoers could have so little understanding of how museums actually function) is that the field has done a lousy job of making the case for or against participatory projects as educationally valid experiences. The proponents of involving visitors need to be driving the conversation past talk of popularity, and “engagement” and the alleged cohort of silently dismayed curators (and others) who view this as a betrayal need to press hard for evidence that these projects deliver.

And maybe I need to read fewer op-eds…

If I’m missing important work that’s being done, do let me know. This stuff deserves some real discussion.

I’ll try to wrap it up tomorrow. This was getting too long for a single blogpost, so stay tuned for a more upbeat look at curation out in the wild.

Responses to Kennicott’s “How to view art”

Responses to Kennicott’s “How to view art: “Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much”

As you could tell from my last post, I had a strong negative reaction to Philip Kennicott’s Washington Post article. The incredible pretentiousness of the piece had the predictable effect of spawning responses that are much more amusing takes on the topic, both with their own nuggets of truth in them. And taken in the aggregate, I think there are some important areas of agreement, if you can get through the bile and the snark. So, onwards!

Five Rules for (Kinda) Viewing Art
by Jillian Steinhauer, Hyperallergic

Steinhauer was the first to respond to Kennicott, and her take on his five points often veers into parody, extolling the virtues of plotting your Instagram strategy and quota for a museum visit, and remembering to tweet your lunch. Rather than rebut, or mock, she adopts a millenials version of Kennicott’s agenda for doing a museum visit the right way.Her five to-dos are an interesting comparison to Kennicott’s. They are:

1. Take Time

2. Bring a Friend

3. Go with an Open Mind

4. Don’t Worry Much about Remembering Things

5. Seek Out Art that Fits Your World View

*********************************

How to View Art: However You Want to
By Jen Oleniczak, Huffington Post

Oleniczak, a museum educator, instructor and member of Museum Hack, takes a more welcoming tone, suitable for somebody who tries to engage museum visitors wherever they are in their knowledge of museums and art. Her five how-tos include:

1. Take the time you have

2. Seek your space

3. Just do you

4. Remember in your own way

5. Ignore everything I said

*********************************

The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum
Stephanie Rosenbloom, The New York Times

“There is no right way to experience a museum, of course.”

Rosenbloom never references Kennicott’s piece, and given it’s heft, was probably under construction for some time. However it came about, though, the timing of it is too perfect. Instead of proclaiming, Rosenbloom uses cases studies of the effects of looking slowly at art and its effect on viewers’ sense of well-being. It’s chockablock with good quotes on the impact of a museum visit on people’s health, too. Slow Art Day gets a mention, too. Trying to distill it down to the “top five” format of the others, here’s what I came up with.

1. Don’t try to do everything.

2. Seek out works that dovetail with your interests.

3. Research the museum’s collection online in advance of your visit.

4. Make your own soundtrack at home and take headphones to the museum.

5. Ask yourself “What are the things that, if I do not see them, will leave me feeling as if I didn’t have a New York (or any other city) experience?”

“Sometimes you get more for the price of admission by opting to see less.”

My Top Five

So, what else can I offer that hasn’t already been said? To test that out, I came up with my own Top Five list.

1. Don’t try to do it all.
Bite off less than you think you can manage in the allotted time and see even less if you can.

2. Document what you like
Write it down, imitate it, photograph it, buy the book of it

3. Respond to the art.
Love it, hate it, whatever. Art exists to provoke a response in us. The worst thing you can do an artwork is to feel nothing.

4. Make a connection between the art and your life if you can.
One way you help replenish the aura around art is to find a connection between it and yourself.

5. Come out more informed than you entered.
Nobody ever got a PhD from going to a museum, but you can know more than when you went in.

Slow down!

What can we take from these lists? Well, the big one, of course, is the exhortation to slow down, see fewer objects, and see those objects more closely.

Looking at the Southern Cross

 Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865), Gloucester, Mass.,  Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851.  Oil on canvas, 25¼ x 38 inches.  Gift of Stephen Wheatland (1987, M18639). Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865), Gloucester, Mass., 
Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor, 1851. 
Oil on canvas, 25¼ x 38 inches. 
Gift of Stephen Wheatland (1987, M18639).
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

One of the great delights of working at the Peabody Essex Museum is getting to walk through the galleries and establish a long-term relationship with the objets on display. One of my personal favorites is a painting by the American marine painter Fitz Henry Lane. “Ship Southern Cross in Boston Harbor” depicts a ship slowly making her way out of Boston Harbor on a calm day. I’ve long been a fan of Lane’s and I would always give this painting my time when I first started at the museum. And It seemed to give up new details to me every time I studied it. I used to look just at the ship itself, admiring the care with which the rigging was delineated. Lane was a man who knew his ships.

It wasn’t long til I realized that between the foremast and mainmast I could see the silhouette of the Massachusetts State House in the background, perfectly framed by the rigging. That led to several sessions of looking at the shore, trying to locate the location of the ship, something that would likely have been obvious to mariners of Lane’s day, who were used to looking at Boston from a distance. Later on I noticed the two men rowing in the foreground, hunched in their boat, and that led to mediations on costume. My current fixation is the depiction of the wind, as evidenced by the sails and flags flying on the ships. It’s a light breeze. And so on. My appreciation for the work doesn’t diminish from repeated viewings. Instead, the painting keeps giving me new things to see. Sound familiar? Yup, Kennicott and I (and Steinhauer, Oleniczak, and Rosenbloom, as well as all those educators Kennicott loathes who ask visitors to look at art and say what they see) are in agreement on the importance of looking and slowing down.

Mr. Scudder, the Fish, and Dr. Agassiz

Fish, Wet Specimens lll by Flickr user Curious Expeditions CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Fish, Wet Specimens lll
by Flickr user Curious Expeditions
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

This emphasis on looking closely reminded me of one of my favorite iOS apps, Fish: A Tap Essay by Robin Sloan. The app is really a meditation on mindfulness, or “the difference between liking something on the Internet and loving something on the Internet.” You should just go download it and try it now. Come back when you’re done, OK? It’s worth it.

Sloan’s text is based on a famous story of the great 19th century naturalist Louis Agassiz, and a student of his. The student has come to Agassiz’s lab to learn what the great man has to teach. Agassiz comes and greets the newbie, takes a fish out of a jar of alcohol, places it in a tin tray and tells the student to look at the fish and tell him what he sees. Agasissz leaves, and the student looks. Time passes, the student looks more and more until he’s certain he’s seen everything. Agassiz comes back much later and asks him what he’s seen. The student dutifully rattles off what he’s observed, which fails to impress the scientist. “Look at your fish!” he says and leaves.

The more the student looks, the more he finds; new details, new characteristics that change his understanding of the fish. In the version of the story I know, ( Scudder, Samuel H. [April 4, 1874]. “Look at Your Fish”. Every Saturday 16: 369–370) the student is Samuel H. Scudder, later a famous entomologist and paleontologist in his own right, and Scudder’s encounter with the fish lasts three whole days before Agassiz is satisfied that he’s “seen” the fish. There’s a beautifully sombre painting of Scudder in the Museum of Science’s collection, almost entirely black, with Scudder, dressed in black. Up in the corner, the artist has painted a butterfly, Scudder’s first love as a naturalist, and the only blotch of color in an otherwise monochrome work. And what is Scudder doing? Looking down at whatever he’s studying. According to Scudder, learning to look was the biggest gift Agassiz gave him.

And to bring this back to looking at art, the story comes around full-circle as the anecdote with which Ezra Pound opens the ABC of Reading, his 1934 work of literary criticism. Pound’s trying to get readers to slow down and really look at the words on the page.

If there’s one thing all the parties seem to agree on, it’s this.

Pay attention!

Look again!

What do you see?

Look some more!

How To View Critics Telling You How to View Art in a Museum

The blind fingerless art critic by Flickr user Shareheads CC-BY 2.0

The blind fingerless art critic
by Flickr user Shareheads
CC-BY 2.0

I have a confession to make: art critics baffle me. Especially when they venture to make grand pronouncements about the right way to go about experiencing art in museums. So when I saw the title of Philip Kennicott’s piece in the Washington Post, titled “How to view art: Be dead serious about it, but don’t expect too much” I will confess that I died a little bit inside. “Sigh. Another ‘you people are doing it all wrong’ piece.” Just what the world needs, another art critic holding forth on the sad state of museums and museumgoing. But, though there is plenty of sneering, there’s also a lot worthy of discussion. And debate. Kennicott’s post didn’t stand alone too long before Jillian Steinhauer posted a reply at Hyperallergic, and Jen Olencziak a rebuttal at Huffington Post. So, let’s take a dive in and see if we can sift some jewels from the bile, shall we?

Kennicott’s piece benefits most from his long experience at looking at art in museums. When he talks about specific techniques and strategies he’s learned that work for him, he’s golden. All too often, though, he falls prey to the critic’s kryptonite; thinking that because he can come up with a plausible explanation based on purely on anecdotal experience and write it cleverly, it must be both true and universal. So, here are some reactions to his five tips on how to view art in a museum.

1. Take time

Untitled by Flickr user Byron Barrett CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Untitled
by Flickr user Byron Barrett
CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

“The biggest challenge when visiting an art museum is to disengage from our distracted selves.”

Getting visitors to focus on the present is a goal I’m totally in support of, though I’d rephrase Kennicott’s phrasing. I’m prone to these kinds of negative formulations, and it’s been a lifetime’s work to embrace positive ones. It may seem like splitting semantic hairs, but I think it’s important. Rather than disengaging from a negative (busyness and distraction), I’d rather encourage engagement with the here and now as the goal. It’s a lot easier to be against something than to be for something, but being for something is in the end more worthwhile.

<snark>My inner cynic also thinks that being an art critic, Kennicott might be allergic to the word “engagement”, since it’s code for some for “everything I hate that our ‘stewards of culture’ do with audiences that doesn’t encourage silent, solitary, reverential contemplation.”</ snark>

“We are addicted to devices that remind us of the presence of time, cellphones and watches among them, but cameras too, because the camera has become a crutch to memory, and memory is our only defense against the loss of time.”

Here he’s conflating two very different problems; devices demanding attention, and cameras being crutches for remembering, and therefore bad. The device bit I agree with. By all means turn off your phone, or put it on vibrate. Unless you don’t want to. <snark>Or if you’re using it to look at Wikipedia to find information the museum doesn’t tell you, which Kennicott will encourage you to do in the next section. </snark> The camera/crutch formulation deserves a bit more examination. The “ technology is eroding our ability to use our minds” is an old trope. And I mean old, like 4th century BCE old. At least. According to Plato, Socrates warned against the written word as a shallow substitute for discourse:

“this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Plato, Phaedrus 276a

Sound familiar? You can draw a line from Kennicott back to Socrates and find versions of this concern expressed for any number of technologies that were certain to ruin humanity’s ability to function.

Photographing the Rosetta Stone by Flickr user Snapshooter46 CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Photographing the Rosetta Stone
by Flickr user Snapshooter46
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

He goes on to say,

“The raging debate today about whether to allow the taking of pictures inside the museum usually hinges on whether the act of photographing is intrusive or disruptive to other visitors; more important, the act is fundamentally disruptive to the photographer’s experience of art, which is always fleeting.”

So, anything that isn’t looking at the art is “fundamentally disruptive”, according to Kennicott. Is it? Readers might recall an article published in Psychological Science earlier this year called “Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour” which was used by many to support the idea that photography was bad for the photographer’s recall. Linda Henkel’s experiment generated a lot of breathless press and finger wagging when it was announced that participants who were instructed to photograph an object and then asked to recall it the next day fared worse than visitors who were instructed to look at the object and recall it.

Buried in there were two important notes that went largely unreported. One was that visitors who photographed specific details of an object had better recall than visitors who just looked. The other was Henkel’s admission that the way the experiment was constructed had an important difference from the way people actually take photographs in museums. Henkel’s subjects were told which object to photograph, not to pick an object they liked. In other words, they were extrinsically motivated, not intrinsically motivated, which is a fundamental aspect of free choice learning. I’m pretty confident there aren’t many visitors running around taking pictures of things they don’t like in museums. This difference in motivation is fundamental.

Another, “your mileage may vary” sort of issue is that of mission. If a museum’s mission is exclusively to showcase the artistic production of others, then anything that gets in the way of that appreciation could legitimately be considered an impediment. But more and more museums have taken of the additional challenge of encouraging visitors to express (and hopefully increase) their own creativity. In this kind of museum, visitor photography can be an expression of that creative impulse to be encouraged and nurtured. There’s an interesting discussion for museum directors and boards to have. Are you trying to help your visitors become more informed connoisseurs, or give them more experience of the creative process? Is it one or the other? Are the two modalities in a dialectical relationship, or can you encourage both?

Kennicott buries one zinger I particularly resonated with at the very end of this section; the negative impact of admission fees. He calls them “pernicious” because “They make visitors mentally ‘meter’ the experience, straining to get the most out of it, and thus re-inscribe it in the workaday world where time is money, and money is everything.” At moments like this, I appreciate his command of the language. And I agree completely. I’m sure most of us have seen the hurrying tourists, desperately trying to see all the highlights listed in the guide, so that they can get their “money’s worth” out of their trip. Not something we as museum professionals want to encourage, is it?

So, by all means take time, and use that time to be present in the moment, in that space. This is actually good advice for life in general, not museum going, but that’s another subject altogether.

2. Seek silence

Contemporary viewer! by Flickr user Jrm Llvr CC-BY 2.0

Contemporary viewer!
by Flickr user Jrm Llvr
CC-BY 2.0

 

“Always avoid noise, because noise isn’t just distracting, it makes us hate other people.”

One reason I have difficulty with a lot of criticism is that I wind up feeling like I know more about the critic than I ever wanted to, because so much criticism wraps personal quirks in the garb of universal truths. Noise can be annoying, sometimes. As a neuroscientist pointed out to me yesterday, the way we experience visual inputs and auditory inputs is very different. If you see something you don’t want to see, you can avert your gaze, or close your eyes. Humans have no similar way to filter out auditory inputs. Even blocking your ears is only minimally effective (and makes you look kinda silly), so a valid criticism of museums could be how poorly they design the experience for sound control. This is all, of course, assuming we’re talking only about visual arts.

Big, echoey spaces with hard walls and floors look sweet, but they make even small levels of noise problematic. We’re on the verge of opening a major video installation PEM commissioned. The amount of work we’ve done modifying acoustically “bright” galleries work for an installation that requires you to be able to hear spoken words is pretty major.

 “Too many museums have become exceptionally noisy, and in some cases that’s by design. When it comes to science and history museums, noise is often equated with visitor engagement, a sign that people are enjoying the experience.”

Where to begin with this one? I’m pretty confident that there are very few museum architects and experience designers who intentionally create noisy spaces. I would not be surprised if the number were in fact zero. An outcome of their decisions might be noisy spaces, but that’s different than intentionally doing it. This is another favorite tactic of critics, inferring intent where none exists. <snark> Maybe that’s another one of the deceptions (see #3 below) practiced on the public by museums. </snark> It’s sloppy thinking and writing.

I’ll also hazard a guess that the number of museum professionals who go into a space and say “It’s noisy, people must be engaged” is also quite small. Kennicott, like most critics, avoids mention of the real problem Nina Simon mentioned in this post on crowding. He laments the “vast and inevitably tumultuous throngs” that go to big museums to see famous art, but leaves it there.

art critics by Flickr user mesh CC-BY 2.0

art critics
by Flickr user mesh
CC-BY 2.0

“But any picture that attracts hordes of people has long since died, a victim of its own renown, its aura dissipated, its meaning lost in heaps of platitudes and cant. Say a prayer for its soul and move on.”

Umm… Yeah, OK. So art must be unpopular to some extent in order to retain its “aura”?

Nobody better tell the Louvre.

3. Study up

art critic by Flickr user NCinDC CC-BY-ND 2.0

art critic
by Flickr user NCinDC
CC-BY-ND 2.0

 

“One of the most deceptive promises made by our stewards of culture over the past half century is: You don’t need to know anything to enjoy art.”

A theme throughout this piece, and a lot of criticism posits an alternate reality where museums willfully and systemically deceive and injure the visiting public by “pandering” “surrendering” and “succumbing” to malignant forces in the larger culture. The reasons vary, though incompetence, and venality often appear as root causes. In their unbridled lust to get bodies through the doors, museums say and do anything to be popular. Like awkward teenagers, desperate to fit in and be liked, despite their unfashionableness, they make deceptive promises that ultimately do a profound disservice to the visiting public and to the art that museums allegedly steward for future generations. Note the plural. What we’re discussing here is but one of many deceptive promises. I have to wonder if Kennicott has ever shared any of his theories with a real live museum staff person.

“Our response to art is directly proportional to our knowledge of it.”

I agree with this statement, but in a way that I think undermines Kennicott’s central assertion. I have previously written at length about a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Read them here, here, and here, if you want more information. It’s a great place to visit if you’re at the bottom of the world. One of the conceit’s of the museum is that there are no printed labels. None. Zero. All the interpretation is carried in an iPod you are given when you enter. In the midst of a profoundly transformative visit where I was forced to look at the art, not the interpretation, I came across a smallish painting that looked like a poorly copied Picasso. I registered my dislike of the object and, on a whim, looked up it’s information only to find that it was in fact a Picasso. I had the realization that had there been a tiny tombstone label identifying the work as such, I would have unable to dislike that object as much because of the associations I already carry around about the canon of Western art. Just seeing

Picasso, Pablo
Spanish
1881-1973

would’ve colored my emotional response to the work in front of me, and Picasso’s stature in the canon would’ve influenced my feelings about that painting.

There is a place for showing, and a place for telling, and there can be an order in which they happen that allows visitors to have both the direct experience and the received wisdom, without either oppressing the other.

The pendulum, for decades lodged at one extreme, has swung towards the opposite pole, and I can understand Kennicott’s displeasure, but it’s the displeasure of the entitled, seeing others’ needs and comfort placed ahead of his own for a change.

“art is the opposite of popular entertainment, which becomes more insipid with greater familiarity.”

<snark> My sons will doubtless agree with this. Their appreciation of Pokemon never waned. No matter how many times they saw Jessie and James get flung into the sky, it was magic each time. Ditto for Thomas the Tank Engine. </snark>

“Even 10 minutes on Wikipedia can help orient you and fundamentally transform the experience.”

Sounds reasonable to me. I think Wikipedia offers a great challenge to museums. A visitor can access content about just about anything on a mobile device these days. The fact that so many do access content like Wikipedia in museums should tell experience designers something. Their content is either lacking, or not the information visitors are looking for. So, what to do? I can think of a number of strategies for addressing the problem, all of which would result in experiences that do not feature objects with tiny tombstone labels near (but not too near) them.

“If the guide spends all his or her time asking questions rather than explaining art and imparting knowledge, do not waste your time. These faux-Socratic dialogues are premised on the fallacy that all opinions about art are equally valid and that learning from authority is somehow oppressive.”

I get the feeling Kennicott’s not a fan of Visual Thinking Strategies, and that’s OK. Declaring them “faux-Socratic” and fallacies, is not. Unless he has evidence and research to back up the claim, it’s just another example of the “I came. I saw. I invented a narrative that suits my worldview.”

4. Engage memory

Art Strikes Back by Flickr user Sam Burns CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Art Strikes Back
by Flickr user Sam Burns
CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Unfortunately, unlike most things we study and debate, art is difficult to summarize and describe.”

Part of me would love to know what those easy to summarize and describe topics are. Most of my experience with experts in any field is that the more they know, the harder it is for them to summarize and describe what they do.

 

“Some museum educators, who know these things, will tell you this kind of detail doesn’t matter; they are lying. Always try to remember the name of and at least one work by an artist whom you didn’t know before walking into the museum.”

Back to the conspiracy theory and the museums actively disseminating falsehoods. Sigh… Actually, if the educators believe what they’re saying, they’re not lying. They’re expressing an opinion that conflicts with Kennicott’s. But in his mind, that is obviously the same thing.

5. Accept contradiction

We are all "YES/NO" (BY MORTEN TRAAVIK) by Flickr user Tjook CC-BY-ND 2.0

We are all “YES/NO” (BY MORTEN TRAAVIK)
by Flickr user Tjook
CC-BY-ND 2.0

“Art must have some utopian ambition, must seek to make the world better, must engage with injustice and misery; art has no other mission than to express visual ideas in its own self-sufficient language. As one art lover supposedly said to another: Monet, Manet, both are correct. “Susan Sontag once argued “against interpretation” and in favor of a more immediate, more sensual, more purely subjective response to art; but others argue, just as validly, that art is part of culture and embodies a wide range of cultural meanings and that our job is to ferret them out. Again, both are correct.”

Except he’s already made clear that agreeing with Sontag is both wrong and bad. Kennicott’s willing to give lip service to accepting the kind of contradiction, but nothing substantive.

And to tie it all in a nice neat bow, he ends with:

“Some practical advice: If you feel better about yourself when you leave a museum, you’re probably doing it all wrong.”

All those years of museum going on my part were wasted, apparently. Oh well…

Next up: A look at some of the responses to the Kennicott piece.

The bright side of visitor photography, now and later

After the handwringing in my last post, I thought I’d instead get aspirational, and look towards the bright side of life when it comes to museums, visitors and photography. If you still need/want more seflies, I’d suggest you look at the Wellcome Collection blog. Alli Burness does an excellent job of contextualizing selfies in a post called A to Z of the Human Condition: I is for Indivduality, that tries to shove some theoretical underpinnings beneath the mass of conflicting opinions. I already reflagged it, but if you missed it, go back and read. For those interested in more reasoned approaches to looking at the act of visitor photography, I’d recommend you read it, and check out the references, especially Goffman and Crossley. I’d add Susan Stewart to the mix as well.

So to get off the seflie kick, I thought I’d highlight other kinds of visitor photography present and potential, and look at ways visitors could use cameras in museums that might generally be held to be valuable and further visitor learning. One is current, one is potential, and one is just an idea I’ve been kicking around. I’d love to know what you think of them.

#emptymet, or the museum as canvas and subject

Photo by Instagram user @jimmy_chin

Photo by Instagram user @jimmy_chin

If you are at all interested in museums and social media then you’ve probably witnessed Instagram’s phenomenal rise in popularity in the past couple of years. Instagram has in the last year passed that inflection point from niche platform to juggernaut, and the number of museums getting on and getting active on Instagram bears witness to that. Seeing what kinds of pictures visitors are taking in your museum and being able to engage them via Instagram is a great social media opportunity. Lots of museums have also used the platform as a way to share images from their collections as a way to raise awareness and build an audience.

All well and good, but the model is still pretty old-school and broadcast. A different engagement strategy, and one, like #svegliamuseo, which originated outside of museums is the phenomenon that encourages visitors to use the museum itself as the canvas for their creative expression.

The Ellen selfie in progess, via Mashable

The Ellen selfie in progess, via Mashable

Simple social photo sharing is increasingly popular with many age groups and is overtaking text-based sharing in popularity, as evidenced by the dawn of the Age of the Selfie. We know people love to take pictures in museums, and that causes problems in big museums with big attendance. Dave Krugman, a New York Instragrammer (@davekrugman) had another idea. Why not encourage good photographers to take great pictures and share them via Instagram? Thus was born #emptymet.

Krugman convinced the Metropolitan Museum of Art to reach out to prominent Instagrammers (influencers in social media speak) and invite them to come and shoot at the Met some time when the museum was empty, so they could have unfettered access to the galleries and objects. All the pictures they took of the museum would be hashtagged #emptymet. And so, one day this past Spring, seven IGers wandered around the Met for ninety minutes before opening, and a phenomenon was born. This article in the New York Times provides all the details you could want.

Dave Krugman at the Met, photo by Instagram user @danielkriger

Dave Krugman at the Met, photo by Instagram user @danielkriger

The images they posted to their legions of followers (think hundreds of thousands) spread the museum’s image far and wide in a way paid advertising could never do. Look at the pictures from #emptymet and you’ll immediately see that they’re not the usual mugging in front of the objects. They’re good, or great or absolutely gorgeous, professional-quality images of the institution taken from interesting perspectives. Even the selfies (which are rare) are well composed and appealing to look at. For the cost of letting in seven Instragrammers before opening, the Met got a thousand images seen by hundred of thousands of followers of these photographers. And those people got a clear message that the Met is a beautiful place full of interesting sights. Granted, it’s a privileged view that the general public by and large won’t be able to partake of, but it’s still a kind of access that museum visitors are always hungry for – the behind the curtain view.

The model is spreading rapidly. #emptymfa just happened in Boston, and #emptypem has been in the works for some time. Look for it in January.

Label Whisperer, or rethinking the tombstone

Visitor reading the artwork's label, Galeria degli Uffizi
Visitor reading the artwork’s label, Galeria degli Uffizi
CC BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Conxa Rodà

I realize that the Cooper Hewitt’s Pen is getting all the attention these days and probably will for the foreseeable future, but an example of the kind of groundbreaking thinking Cooper Hewitt Labs does is neatly embodied in a project they unveiled earlier in the year, called the Label Whisperer. They started from the premise that often visitors take pictures of labels to remember information about an object. What if they could transform that simple act into a way to query Cooper Hewitt’s collections management system and deliver all the information associated with that object? So they built a system that does just that. When I first read it, I smacked my head and said, “Wow!”, and went back and reread it to get through the technical bits. It is very technical, and also very worth reading even if you’re a non-technical sort, because of the breadth of vision it possesses.

A mockup of a Label Whisperer-friendly object ID

A mockup of a Label Whisperer-friendly object ID

What is it?

Simply put, the Label Whisperer, was a collection of software bits that they wrote and glued together to allow a visitor to take a picture of an object label and get back the collections record for that object. Click, submit, and read the result. From a web browser. Without downloading a QR code reader, or installing a .3 Gigabyte app. This is genius stuff that goes from encompassing physical label design, to deploying optical character recognition (OCR) on photos of labels looking for accession numbers, back-end magic to conjure up the object record associated with that number, and then delivering a web page with that accession number’s record. I like the way it starts from an observable visitor behavior, and then devises a way to both leverage that activity, and deepen it. It’s done fast, done with existing products where possible, and the results are made available on GitHub for others to build on. That’s how you innovate and bring the whole field along with you.

Not only is it a great example of systems thinking, but it also lays to rest one of my pet peeves, the amount of physical label space used on accession numbers, given the percentage of museum visitors who will ever care. With the Label Whisperer, the accession number actually gets to fulfill it’s purpose, for a public audience!

Be still my ex-registrar’s heart!

From snapshots to scaffolds

At the Documentation workshop I went to earlier this year, there was a ton of talk about ways to help parents and caregivers scaffold their children’s learning. Documentation is a pillar of the Reggio Emilia model of teaching, and something I’ve been interested in for years. But finding applications for Reggio-inspired approached to my daily work is sometimes hard to do, especially when designing for multigenerational audiences. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, if you want more.

A little bit on documentation

Documentation is a key element in the Reggio approach. It serves many purposes, most of all as a way to study how children learn. Documentation is about what children are doing and learning. The product of that documentation becomes the material for learner and teacher to discuss what the learner is learning and how. For the learner, it becomes a way to reflect on their learning and crystalize it, and for the teacher, it becomes a way to gauge how their  instruction is being received, so they tailor it to suit the learner’s needs. Documentation becomes the way that learning is demonstrated and discussed.

Now hold that thought in mind, and shift gears for a second to think about some common tropes about families in museums. Oftentimes, parents will take children to a museum ostensibly for the children’s benefit, not their own edification. They will also tend to document their family activities, particularly the exploits of their children, especially if they’re being cute. What if that activity were tweaked slightly to focus on the learning taking place? The cuteness would most likely remain, the memorialization of the event would still be present, but if the photographs were documents of a learning experience could we construct some kind of experience that parents and caregivers could use to situate those photos within that would facilitate discussion?Is this some kind of app, or a simple webpage with instructions about how to act more like a Reggio educator? I don’t know, but it *might* be possible.

And if you still need more:

How Not to Be a Jerk With Your Stupid Smartphone
Evan Selinger, The Atlantic

Selinger does a nice job of discussing the disconnect between etiquette and new technology. Given our still-analogue mindsets about photography, it might be time to revise our rules for visitor photography in museums.

Alone in the Virtual Museum
Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker

Schwartz takes a long tour through virtual interaction with museums and pokes lots of holes in old canards about technology and museums along the way.

Here’s What Happens When You Let the Internet Curate an Art Museum
Graeme McMillan, Wired

The answer is, “You get an exhibition with an audience that’s already interested in it.” The Frye Museum is on their third (yes, third) crowdsourced exhibition, and the place hasn’t imploded or turned into a free-for-all.

Are Works Of Art Relics? 
Alva Noë, NPR

Just to be contrarian, I’ll throw in this piece that proposes the thing we need to question is not photography, but the way we think of museum objects.  It’s based around work by art historian Alexander Nagel, but also drags in Blake Gopnik to problematize the traditional veneration of the object. Go nuts.

A to Z of the Human Condition: I is for Indivduality

Ed Rodley:

Inspired work. Thorough, well-reasoned and reasonable. Keep it up!

Originally posted on Wellcome Collection blog:

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. This week, Alli Burness takes a look at our collective reflection as she explores the (in)famous selfie.

Selfies receive a lot of bad press. For some, they’re the manifestation of a self-obsessed, narcissistic society. We’re impelled to step back from significant or sombre moments in our lives to share selfies online. These images taken in front of the Mona Lisa, at funerals or even at Auschwitz visualise uncaring, thoughtless moments. But I think there is more to selfies than meets the eye.

Today, the sharing of lived experience is part…

View original 817 more words

Selfie conscious

Vatican Museums, Rome
Vatican Museums, Rome
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user Fabian Mohr

Introduction
Visitors and their cameras. I thought I’d finished with this topic awhile ago. Visitor photography had been the third part of my Tilting at Windmills series, along with those other betes noir “immersion” and “participation”. I also wrote a follow up post of links on visitor photography for those really interested. The debate continues unabated, and as full of opinion masquerading as fact as it ever was. It’s grown to such epic proportions that MuseumsEtc is publishing a volume on museums and visitor photography. So, once more into the breach…

The National Gallery case

National Gallery, London.
National Gallery, London
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user staticantics

The ostensible cause of the latest outburst was the National Gallery in London’s decision to allow visitor photography in August.  One of the last “no photos!” bastions in Europe, the Gallery announced with no fanfare free Wi-Fi throughout the building, and tucked in with that announcement was a statement on their new photography policy.

Here’s what they said, as reported in the Telegraph:

“The introduction of free Wi-Fi throughout the public areas of the National Gallery is one of a number of steps we are taking to improve the welcome we provide.

“Wi-Fi enables our visitors to access additional information about the Collection and our exhibitions whilst actually here in the Gallery, and also to interact with us more via social media.

“As the use of Wi-Fi will significantly increase the use of tablets and mobile devices within the Gallery, it will become increasingly difficult for our Gallery Assistants to be able to distinguish between devices being used for engagement with the Collection, or those being used for photography.

“It is for that reason we have decided to change our policy on photography within the main collection galleries and allow it by members of the public for personal, non-commercial purposes -provided that they respect the wishes of visitors and do not hinder the pleasure of others by obstructing their views of the paintings. This is very much in line with policies in other UK museums and galleries.

“The use of flash and tripods will be prohibited, as will photography and filming in temporary exhibitions.

“Commercial photography remains subject to existing arrangements.”

Commence fireworks!

Showa Kinen Park Fireworks Festival ( Explore in Sep 6, 2014 )
Showa Kinen Park Fireworks Festival
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user yasa_

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of handwringing by journalists and bloggers who declared things like, “Camera phones at the National Gallery stoke fears that technology is leaving us incapable of deep engagement with anything”, and “Selfie-portrait of the artist: National Gallery surrenders to the internet”, and “Fears National Gallery will be ‘selfie central’ as photo ban is relaxed” And that’s just the mainstream media. You can imagine how the arts bloggers reacted. Eesh!

Within weeks, the chairman of the Arts Council, Sir Peter Bazalgette went on record supporting the idea of “selfie bans” for an hour a day, so people could get some relief from the hordes of picture snappers. And his was a fairly moderate opinion. The more absolutists were quite certain that doom was at hand.

Crowd Control 3
Crowd Control 3
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Son of Groucho

Sarah Crompton, writing in the Telegraph, describes the typical scene that those opposed to photography paint; the swarm of unheeding photographers, ignoring the real to capture the facsimile. Walter Benjamin’s warning made manifest. “A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it… In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art.” Crompton’s experience is similar,

“The last time I was in MOMA in New York, I fought my way up to the floor where all the masterpieces by Picasso, Matisse and the Abstract Expressionists hang – and then fought my way back out again. The space was full not just of viewers but of photographers; it was impossible to stop, think and look at a painting amid the jostling crowds.”

In the face of that kind of scrum, can any meaningful interaction occur? Apparently not. She concludes,

“By allowing photography, galleries are betraying all those who want to contemplate rather than glance. Surrounded by the snappers, they may come to think that this is the acceptable way to consume art, a kind of constant grazing without any real meal.

That’s not a means of making art more popular or accessible. It is the surest path to depriving it of all purpose and meaning.”

Judith Dobrzynski, in an uncharacteristically moderate tone, agrees that a ban is needed. One hour’s a bit too short for her liking, though…

Virtually no major outlet reported the National Gallery’s decision as a win for visitors, or a positive outcome in any sense. Even in the field, there was little mention made of it. And it’s easy to see why. Other people taking pictures, especially selfies, is easy to mock. Rather than explain this at all, you should just go look at Josh Gondelman’s piece in the New Yorker, “Works from the Los Angeles Museum of Photographic Self-Portraiture”. Pretty genius, huh? You’re welcome.

Two thoughts about the National Gallery

So, why so much vitriol, and what could the Gallery have done differently? For the first question, Nina Simon’s already addressed it, so I’ll focus on the second. But, first, Nina.

Deal with the real problem
Nina tackles the National Gallery issue in a post, entitled, “Blame the Crowd, Not the Camera: Challenges to a New Open Photo Policy at the National Gallery” which unpacks the whole thing so neatly and completely that I won’t waste many more electrons on it. In the same way that “immersion” and “participation” get used as straw men for deeper issues, “selfies” have become the stand in for the real issue at the major art museums where this problem is most often highlighted – overcrowding.

Crowded Mona Lisa
Crowded Mona Lisa
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Iris

Read any of the writers advocating photography bans, and you’ll find them all mentioning crowding as part of the experience that ruins it. I agree that photography exacerbates it and makes more apparent how unappealing crowding is, but I think that visitor photography gets the blame for a problem that’s much bigger and harder to tackle.  The experienced arts consumers may have given up on crowding as an unfixable problem, but I think it’s worth problematizing, rather than just taking it for granted. I dislike going to MoMA, or the Louvre, not because of the amateur photographers, but because they are like Tokyo subway cars, with art. How one deals with overcrowding is a totally different question than how one deals with cameras, and a solution to that bigger problem, I think, would probably resolve the smaller one. The responses to her post are as well worth reading as the post itself, so devote some time to it.

Don’t make a lemon out of lemonade
Looking over the whole affair, I think the National Gallery made a classic public relations blunder, and turned what was an unalloyed accomplishment to be proud of (introducing free Wi-Fi throughout the building) into a major media fiasco for one reason. They didn’t ever come out and say they wanted visitors to use their cameras. They essentially said “It’s too hard to monitor, so we’re not going to.” And that doesn’t reflect well on them, despite the obvious truth of it. And they reaped the whirlwind for it…

It *is* hard to tell what people are doing with their devices. Is that person taking a picture, or are they far-sighted and holding the phone at arm’s length so they can read their wretchedly small screen? Are they telling all their friends what a blast they’re having at the museum, or just searching for a new song to listen to because they’re bored? They all look pretty much the same, and anyone who thinks museums’ front line staff (who tend to be the least well-paid hourly workers) should make these kinds of fine judgements dozens or hundreds of times per shift all the while keeping an eye on the objects, fundamentally doesn’t get it.

Realistically, I think institutions have to clearly allow, or disallow visitors to use their devices, and whichever way they decide, they need to own that decision, and have it reflect the core values of the institution.

I’m totally down with the National Gallery’s decision to allow visitors to use their devices, because I think  providing free Wi-Fi was a good thing. Making it as easy as possible for visitors to access information about the museum and its scholarship should be a major priority for all museums. One way you do that is by knocking down as many barriers to access as you can. One of those barriers, particularly in art museums, is the amount of interpretation provided. I think my next Tumblr may have to be “Art museum visitors looking at Wikipedia because the label didn’t tell them anything they wanted to know.” The Gallery produces lots of information about their collection, and should be commended for making it easy for visitors to access it in a way that is visitor-driven. But in doing that, they should’ve come up with a reason to either encourage or discourage photography. Allowing it was a half measure, and putting that half measure in writing was a bad idea.

The Frick Example

Frick Dining Room HDR
Frick Dining Room HDR
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Gorbould

It needn’t be that way. The Frick Collection in New York, had long been a no go zone for photographers. Like the National Gallery, they quietly reversed their photo policy in April, and a month later, reinstated a photography ban, saying this to Hyperallergic,

“After a brief trial allowing photography throughout the permanent collection galleries, it has become apparent we need to limit use of cameras to the Garden Court. The Frick Collection is virtually unique and especially valued for its lack of protective barriers, vitrines, and stanchions around works of fine and decorative art, displayed in a domestic setting. This refinement of our photography policy has been determined necessary to maintain the safety of our exceptional collections.”

And the hue and cry about this flip flop? Non-existant. The Frick totally owns their photography ban. It’s essential to the experience of seeing the objects in such a unique, unmuseum-y setting. They get full marks for being experimental enough to try to revise their policy. It shows they’re paying attention to what the outside world is like. And their reversal shows that they’re paying attention to the visitor experience and are willing to change based on evidence.

Mind your manners, not the technology

This evolving relationship with visitor photography and whether it’s good or bad has a lot to do manners and perceived lack thereof. The museums mentioned above both put explicit suggestions in their photo policies. The Frick’s used to read in part, “When taking photographs, please be courteous to other museum visitors by not blocking their views of artworks or impeding their movement through the galleries.” The National Gallery’s asked visitors not hinder the pleasure of others with their photography. But as Jillian Steinhauer wrote in Hyperallergic, when the Frick’s photography ban was dropped, “Pleas like these haven’t yet proven very effective, but maybe as photography in museums becomes less and less of an anomaly, we can shift our energy to figuring out how to do it right.”

Part of this dilemma also has to do with how we’ve conditioned ourselves to treat photography, no doubt based on older, analogue models of the process, when walking in front of a photographer meant possibly ruining one of a finite number of exposures on a roll of film that cost real money to buy and develop. Regan Forrest pointed me at an interesting dissertation that examined the visitor dynamics of photography in museums.

“It is the reflex action of trying to remove one’s self from, or trying to avoid the space between photographer and object. People duck and scuttle away, walk in reverse, stop and lean backwards or make an obvious decision to adjust their previously chosen path to circumnavigate the photographer and his or her line of vision to the object being photographed. Noticeably, the same behaviour does not occur if the viewer is not holding a camera in the process of taking a photograph. The viewer standing back from an artwork merely looking at it, is not afforded the same extreme actions of diversion as when a camera is involved.  (Sager, J. F. (2008). The Contemporary Visual Art Audience: Space, Time and a Sideways Glance University of Western Sydney. pp174-175)

Our learned response to photographers is to give them wide berth, whether they ask for (or deserve) it. And we don’t seem to privilege looking at objects the same way. If you’ve had someone come stand directly in front of you to look at the object you’re looking at, you know the truth of this. And this where I think there’s really interesting room for engagement with our audiences.

Perhaps one of the best outcomes of all this angst will be some hard discussions around the visitor experience in museums and what factors contribute or detract from a good one. What should the current etiquette for museum-going be? What are the new rules of the road for having a rewarding experience engaging with our heritage? I’ll be looking at place like the Brooklyn Museum for inspiration.

Since this focused so much on the downsides of visitor photography, I’ll spend the next post looking at some positive examples of visitor photography in museums.