Tag Archives: Nina Simon

On (not) writing

Epictetus pondering writing. PD image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
George Orwell, “Why I Write”

 My previous post had a long and tortured gestation period. Though the events in it occurred in early December, it took me two months to actually commit them to paper and then ASCII.  After an initial burst of enthusiasm, where words and images poured out into several incoherent piles, I lost my momentum. It was unfocused, meandering, self-serving, and close enough to my work that “Will publishing this be a career limiting move?” became a real concern. It was easier to just sit on it and stew. Luckily, a friend reminded me of a couple important things about writing that I often forget.

The greater Boston area has also been subjected to more snow than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime – 100 inches/250cm – and snow is still possible until April. In a one month period, my wife Jennifer and our sons missed six days of school due to snow. At the end of this enforced togetherness, we decided it would be a good idea to escape for the weekend. Luckily, we had made plans to visit our friend Anne in New York. We spent a couple of very refreshing days out of our routine. And we talked a lot about writing.

My wife teaches high school English, and Anne teaches English and writing at Fordham. She is also the editor of the new annotated version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, part of The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Virginia Woolf. We talked about reading books, writing books, thinking about writing, teaching writing, and the silliness inherent in the process of getting writing turned into publications.

“You have to write to write. Right?”
Once you’ve written something that’s been published, it seems that people feel compelled to tell you that they, too, have aspirations to write. There’s an idea for a play, a partial manuscript of a novel, or pieces of what will become a memoir, just as soon as… And there it usually ends; before the actual writing is finished. Anne was talking about a person whose unfinished memoir was a regular topic of conversation. We chuckled over how easy it is to forget that talking about it was no substitute for doing it. Then she said, “You have to write to write. Right?” And those words lodged in my brain and banged around inside my head for days. Thinking about it, worrying about it, planning it, don’t help if you don’t actually sit down and do it.

I often get asked how I manage to write and work and the answer usually never satisfies the asker. I’ve written about this here and here and here, and Anne’s answer is still true. You have to write to write. Nina Simon wrote a moving piece at the end of last year about her struggles with how blogging not only never seems to get easier, but that the discourse that her writing generates seems to be declining over time. Fewer comments, less learning for her. And therein lies an important dynamic. Personally, I think if you’re writing for anybody other than yourself, it’ll be a hard, ultimately unsatisying slog. Mia Ridge once said to me “Writing makes me do my thinking properly.” and I have found that to be true so many times over that it’s hard now to even contemplate not writing as part of my practice. I am certainly not immune to the endorphic kick of watching blog stats and getting the gift of an unexpected gem of a comment. But they are icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Writing is a reflective practice. I learn as much in the writing process as I do in the research.

“It’ll practically write itself!”
The other quote is unfortunately mine, and came up when Anne brought up an idea for New Yorker article exploring a famous children’s book’s connection with Modernist writing. It was such a tight, hard idea, I could see the outlines of the piece just listening to her describe her research. And that’s when I said one of those things one should never say to a writer, “It’ll practically write itself!” I burbled. Unfortunately, it never does write itself, does it? It remains unformed until the writer writes it.

She was a good sport about it, naturally, but I was struck by just how enervating that phrase sounds. What was meant to be an affirmation, a “That’s a brilliant idea! It’ll be great!”, instead sounded like a negation of the sweat she was going to have to pour into the work. I had this immediate flashback to working on my Master’s thesis and hearing my advisor time and again tell me, “It’s only a Master’s thesis” whenever I was at a place where it seemed like more work was necessary to flesh out an idea or argument. He meant it as encouragement to finish the work and not let the topic get away from me. But when you’re writing the hardest thing you’ve ever attempted, having someone tell you “That’s not so hard.” doesn’t make the work any easier. Writing is hard work, but that’s no reason to avoid it.

All in all, it was a great trip! Good friends, good food, and good to escape for a bit. Even if it was -25 in Manhattan. Once we were all back in the work/school routine, I kept remembering these two quotes. I’d look at my mess of Art Basel notes, my #museumsresppondtoferguson notes, pictures, and all the other raw materials I habitually gather, and thought “Well, it’s not going to write itself! You have to write to write. Right?” And out it came. I wrote and wrote, and edited and edited. Ideas coalesced, some died. In the end, it’s reads pretty well. It feels true to my experience, and it (hopefully) doesn’t say anything I didn’t want to say.

And so it goes.

2015 thoughts and plans

January, full of hope and the potential of another new year! I’ve spent a lovely holiday season relaxing with my family and friends and clearing out my head. Now, once more into the breach! I promised myself I’d take a look at my blogging practice and see what role it should play in my life in 2015. Seems I wasn’t alone. Seb Chan did a nice “What I did in 2014 while I wasn’t blogging” that is impressive to say the least. That boy works! And I look forward to hearing more about every item on his list. A more common theme was introspection, mingled with worry. Regan Forrest, one of my favorite Aussie museum bloggers wrote a reflection that’ll sound familiar to anyone who’s ever blogged. And, despite the worry, followed it up with her first post of 2015, doubling down on her committment to blogging. Go, Regan! And even Nina Simon, the hardest working woman in museum blogging, wasn’t immune to the feeling that it not only doesn’t get easier, but in fact gets harder the longer you’re at it. The whole post and comment thread are great, so read it. These three posts helped me to crystallize some the ideas/plans/dreams I have swirling around in my head for 2015. Being more mindful and deliberate about my blogging, in terms of topic, cadence, and substance. Four posts a month for twelve months and better editorial oversight and planning are coming. Being more proactive about following up with conversations that are happening elsewhere. It takes time. And effort. Waiting for the “You have X new comments” email from WordPress was a lot easier. And delivered that lab rat/food pellet reward much more effectively. Giving my attention to the side projects that have nourished me as much as my primary job. CODE|WORDS will soon see it’s eighth essay published, and Musetrain, an old experiment that Bruce Wyman, Seb and I started in 2012 has reawoken. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes. So, onwards into 2015! See you there!

“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.

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.

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.

Childhood as a state of mind, not an age

What a Summer it has been! And how little blogging has happened. Nina Simon has said to me several times that, for her, regular blogging has been a great boon and a huge albatross around her neck. Keeping to a regular schedule is both a terrible mistress and a vital time for reflection. Without that prompt, it’s all too easy to spend no time reflecting at all. And when you fall off the blog wagon, it’s hard to get back on. So, up we go…

Gavin, talking about our Maker Lounge.

Gavin, talking about our Maker Lounge.

Earlier this Summer, my colleague Gavin Andrews and I attended a workshop on the Documentation Studio at Wheelock College—a project/venue that spun out of Harvard’s Making Learning Visible work around using Reggio Emilia-inspired documentation (a variety of media) to support learning and collaboration among educators in schools and informal settings. The goal was to look at Reggio-inspired educational practices, particularly documentation, and see how they might be applied beyond the traditional Reggio target audience of preliterate (0-5) learners.

I’ve long been interested in the Reggio Emilia model. There’s something that rings very true to me about the value of learners documenting their own learning as a way of demonstrating and crystalling that learning. My lovely and talented wife worked for many years with the folks at Project Zero at Harvard to test Reggio-inspired methods at the high school level, and in the projects she and her students undertook I could see parallels to what we were trying to do with museum audiences.

Another interesting reflection of Reggio ideas in museum thinking can be seen in Lori Phillips’ construction of open authority, particularly in the spectrum of open authority, where museums and their audiences co-create participatory interpretations. Rather than having us doing all the creating and them doing the learning, we do it together and both do both. I like the sound of that!
In addition to being the most superbly-facilitated professional development event I’ve ever experienced, it was *full* of brain food. Some of the notes from my notebook give a flavor of the event:

“Documentation is not a practice so much as a mindset – Documentation ≠ what happened. It’s your point of view of what happened.”

“Documentation is more about communication than expression.”

“How could visitors leave their own document/descripiton of their process, plus a protocol for documentation? Can it extend beyond their visit? How can they take it home/school?”

“What is the role of  the curator in this kind of interaction space?”

“How do you make documentation help w collaborative practice beyond the visit?”

Heady, tough stuff… At the end of a very fruitful half day of dicsussion and sharing with school teachers and museum educators who work with children, I asked the question I’d been aching to ask all day, “How does all this apply when your audience is not just children, but everyone?” Of course, there was no easy answer, but as I thought more about it, it occured to me that I defined childhod in my mind as a temporary state, and one that, once passed, was inaccessible thereafter. You either were a child or were not, and therefore things geared for children were somehow distinct from things designed for the rest of us. Something about this bugged me, since I knew that everyone in the room had once been a child. And it spawned a question in my mind.

What if you looked at childhood as a state of mind? 

One thing that separates adults from children is that children have a hard time imagining what it must be like to be an adult, whereas adults can remember what it was like when they were children. Childhood is, to some extent, available to us all. I’m sure all us former children can recall bits of what it was like when the world was newer and more mysterious, and we constantly encountered new things. So, my question to you, dear friends and colleagues is this: Could we as designers of learning experiences figure out ways to bring that state of being to the forefront and turn all our audience into children-learners? What might that look like? Any examples of people doing it already?

Telling Stories about Storytelling @ AAM 2014

One of the highlights of my AAM 2014 experience (and the source of the most dread), was the storytelling panel that Seattle-based exhibit planner Judy Rand and I organized. AAM included a “storytelling” format this year in the call for proposals, and we thought it’d be interesting to put together a session that wasn’t the usual “people sitting behind a table talking while the slides went by” kind of presentation. Judy suggested we explore the power of storytelling based on the model of The Moth Radio Hour. I suggested the theme of “The thing I wished they’d told me when I started in museums” and we were off!
A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating... and a rug and plant.

A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating… and a rug and plant.

Over the next few months, we expanded our roster of speakers to include Catherine Hughes, Director of Interpretation at the Connor Prairie Museum and Nina Simon, the Executive Director from the Museum of Art and Science in Santa Cruz. Catherine’s an actress, Nina’s a former slam poet, and we knew they’d rise to the challenge of telling compelling stories within pretty rigid time limits. Judy and I, both more writers than speakers, had more to worry about. Coming up with a way to tell a compelling story is very different than writing a compelling story. Writing for the ear is, for me, much harder than writing for the eye. I don’t think I ever spent as much time practicing a conference presentation, cutting and tightening, as I did for the eight minutes I was alone in front of a room full of my peers telling my story.
The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine

In the end, depsite the angst it caused me, it was a great session. The stories we heard were amazing. Judy told us of her intense shyness in public and of the revelation of taking a personality test and finding out that it classified her a “people person.” Catherine described her love of museum work as an addiction and drew out a number of very funny, if slightly disturbing, analogies between her career path and an addict’s. Trust me, it was good. Nina told the story of her struggles as a new museum director and what it means to really be an activist instead of just talking about it.
Judy sharing her story with the audience.

Judy sharing her story with the audience.

When we asked the 200-odd people in the room to pair up and tell each other a 2-minute story, the noise level was deafening. Instead of having the usual question and answer session at the end, we invited audience members to come and share their stories with the audience. It was great.  Here are the handouts we made:

Our Storytelling Resources handout

Our 2-minute storytelling activity handout

I wrote about my own story over at PEM’s blog, and that prompted me to get this recollection down, and to include Judy’s and Catherine’s stories as well, in future posts.

Now back to editing CODE|WORDS essays and trying to write my own!