Tag Archives: Philip Kennicott

“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.

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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.