It must be the slow pace of late summer. It seems these last few weeks that all kinds of journalists have the time and tenacity to explore in the media the very point of museums.
Our curators recently shared some of their favorites on this blog. Some on the list were big, like the contemporary art warehouses of Mass MoCA. Most were tiny, like the art museum in Farnsworth, Maine. All did what museums do, which is house and interpret the items that make up a peoples’ culture.
James Durston, a writer for CNN, is no fan of museums, it seems. Any of them. And in making that opinion known on CNN’s website in a piece called Why I Hate Museums, he proceeded to make few fans himself. Durston writes of traveling all over the world — to the Hong Kong Science Museum and Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art — only to be repeatedly disappointed in the museum experience. He paints them as soulless places that simply warehouse objects. Surely some of us have experienced the library quiet he speaks of, the “dead sounds of tourists shuffling and employees yawning” in an airless, quiet gallery on some occasion. But how about the following claim:
“The main thing you learn in museums, it seems, is how not to run a museum.”
His piece prompted quite a few angry comments from readers accusing the author of simply not being sophisticated enough to appreciate art. And that he’d be better suited to have the theme park kind of museum experience criticized in Judith Dobrzynski’s highly controversial New York Times opinion piece from earlier this month called High Culture Goes Hands-On.
Her opinion that audience engagement has gotten out of control, thereby ruining museums, by “gamifying” the experience for all, prompted countless reader comments, letters to the editor and pieces like this one from Slate by the director of the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum down the road in Lincoln, Mass.
But back to the CNN piece, which also prompted a Q and A with Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums in a piece that ran on CNN called Are museums still relevant?
In defending our country’s many cultural institutions, Bell discuses the increasing importance of authentic experiences and answers the relevancy question, as least for me, this way:
“The Alliance and the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services estimate that there are 850 million annual museum visits in the US. That’s more than the attendance at all major league sporting events combined.”
And discusses the creative economy — a subject dear to those in Massachusetts. Then he goes on to give facts about museums serving public schools — when art programs are often cut — and the 18 million instruction hours given by American museums to children K-12. We certainly have a huge number of school children served at PEM and we conduct a PEM Teacher Institute, shared on our blog this summer by a mother and daughter who participated.
I thought of our program with Salem State University, where incoming freshmen spend part of their summer here with their English professors, writing about art. And I thought of Milly who showed me the artwork she had written about in her journal, a contemporary piece in our Japanese gallery.
Perhaps all of the back and forth about why we are all here will be put to rest by a beautiful piece in today’s New York Times that clearly demonstrates the relevance of museums in our lives. Escaping the Heat in Art’s Fortress takes us inside “liquid-cool” museums, where city dwellers beat the summer heat.
We meet a teenager named Chanel Baldwin, seeking refuge on steamy afternoons in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum. Her story is told by Anand Giridharadas, the eloquent featured speaker this past spring at our Sensational India Festival.
“In a perfectly air-conditioned world, Ms. Baldwin’s art consumption might never have been. It was a boiling city that drove her into the frosty museum, and she’s not alone. In a city where culture is supposed to be king, New Yorkers in the summertime sometimes pop into a museum mostly to escape the heat. They come for the air but can grow to love the art, too.”
The Times writer helps Baldwin and her cousin see that the admission cost is merely suggested and he encourages them to go inside.
“…The first room set her alight and held her rapt until she had to leave. There was no label too tedious to read, no piece undeserving of her scrutiny…”
As the cousins left the museum later, they saw two schoolmates who asked, “What’s going on in here?”
Perhaps, relevance…or something like it.