Epilogue: Why Museums Don’t Suck – Connecting with Howard Hwang

Flickr photo of visitor at California Academy of Sciences, one of Howard Hwang’s favorite museums these days. Photo by Alastair Green.

Many times when I have encountered a brusque and surly teenager in the museum (whether on a tour, in a program, or simply visiting with his or her family), I do wonder what that kid will be like years down the road.  Maybe it’s the parent in me, but I can’t help thinking: will that teenager still roll their eyes during museum visits? will they perhaps change, and gain a new perspective toward museums?  These same questions arose when I first read Howard Hwang’s now-infamous article “Why Museums Suck” — would he really be such a choleric and grumpy person after he became an adult?  Could we ever see Howard visiting a museum alone or with his family, and loving it?  If I could only hop into a time machine, and ask him myself.

Well, as it turns out, no time machine is necessary!  As I dug further and further into the LA Youth article, I not only found out that Howard wrote the piece 11 years ago (part of a fall 2001 issue), but I was able to get in contact with Howard himself to ask him a few questions. And while I would have loved to actually use a time machine to write this epilogue to my original post “Why Museums Don’t Suck,” I was lucky enough to speak with the now 26-year-old Howard about his article, his thoughts about museums, and what he thinks about all this attention surrounding his article so many years later.  In my opinion, this is a fascinating turn of events in a story that has garnered so much attention from across the museum community.

Here are my notes and thoughts from my short but very interesting phone conversation with Howard Hwang:

and now, the rest of the story…

Thoughts on writing the original LA Youth article: I began by asking Howard to tell me a bit more about why he wrote that article back in 2001 about “why museums suck,” and his thoughts at the time. He remembers writing the article as part of a group/community paper, focusing mostly on it being a piece that kids his age would read. It grew out of a high school project in which he was analyzing museums, so the article seemed a natural extension. “I wanted to be very honest, very blunt, and not sugar-coated,” recounts Howard.  After writing the article, he recalls telling his sister, “I want to write something that will make people feel that I am talking to them.”  This is a tone that made the piece more visceral for me and many of the museum professionals who have since commented, and I think it represented a certain level of honesty that many of us admired.

Thoughts on reading the article 11 years later: Howard’s editor from LA Youth (11 years ago) contacted him recently to let him know about all the back-and-forth going on in the blogosphere about his article, thinking he might enjoy seeing the ArtMuseumTeaching.com blog post and comments. So Howard did, and then he also read his original article which he hadn’t returned to since it was first published.  So what was his immediate response?  “My face turned bright red,” says Howard. He told me that he feels totally embarrassed by his teen article, especially because his entire perception of museums is completely different now.  I asked him a little more about why he might have written something like this back as a 15-year-old, and he remembers being very “A.D.D.” with a low threshold for attention — something had to really jump out at him to win his favor.

Current thoughts about museums: It was great to hear that Howard’s attitude towards museums has totally changed. But I asked a little more about why, and how did that change come about.  Howard attributes much of this shift to visiting museums in college for certain classes.  Majoring in molecular biology at the time, Howard says “I really started going to museums when they related more to my own interests.”  And those interests were obviously there in Howard when he was 15 as he capped his grouchy LA Youth article with unique praise for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, writing: “All you museum people should go over to the Natural History Museum. This is a great museum.”

Any favorite museums these days? My final question for Howard related to any museums he might visit regularly now, and why.  He quickly mentioned the California Academy of Sciences, which he visits regularly (being a resident now in the San Francisco Bay Area), and actually just visited a few weeks ago to see their newest exhibits. Our conversation concluded with a brief discussion of what might make a museum more attractive to him these days, and Howard spoke of the volunteer tour guides and docents that interact with the public.  “The quality of tour guides,” says Howard, “are a very powerful thing for the museum experience, increasing the attractiveness of museums.”  He recounted the knowledgeable tour guides at the California Academy of Sciences during tours he has taken, and he wrapped up our conversation chatting about the importance of human interaction in museum learning.

I extend an enormous thanks to Howard for agreeing to talk with me about his article and his thoughts 11 years later, and I appreciate how much his article challenges us as museum professional to reflect on the extent to which we do, or do not, ‘suck’ when it comes to teen audiences.  All we can do is continue to reach out to all audiences, and know that cantankerous teenagers may very well grow up to be dedicated, thoughtful museum visitors.  Thanks, Howard!

Link back to original post: “Why Museums Don’t Suck: The Current State of Teen Engagement”

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: Why Museums Don’t Suck: The Current State of Teen Engagement « Art Museum Teaching

  2. What a nifty epilogue to whirl of activity on the blogosphere generated by Howard’s article and reactions to it! I’m glad that his opinions have changed, and are more favorable towards museums. As a native San Francisco, I certainly understand the delight in the California Academy of Sciences.

    This episode makes me think as a community we need to recognize that we mean different things to people are the different stages of their lives. The teenage years are tumultuous, and with everyone going on (school, friends, college visits, sports, chores, hormones); museums just won’t be every teen’s cup of tea.But so long as we ensure high quality in all aspects of our work, not just whats on the walls, but on the labels, how clean the bathrooms are, how welcoming and knowledge the staff and volunteers are, the institution can leave you with a favorable impression. It makes it easier for people to come back or try once more at another time. And hey, that other time might be a better fit of museum and visitor, just as it was for Howard.

  3. Mike-

    I shudder to think of all of the young people like Howard who never were encouraged to visit museums via field trips. About a month ago I attended a session at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums (MAAM) conference where the presenter was Jeanne Brasile, who is the director of the Walsh Gallery at Seton Hall University. She spoke about engaging the community (which for Walsh is a group of generally uninterested undergraduates) and how part of her work was aimed at encouraging professors at SHU to bring their students to the gallery. Her work and Howard’s response about his field trips makes me think that we need to do more than make great exhibits or programs; we need to advocate for increased field trip opportunities in secondary schools as well as colleges.

    Thanks again for your thorough work!

    -Liz

    • Liz, I share your sentiments about increasing opportunities for teenagers (high school through early college) to visit museums. I have been having an exchange with another colleague of mine (in the curatorial/management side of museums), and he noted the significance of even just exposure — wondering if Howard’s early experiences at museums (even though he hated most of those experiences) were instrumental in developing a greater connection with museums later in life. Maybe something is going on inside those silent or resistant teens who begrudgingly visit museums now, but may willingly visit with their friends and family 10 or 15 years down the road. I’d love to see research that might shine some light on this.
      -Mike

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