Marcia Tucker on Museums as ‘Agent Provocateur’

“I see art history, and museums in particular, as a process, an interface, a tool, an ‘agent provocateur’ whose role, rather than being didactic, is to get people to see and think for themselves.”

Marcia Tucker

Marcia Tucker was the founding director of the New Museum in New York and a visionary curator, also working for many years as a free-lance art critic, writer, lecturer, and professor.  Her defiance of conventional practice has always inspired me, even though I only became familiar with her work and writings during the year that she sadly passed away, 2006.  Marcia founded the New Museum when she was 37 after being fired from the Whitney Museum of American Art. According to the New York Times, her motto in founding the museum was, “Act first, think later — that way you have something to think about.”  This quote by her has driven my own personal philosophy of museum teaching — to “get people to see and think for themselves.”

p.s.  the image below from an installation at the Mattress Factory was the best I could come up with for a visual of museums as a real interface and provocateur.  My only visit to that institution a couple years ago was quite a unique experience in seeing, exploring, wondering, and thinking for myself — culminating in my encounter with this permanent installation space by artist Yayoi Kusama.

Photo by Anjan Chatterjee

2 thoughts on “Marcia Tucker on Museums as ‘Agent Provocateur’”

  1. I LOVE “act first, think later…gives you something to think about.” That’s a phenomenological stance, I think Alfred Schutz said “an act is a retrospective naming of an action.” Yes, a museum, it seems is an undertheorized and underworked potential learning phenomenon. It should act as a space of ‘inbetweenness’ that helps visitors mediate existing knowledge of reality to the “adjacent possible” (Steven Johnson, 2010). So, here’s something interesting. We Americans seem to think of the word “didactic” to connote a one-way or top-down authoritarian perspective. Europeans on the other hand, draw more closely to its German origins that connotes that learning is mediated through the actions and interactions between teacher and student with the content.

  2. The word “didactic” is interesting, since it has so many different meanings and connotations. To me, I tend to associate “didactic” with the passive relay of information to museum visitors through interpretative materials like wall texts, labels, etc. These materials simply talk AT learners, and there is no expectation of interaction (as you mentioned with the German/European connotation of “didactic”). But I know many museum educators who have a totally different take on the word “didactic” (perhaps we’ll hear their voices through this forum).

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