A Museum Experience Is Not One-Size-Fits-All

“Dialogue isn’t for everyone.”

These words were said to me recently regarding change in an educational mission. I couldn’t agree more – it’s why we as educators carry a toolbox; activities for any occasion, any learner, and keep them at the ready for our audience.

Fresh from this experience, I read another article by Judith Dobrzynski, this time drawing attention to Bruce Bratton, a Santa Cruz columnist who outwardly attacks Nina Simon and the changes taking place at the MAH. While Bratton is cited by Dobrzynski as an “institution” in Santa Cruz, I hesitated to give him attention, realizing everyone has an opinion. However, since art journalist Dobrzynski addressed the article, it’s only fair to have an opposing piece.

A museum experience is not one-size-fits-all.

Pop Up Museum turn Living Room as part of Santa Cruz Open Streets. Photo by Karen Kefauver. http://www.santacruzmah.org
Pop Up Museum turn Living Room as part of Santa Cruz Open Streets. Photo by Karen Kefauver. http://www.santacruzmah.org

After my initial inflammatory reaction to the Times Op-Ed, I now commend Dobrzynski for drawing attention to the other side. As museum educators, we are consistently looking for ways to make art interactive and for experiences to happen in the gallery. There are people that just want to sit, look at a works and have a quiet moment. This is still available – on my recent trip to MFA Houston, I was welcomed into quiet galleries and had a beautiful moment with a Turrell Ganzfeld, alone. Even in a busy NYC museum, you can find yourself alone in a space, enjoying the art.

But it’s not for everyone.

Some people literally do not know what to do with a work in front of them. They think it’s important, only because it’s hanging on a museum wall. They look at the label and don’t have a clue what that odd decimal-ed number is. Exhaustion sets in after seeing the whole place, and they leave, barely remembering anything. Hopefully they come back, but chances are, some of them don’t. Nothing inspired curiosity, so why come back?

The truth is, we aren’t all art nerds. Formalism isn’t sexy to anyone but art people. Museums, unless they want to be seen as elitist institutions, have to appeal to more than just the art appreciators. Museum programming opens up the world beyond the quiet sitters and lecture attendees.

The problem with both Bratton and Dobrzynski is neither quotes any specific interactive programming as a problem. Sure, in her Times piece, Dobrzynski critiques interactive art, but really, people hated the Impressionists too. But where is the study of the actual programs? Dobrzynski is a New Yorker – I promise you there is no shortage of programs she could attend and critique. Bratton states in his column:

Remember … when you could sit or stand and just think about the art pieces you were able to see in person? Think how many thousands/millions of students and artists were influenced by seeing circulating masterpieces or from the local collections…not now. Consider the impact on the next generation of art and history-lovers; the kids. Where can we take our kids now to learn how to experience a real museum; a place that challenges the attention span a little? There are experiential activities everywhere, as I mentioned but the former MAH was our only real museum environment that offered art in a museum context; a respectful place that created the sense that what you’re seeing is important, and worthy of your consideration.

Why can’t you sit in the gallery any longer and look at a work of art? I popped onto the MAH event listing, and found a film festival, some walks that take place outside of the museum and a free Friday event that features music after 6:30pm. Which of these events are disruptive to the people who don’t want participatory experiences? Furthermore, which events change the ‘real’ museum environment?

And which events bring new visitors? new people to see museums as important cultural institutions?

Bratton posted some support to his article, and a few mentioned my next point – this idea of a ‘real’ museum. What is a real museum? In the past, it was an activity for society. Dress up, visit the salon, look at the work deemed appropriate to be hung on the walls. But as times changed, the ideas behind museums have changed. Said nicely in an article that addresses this change, “in the last few decades, as the museum field has grown more serious about independent learning, deep audience engagement, and participation, museums have been able to bring that inspirational experience to more of their visitors.”

Visitors bond and bridge through participatory experiences at MAH. http://museumtwo.blogspot.com
Visitors bond and bridge through participatory experiences at MAH. http://museumtwo.blogspot.com

Isn’t this a good thing? Don’t we as a society want museums to be seen as incredible places where people can think anything and connect with our past as humans? All people are not the same, and not everyone is a quiet sitter or a lecture attendee – and not all of the sitters or lecture attendees understand why the art is ‘important’ or why it’s there. I’ve given member tours, and gently pushed passed the initial “I already know everything, I’ve been to lectures” to the “wow – I’ve never seen that in this work before.”

Museums are links to our history. Art is not created in a bubble – each work has stories, amazing stories, attached to the artist, the process, time period, acquisition. But for some people, they see a canvas on the wall with some paint. They think it’s important because it’s hanging in a museum, but they don’t understand WHY.

And for many people, they don’t even go to the museum because of hours, past experiences as kids brought to expand their attention span, stigma. So if they go to attend a dance party, and take part in an amazing conversation on a work in the African collection they never knew existed, great. Even better if the experience inspires them to come back. Museums are for everyone.

So kudos to Nina Simon for revising the MAH mission statement and taking chances to make the museum a participatory space for the WHOLE community. Congrats to Museum Hack, for challenging the notion of what a museum tour is. Three cheers to Brooklyn Museum for every First Saturday. And the biggest thank you to every single education department working to make the institution accessible, available and awesome to everyone.

And to Bratton and Dobrzynski, an open invitation to come as my guest to any participatory program that I am leading or attending. Before you write another criticism, I encourage you to be an active participant. Try asking other participants what they think. Open your mind and attempt to see that a museum experience is not one-size-fits-all.

*     *     *     *     *

Editor’s Note: Given that Judith Dobrzynski’s opinion pieces have once again flared controversy and passionate responses from many in the museum and education community, I wanted to take this opportunity not only to feature Jen Oleniczak’s personal response, but also to utilize the community of practice that exists at ArtMuseumTeaching.com to share additional responses from contributors.  Below are some of this community’s response to this issue and to this challenging of participatory practice in art museums.  I also invite others to post their response and thoughts below in the Comments section, and add to the rich exchange already happening.

Rachel Ropeik

As a museum educator with an art historian’s training, I sometimes feel split on the “museums as experiential space” vs “museums as reflective space” debate. Personally, I love having quiet time to sit and bask in the presence of an inspiring work of art.  But professionally (which is, of course, personal, too) I’m aware that not everyone enjoys that sort of museum engagement, and, more importantly, some people feel active barriers blocking their way to it.  For those people (and of John Falk’s five types of museum goers–explorers, facilitators, experience-seekers, professional/hobbyists, and rechargers–it’s a minority who only want reflective museum time all the time), there need to be alternatives provided.

Museums have a well-established international history of being large, stuffy, intimidating institutions full of stringent rules to be followed.  That doesn’t sound fun, even to me, who loves museums passionately.  Instead of furthering that stereotype, we need to do what we can to, if not destroy it, poke some serious holes.  We need to meet visitors where they are, not where we think they should be.  Our visitors (and yes, that includes more and more who view our collections online and never set foot inside our galleries) should welcomed using a whole range of techniques that will stimulate and intrigue and invite and amuse and confound.

Museums have always been contemporary spaces serving contemporary audiences’ needs, and what those contemporary audiences need changes right along with history.  While we who work in museums may be dedicated to preserving the legacy of the past, we are also dedicated to sharing that legacy with the public.  Like it or not, time marches on, and continuing to look backward to the past for some sort of ürmuseum is never going to cut it in a society that’s moving ever-faster forward into the future.

Felice Cleveland

My father visited me as I was studying abroad in Paris. He had to get his passport in order to make the trip and we went to the Louvre where I was taking a class at the time. My father is not what you would call an art aficionado and hasn’t visited museums extensively. We were in a gallery with just one piece of artwork, a lot of people were taking pictures, and all of the lights in the room were trained on this one piece. All of the visual cues were in place and my father whispered to me, “Is this something important?” It was the Venus de Milo.

I think of my father often as I work to create programming and educational materials. Museums often don’t have to work hard to already convince the art-lover to visit. It is working to be inclusive and open doors to people who might not see the museum as a resource. The museum I currently work at is in a residential neighborhood and our collection is contemporary installation art. Some of the work is very complex and deals with challenging issues. It is important to me that the museum is more than a place to just view artwork every once in awhile. As a museum educator, I want to create a safe place to explore new and challenging ideas. I want to create programming that welcomes all audiences. I want to create a place that is a laboratory to experiment with new ideas and materials. I want to create a go-to place for the community. If museums don’t work to include the community – then what is the purpose? How do we make ourselves relevant if we don’t invite visitors to share and explore? Do we just house art? Do we just put artists on pedestals? What is a real museum? How can we respect the creativity that our community brings to viewing artwork? I have seen museums come in many shapes and sizes, which is one of the reasons I love them so much and keep exploring museums in new cities the world over. I want to be surprised and see things in a new way. There are all types of museums for all types of people. And on different days people want different experiences at different museums. As a museum educator, I work to create experiences for as many visitors as possible to engage on the level that they feel comfortable with. And every day I work to open our doors just a little wider.


6 thoughts on “A Museum Experience Is Not One-Size-Fits-All”

  1. Reading this reminded me of experiences we had at the large state history museum I direct. In the first full flush of revolution when our facility was opened in 1992 (5 years before I joined the staff), our institution debuted a suite of exhibits in which all of them were topical, thematic, non-chronological, narrative driven, and made extensive use of interactivity and media all according to the best progressive museum thinking in the field at that time. Visitor research told us that most people liked the experience the museum was providing a great deal, and at first I was content to keep on doing what we had been doing. But after a few years we found ourselves falling into a habit by doing exhibits this way every time, almost as though we were following a checklist. Our design approaches were becoming formulaic and predictable. Buried in our visitor data were unsettling signs as well: many visitors had no idea when one exhibit ended and another one began, in spite of our efforts to identify them clearly, and this was actually undermining the coherency of the experience. Though we were working really hard to put experiential variety into every exhibit, the sum of the total experience was a flattening of pitch level and a creeping monotony throughout. We started to shift, introducing more, relatively small, areas that had distinctive experiential attributes: areas of contemplation and quiet, raucous areas, funny or somber places, some exhibits that are more playful and less content-driven, others that are more serious in nature. Since then, our visitor research shows an increase in visit satisfaction and a higher probability that a visitor will recommend the museum to others. As this has happened, attendance and membership have climbed and we’ve climbed to the top of the list of Things to Do on TripAdvisor in our city. We started to talk about the museum experience as one might a good drama, with emotional peaks and valleys, plots twists and surprises, and great, engrossing characters. I think, especially for larger museums, thinking about providing a buffet of experiential variety throughout is a good strategy for widening the audience served, but also for conquering the kind of monotony that too often characterizes museums of all kinds.

  2. Thank you for bringing attention to these recent articles and for your insightful critique. Indeed, neither Dobrzynski nor Bratton are specific about the programs they so oppose. Although they do discuss the importance of a museum’s mission statement, they do not suggest how programs could or should effectively relate to that statement. This is an important issue that, as far as I’m aware, no one has really addressed with regard to this debate.

    Although I am an advocate of fresh, participatory, engaging programs, I also believe that effective programs are rooted in scholarship, are developed with the intent of deepening understanding of a museum’s collection (or perhaps an exhibit in its collection), and aim to reinforce the museum’s mission statement. In other words, a program or an event organized simply for the sake of being participatory isn’t enough. It must directly relate to the museum’s collection and, of course, to its mission. From the way Bratton and Dobrzynski write about participatory programs, it sounds like they either grossly misunderstand the aim of such programs or they’ve only witnessed programs that did not effectively relate to the museum itself. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, as they seem to equate participation with irrelevant parties and activities that have nothing to do with the museum as a cultural and scholarly institution. While this, of course, isn’t always true, I imagine it happens fairly often.

    The question that I think is more relevant at this point is not whether participation is appropriate in museums, but how museums and museum educators can use participatory programs more effectively.

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