“Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you.”
This year’s American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Annual Meeting wrapped up in Baltimore last week, but I’m still wrapping my mind around some of the ideas that came up in sessions and lively discussion (in person and via the Twitter hashtag #aam2013). Although the official theme was “The Power of Story”, I walked away thinking that another fitting tagline could have been the above quote from that classic of children’s literature, The Velveteen Rabbit, shared as wisdom from the Skin Horse to the titular lagomorph.
The idea of realness and how that matters in a museum context was on people’s minds throughout the conference, enough that it had a whole session dedicated to it on the first day. “Is It Real? Who Cares?” brought together a group of museum professionals to engage the room in debate over some knotty questions. Before you get excited for a recap of that session, I’ll clarify that I wasn’t there. But they’ve set up a Tumblr that’ll give you some ideas of what you missed, and the handout includes some of the questions that may affect your thoughts about realness.
They ask some great, substantial doozies:
Does authenticity of objects matter more or less to different visitors?
Can display context render real objects fake or make fake objects seem real?
Is the object rendered more real because it’s rare or one-of-a-kind?
If I were feeling more academically-minded, here’s where I’d drop some quotes from Walter Benjamin’s seminal The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction about the aura that a real object has due to its very realness, but I’m only feeling academically-minded enough to use the word “seminal” and bring Benjamin up in the first place. Besides, he wasn’t speaking at AAM, so I’ll move on.
I’m sorry I missed “Is It Real? Who Cares?”, especially because it was the beginning of what became a thematic thread I followed throughout the rest of the conference. In Tuesday morning’s session, “Significant Objects”, Rob Walker talked with the Center for the Future of Museums’ Elizabeth Merritt about his project of the same name, which started out with Rob and Joshua Glenn collecting thrift store tchotchkes, inviting an array of creative writers to contribute fictional short stories about the objects, and then selling the objects+stories on eBay. You can probably guess the punchline. The $128.74 worth of knick-knacks sold for $3,612.51.
But did that make those knick-knacks more real? Would purchasers have paid more if the stories had been nonfiction documents of the objects’ histories (the kind of thing we love to include in museum labels), or was there something special about fiction that drove up the value?
As Elizabeth Merritt put it in that room, there are plenty of stories museums choose to tell about their objects that are factual, but not terribly enlivening or enlightening.
It strikes me that this is part of what’s behind projects like Amuseum Guides or MoMA Unadulterated, unofficial audio guides that offer quirky alternative angles on museums instead of straight facts. Discover forty-six ways you could be killed by the animals and places in the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. Hear what 3-10 year olds have to say about the art grown-ups like to dismiss with that tired chestnut, “A kid could make that.”
Lively! Fun! Encouraging people to see museums in a different way, much like the material shared in the alliteratively alluring AAM session called “Magnificent Masters of Museum Mysteries: Narrative Games in Museum Contexts.” Seema Rao from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Susan Edwards and Rebecca Edwards (no relation) from the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Georgina Bath Goodlander from the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum all shared games they’ve developed that ask players to use museum objects to help move through stories. The objects are central to the game experience (visual clues often help answer questions that lead to the next step), but the games aren’t designed to specifically teach the player about the objects.
There are lots of great examples of this kind of approach that privileges the visitor experience and makes museums fun (*gasp*). Amuseum Guides and MoMA Unadulterated do it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Murder at the Met: An American Art Mystery does it, inserting museum visitors into a fictional story that requires looking closely at the museum’s objects and allows some leeway between the fact and fiction of the contextual, historical information about those objects. Visitor engagement and careful observation are the goals, not formal learning about the art. A true experience in the museum that doesn’t rely on real facts to make it so.
But how does this sort of true–though not altogether real–experience balance out with museums’ responsibility to offer audiences truthful information? A central question throughout these sessions, but nowhere more relevant than on the last morning at “Talking About Race: ‘Mining the Museum’ After 20 Years”. Here was a panel of educators, scholars, and curators talking about Fred Wilson’s 1993 exhibition, “Mining the Museum” at the Maryland Historical Society, where he re-curated displays to juxtapose objects like iron shackles with elaborate silver serving ware and highly finished wooden chairs drawn like an audience around a post once used to whip enslaved people.
Wilson himself joined the panel and spoke eloquently about what inspired the exhibition in the first place. He talked about being mad walking into museums and not seeing racially diverse stories represented. “It made the museum complicit in the evils of the past,” he said. The idea of provenance came up and was questioned. How is provenance determined, after all? Is it who owned a thing? Who cleaned a thing? Certainly in most museums, that first one trumps all. Ownership tells us one part of an object’s story, but it’s far from the whole story.
And so ended AAM with these unresolved issues floating through my head. What makes an object real? Who determines that realness? How important is that realness to a museum visitor? And, maybe most importantly to those of us in the museum field, how can a museum balance out the nebulous concept of realness with an authentic, true experience.
I started with a quote, so in the name of symmetry I’ll end with one. It’s from “Peter and Alice”, a new play by John Logan that I caught in London a few months ago, and it hits on that careful balance between real and true. The play imagines the conversation that might have happened between the people who inspired Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, and near the end there’s a scene where the real Peter (there’s that pesky word again) is remembering when he first saw Peter Pan performed onstage:
I remember the first time I saw the play. I thought it was all real. […]
After the performance Uncle Jim took us backstage. It was a mad bustle, even that was thrilling. I mean, I knew it wasn’t actually real, I knew they were all actors, and we were in a theater… But I needed to know if this place existed, if it were somehow true, even though it wasn’t real. So as the party was going on and everyone was celebrating I wandered onto the stage by myself. Just me… How large it was… I saw the painted backdrop of Neverland. The pirate ship… the wooden moon… And I closed my eyes and spread my arms… And it was true. […]
For a moment… Then I opened my eyes and heard the party, and Uncle Jim calling me, and my brothers laughing… And life went on.
I don’t have neat answers for these questions, but AAM certainly got my mental wheels turning. Do you have answers? Thoughts? Examples of how you find this balance of real and true in your own museum work?