Monday, 7 March 2011

Free to visit an art museum

Various friends forwarded to me last week Timothy Aubry´s article How to behave in an art museum. I felt distressed with this testimony of a person who defines visiting an art museum, although with a sense of humour and some irony, as a neurotic experience. Who says that he doesn´t know what he´s supposed to think or say or feel. Who feels observed, inadequate and hopes to impress other people. How profound it was (and still is) for some people the ‘trauma’ caused by those who John Holden, in Culture and Class, calls the cultural snobs. Those who consider themselves to be the gatekeepers of art, who despise those who don´t understand or appreciate it the way they do, who have some ever so ´special´ ways of making them feel unwelcome, excluded, not so intelligent. In this case, they´re both museum professionals and museum visitors. “We were better off when we were just kids”, says Aubry, “when we knew what we liked effortlessly, when our passions were not learned”. Why should that change? To be accepted? By whom?

Commenting on Timothy Aubry´s text, Kyle Chayka asks in the blog Hyperallergic: Does the younger generation have a new attitude toward museums? Yes and I am glad it does so. But here we should recognize the fundamental role museums themselves have played in this change of attitude, in creating a new relationship.

This issue is not as recent as one might think. George Hein, in his book Learning in the museum, quotes Professor Edward Forbes who in 1853 said that curators “may be prodigies of learning and yet unfit for their posts” if they don´t know anything about pedagogy, if they are not equipped to teach people who know nothing. And in 1909 the visionary John Cotton Dana wrote: “A good museum attracts, entertains, arouses curiosity, leads to questioning and thus promotes learning. (…) The museum can help people only if they use it; they will use it only if they know about it and only if attention is given to the interpretation of its possessions in terms they, the people, will understand.” (In: E. Alexandre, Museums in Motion).

One hundred years later, there are still many museums that don´t understand the importance of giving cognitive access to their collections and the need to create a space of comfort; that insist on defining the visitors´s agenda, imposing their curators´s agenda; that are determined to teach and not open to learn; that are incapable of telling a story and also allowing for more than one narratives. They are not very welcoming places for those not initiated.

But there are also museums which are open, welcoming, inspiring, involving, funny, which make all the difference. Museums that wish to be true spaces of encounter, dialogue, confrontation, discovery; but also of entertainment and of time well spent with family and friends.

Pour Your Body Out by Pipilotti Rist. MOMA. Photo: Maria Vlachou
Timothy Aubry refers in his text that he looked at people enjoying Pipilotti Rist´s installation Pour Your Body Out at the MOMA and felt confused. People of all ages lying on the floor, hugging, talking, laughing. And he thought: “This is not right! Don´t you realize that museums are supposed to make you feel miserable and insecure?”. In 2008 I had to opportunity to see this work. I loved the installation, it made me dream, it made me fly. I loved the environment. And I loved seeing people enjoying that immersive experience in so many different ways. Informal, relaxed, content. I loved the socializing and that feeling of complicity shared with strangers. Probably, each one of us took something very different from that experience, just as our agendas had been different when entering the museum. But are there ways of enjoying and relating to art that are more valid than others? And who defines them? The artist? The curator? When I was a teenager, the most irritating question at school was “What does the poet mean by this?”. How to answer such a question? Why didn´t they ask me “What does this poem mean to you”? And would they take “nothing” for an answer?

I don´t mean to say that the artist´s (or the poet´s…) intentions are irrelevant. That the deep knowledge a curator has on a given subject doesn´t interest me. That they both interfere with my freedom. On the contrary. But I think that they shouldn´t be presented as dogmas. As a visitor, I should be able to feel that my experiences and knowledge are equally valid. But also that the lack of them is respected and that the museum is the ideal place and means to deal with them, should I wish to.

Museum have various ways of showing they´re open, able to recognize that people have different ways of living and interpreting the experience. I remember the labels written by visitors themselves for the paintings of Tate Britain. Touching and surprising testimonies and interpretations, in a direct and accessible language. And I also remember the first and only time I saw on a museum´s text panels a table at the bottom corner explaining the scientific terms that were necessary and inevitable to use. It was the Museum in Docklans in London, that didn´t assume that everyone had a degree in archaeology or roman history.

But there are still other approaches that recognize the different profiles and needs of the people we aim to serve. The Metropolitan Museum of Art´s campaign It´s time we met, now in its third edition, was an amazing way of presenting the museum´s different faces, common faces, and to involve the public. Thus the museum gained a physiognomy (actually, more than one) and it wasn´t that of a cultural snob. Another initiative was that of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, that wanted to get rid of its elitist and stuffy image: in a TV spot we see at the theatre foyer an African-American couple – the lady wearing a long dress, the gentleman a tuxedo. They look around uncomfortably. They see a younger couple, casually dressed. The gentleman thinks: “I know I should have dressed more casually. I feel uncomfortable”. The young man also looks around uncomfortably and thinks: “I know I should have worn a jacket and tie”. The announcer says: “You don´t have to feel uncomfortable to enjoy a concert”.

How many of us, culture and communications professionals, are trying to put this message across? How many of us work actively in order to bring down the psychological / cognitive barrier? I would say that the best examples are found in museum education services. Actually, last week I read the National Endowment for the Arts most recent report, Beyond attendance: a multi-modal understanding of arts participation. I found a reference in it that African-Americans, Hispanics and American-Indians participate more than white people in cultural activities not traditionally presented in cultural institutions, with one exception: visiting art museums. Would this be the result of decades of museum work aiming to make their offer relevant for more diverse audiences? I would like to think so.

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