Monday, 10 June 2013

How do you take your El Greco?

Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
When I enter a room in a museum and an El Greco is hanging on the wall everything stops around me. There´s no noise, no movement, just me and him and silence. In a couple of museums where I was caught by surprise, as I had no idea they had an El Greco in their collection, there was even more: it seemed that I suddenly stopped breathing, I felt a weakness in my legs.  He´s one of my favourite painters. He´s also a Cretan , who left his homeland and carried Byzantium with him wherever he went and never signed his works in a language other than his own.

I´ve seen El Greco on a number of occasions and under different circumstances: blockbuster exhibitions at the National Gallery in Athens and London, very busy rooms at the Louvre or the Metropolitan or in Toledo, a quiet corner at the Phillips Collection in Washington or, more recently, a big room almost to myself at the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. Which was the best experience? All of them.

Quite a few times lately I came across comments of both museum professionals and museum visitors in general who complain that museums are not what they used to be.They feel that they cannot have what they call “a true experience” because they´re packed with visitors. They are longing to be alone with the art and they are very critical of this new museum where everyone is welcome even though he/she might not even be there for the “right reasons”. I do understand  people who seek a specific environment of peace and intimacy when visiting. But I become very worried when they seem to think that museums were made just for them (and should remain that way) and when museum professionals back these positions.

Museums need to provide for all sorts of people and needs. When aiming at diversifying their audiences, there is always the question of how to do it without allienating existing ones. It´s not easy in any case and it becomes even more difficult when they are busy and popular museums. There are visitors who know more and visitors who know less; visitors who want to learn and visitors whose first aim is to have a good time; visitors looking for intimacy and visitors ready to queue for hours and visit an exhibition in the company of hundreds of others. Different needs, different objectives, but none more legitimate than another, I would say.

A friend sent me the other day Brian Cohen´s article How to visit a museum. Although I don´t share his views as to what museums represent (or should represent) in the cultural life of those who visitem them, I can see that he´s a visitor who knows very well what he´s looking for and I enjoyed very much reading his advice for people who wish to tailor their museum visit to their needs and interests. Museums could probably adopt the idea and advise their visitors with regards to quieter times and days, suggested or alternative routes, etc. (some already do). Museums should be open and brave, they should acknowledge their visitors´ different agendas and try to orientate them in their quest. Most of all, they should make it clear that no visitor is more welcome than another.  

Back to me, a museum visitor like many others, I take my El Greco any way it comes. I love the intimate encounters, those precious moments when I can have him all to myself and I can stop and look and feel as much as I want. But more than once already I had to share him with many-many more people, I had to queue and wait patiently for my turn to stand in front of a painting, feeling a bit pressured by the next person in line. It´s all part of the ritual. I knew it would be that way and I also enjoyed the feeling of community, of shared pleasure and enjoyment. I love quiet museums and I love busy museums. I love museums.

Still on this blog

More readings
Are blockbuster exhibitions worth queueing for?. Interviews with Miranda Sawyer and Charles Saumarez Smith in the Observer (12.11.2011)
Blockbuster art: good or bad? Interviews by Emine Saner in the Guardian (25.1.2013)

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