Monday, 21 February 2011

Museums: new churches?

Recently, in his programme A Point of View on BBC Radio 4, Alain de Botton talked about museums. More specifically, he was asking why museums are so uninspiring (the full text of the programme is available here).

De Botton compares museums to churches and identifies some similarities: they both enjoy an unparalleled status; they are spaces where we would take a group of foreigners to show them what delights us and what we revere; we wander around museum galleries with the same sort of quiet reverence as we manifest in churches.

And this is where similarities end for De Botton. He considers that religions give people the orientation they need, not only the tools to develop a critical thinking; and they use religious art as a means to inspire us to faith, to remind us to be healthy-minded, good and godly people. “Christianity”, says De Botton, “never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for. (...) Look at that picture of Mary if you want to remember what tenderness is like. Look at that painting of the cross if you want a quick lesson in courage. Look at that Last Supper and train yourself not to be a coward and a liar.”

Contrary to churches, says Alain de Botton, museums are notoriously incapable of establishing a connection between the objects they hold and the needs of our soul. They present them in an academic way that fails to engage with the real potential of art, which is to change us for the better. Instead of neutral labels, they should put beneath each picture a set of commands telling us “look at this image and remember to be patient” or “use this sculpture to mediate on what you could do to bring about a fairer world”. And he concludes: “Curators should co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live: to achieve self-knowledge, to remember forgiveness and love and stay sensitive to the pains suffered by our ever troubled species and its urgently imperilled planet. Only then will museums be able to claim that they have properly fulfilled the noble, but still elusive, ambition of becoming our new churches.”

I confess, I hadn´t read something so uninspiring about the role museums and art can play in our lives for a long time. Something so patronizing, so limiting. Something that even reveals a certain ignorance regarding the mission museums themselves have taken on in society and which many (no, not all...) have managed to put into excellent practice.

Following September 11, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York registered an increase in visitor numbers. The terrorist attack had taken its toll in tourism, but many New Yorkers looked for shelter in that museum. They looked for beauty, peace; they looked for their ‘humanity’. And they didn´t find it because labels gave them instructions to find the way. They found it in their direct contact with art in a safe place.

It is true, though, that not all art speaks for itself to all of us. My frustration is huge in many contemporary art exhibitions, from where I come out the same as when I walked in, because I don´t know how to appreciate it, while those who do are not worried about helping me to discover it. But I can also remember of how much my experience was ‘enhanced’ when visiting certain exhibitions, which I could have simply enjoyed without ‘extra help’, but where museums were able to present the contexts around the creation of the works and the artists themselves, a work that goes beyond writing labels that indicate the title of the work, date and materials used.

I´ll never forget the experience of visiting the Gwen John and Augustus John exhibition at Tate Britain in 2004. I knew nothing about the two siblings up to then. And I would have probably liked their work anyway. Nevertheless, what made the experience unforgettable was the whole story the museum told me about them: about their childhood, their love affairs, their family and friends, their relationship with other artists and with their time. There were photos, books, personal letters that helped the works of art gain a different dimension in my mind and in my heart, without them losing one bit of their artistic value.

And I shall also never forget the way the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza revealed to me (through the simple exhibition of works side by side and with short texts, using a language accessible to all those lacking a degree in art history or a similar science) the way Amedeo Modigliani developed his personal artistic style and the influence of his contemporaries. Thus, what reminded me in the beginning of Cézanne, Picasso, Brancusi, an african sculpture, slowly got transformed, in front of my very own eyes, into a Modigliani and Modigliani alone. It was the exhibition Modigliani and his time in 2008.

Alain de Botton is right about one thing: probably the majority of museums don´t know how to tell a story. Not only art museums (to which De Botton confines his analysis, maybe because for him, like for many others, ‘museums’ means ‘art museums’), but also history, natural history, social history, science and technology museums. But there are already many - many indeed - those that understand the importance of interpretation for the general public. Those that recognize that not everybody knows or is supposed to know everything. Nevertheless, they are not aiming at telling me what I should or should not feel, what I should or should not think. This is between me, the visitor, and the work of art / the object. This is not up to any curator or museum educator. This is not a forced or directed relationship. And it´s even legitimate that a relationship doesn´t come to exist at all. The visitor will not be less intelligent, less of a good person because of that or the work of art less valuable.

I don´t know who told Alain de Botton that museums aim to be our new churches. And, frankly, I doubt whether religions themselves, or at least their most illuminated and inspired priests, aim to assume the role De Botton described in his radio programme. The most intelligent mediators, those who know how to do their job best, are not the ones giving us the answers. They are those who know how to help us look for them.


Charlotte Higgins commented on Alain de Botton´s ideas in the Guardian, in her article Museums: bland, academic and failing to speak to our souls?  . Although I disagree with some of the points she´s made (in what concerns the main role of museums or the relevance of the methods of interpretation used by modern museology), in general terms I agree with her arguments.

Still regarding museums-churches, I suggest reading two texts on the decision of Musée d´Orsay to prohibit taking photographs in the museum: La carte postale contre le téléphone portable e La photo au musée, ou l’appropriation. I thank MP for these references.

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