Monday, January 01, 2007

Museum Cocktail Chatter


It's the new year, and while I spent the holiday drinking rum punch from a bucket and playing an absurdly fun game called testicle toss, perhaps others of you were at more sophisticated soirees involving clinking glasses and the American cocktail question of choice, "What do you do?"

I've met many people who struggle with this obsessive "what do you do?" business. I have friends who refuse to ask, others who come up with clever alternatives ("What keeps you busy?"), and then the rare people who have some other attribute that trumps that question ("How old is your baby?" "Is that piercing uncomfortable?"). But the fact is that when meeting new acquaintances, most Americans ask the same few establishing questions to determine whether further interaction with the acquaintance is desirable.

Which got me thinking about museums, and the metaphor Elisa Giaccardi and I discussed about museums providing "encounters" between exhibits and visitors. Just as there are basic patterns to the cocktail chatter we have at parties, there are patterns to the conversations we have with exhibits. So, in the celebratory spirit, I offer up some party animals from the exhibit world, and their language of acquaintanceship.

The enthusiastic know-it-all: "Did you know this? See this? Bet you didn't know this!"

The aloof, mysterious one: "I have something incredibly interesting that I have no intention of sharing with you."

The bully: "Try this!"

The foreigner: "I would love to engage with you. Sadly, given our communication barrier, all we can do is wave our hands at each other."

The self-centered one: "You can wonder about anything, as long as it's about me."

I'm sure you could come up with others (and if you do, please add them here as comments!). But the common factor of these museum exhibit party-goers is their self-absorption. In fact, I'd argue that most exhibits are lousy conversationalists. At least humans can pretend to be interested in what the other person has to say and how they want to engage. How many times have you been in a museum and felt like a kid at a cocktail party, patted on the head, talked past or down to or not at all? I like this analogy of the party conversation as a fresh way to evaluate exhibits. How do you meet exhibits? Which ones do you want to talk to, and which ones turn you off?

1 comments, add yours!:

N said...

I talk to people at cocktail parties with whom I recognize a connection: a past acquaintance, fellow hipster doofus (doofii?), the loud and the drunk, cynical wallflowers, those in non-profit, etc.

Basically, looking for some common ground before even commencing the encounter.

In an exhibit, give me a hook to grab onto, something familiar that pulls me into learning about something unfamiliar.

In art museums, I read/interact with paintings I recognize, or paintings I like, or anything by Kandinsky.

In science museums, it's tougher, because it's all familiar, and all set in the context of science. So I look for favorite topics,

or bright flashing lights, of course.