Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Something Funny at the Smithsonian...

Frequently, we discuss projects and ideas on this blog that fit into the theme of "can't do that in museums." Well, this week, the Smithsonian of all places knocked down several "can't"s by:
  • having a sense of humor
  • acting quickly to add a temporary piece to the collection on almost no notice in a highly unorthodox location (entrance to the bathroom)
  • allowing a comedian to run rampant through the halls making fun of priceless collections

Benefits included:
  • direct on-air request from a national TV star to go visit the National Portrait Gallery
  • portrayal of museum directors as good-natured, even funny, people
What did they do? They let Stephen Colbert put his portrait in the museum, where it will hang for 6 weeks. Here's the National Portrait Gallery's take on it, and the clip of Colbert's final success (there are also very funny clips of him trying to get the portrait into other Smithsonian museums):

You may cry, "Pandering!" but I'd argue that this is more than just a media ploy, and it's a long way from cheapening the museum experience. Colbert offers the same funny, incisive commentary on the museum experience that he provides on other topics.

He also reflects visitors' deep-seated questions and prejudices. I laughed out loud when Colbert asked the Director of American History why Helen Keller needed a watch (a burning question not covered in label text). And as he walked through the NPG with its director, giving his own one-word judgments on portraits, he gave voice to the bigger question, "Who cares?" on many visitors' minds, one which they don't feel willing or able to voice.

To me, this is a refreshing inclusion of museums in a larger cultural lexicon, which reinforces the idea that the museum is a place to enjoy, to question, to learn, to challenge, and ultimately, to seek entrance as a "national treasure."

What do you think? Is there something odious about this that I'm missing? What other ways would you like to see museums portrayed in the media?

4 comments, add yours!:

6th Floor blog said...

Personally I love it!

All joking aside I think Stephen Colbert qualifies for inclusion anyway. His portrait however, is so much deeper than the other ones in the museum because it comes with a back story, a tv episode, and all of it, including the location, illustrate more about Stephen Colbert than any of the other portraits.

rz said...

I love it! Thanks for bringing this to the attention of the media-obtuse. I think it's brilliant, and I think millions of people who didn't even know we HAD a National Portrait Gallery will now consider making it a part of their DC museum circuit, even after the portrait leaves. That's just a guess though.

Anyway, props to them for playing along.

Tamara said...

I'm with you, this is hilarious. Showing that museums can have a sense of humor -- and even laugh at themselves -- seems a good thing. It encourages people to joke around and express their opinions and questions about what they see in a museum. If Colbert did a fourth episode, where he goes back to the NPG to broaden his opinions about people whose portraits hang in the museum -- and discovers he's interested in learning about someone he's never heard of -- then it would be perfect!

Anonymous said...

i work in museums, including one of the smithonians, and i have to say this is one of the best marketing ploys a museum could ever put into play.

i went to view the colbert portrait last weekend, on a sunday afternoon. my friend and i walked in and the place was PACKED - everyone from people who looked like they had never been in a museum in their lives to those who were clearly hard core visitors. i was curious how many people asked the information desk where the colbert portrait was - and the response was "about 40%".

We went to look at it, had our picture taken with it, and then i watched others. they stood in line, had their picture taken with it, and then afterward, many of them actually went to view things in other galleries.

this was on a beautiful sunday afternoon in DC. the friend i went with often just pops into one or two of the many museums in DC on the weekends when he's tooling around and he commented that he's never EVER seen so many people at the NPG at 3pm on a sunday afternoon, when the weather is nice enough to do something else especially.

if colbert can bring people into museums, and the museums will let him do it i am all for it. and if he can do it and get not only the visitors but the staff to laugh at it? then WAY more power to him!

the NPG has a new director now, just named two days ago, and an interview in the washington post quotes him saying something akin to he thinks the addition of the portrait is genius. pachter agreed to six weeks - i hope sullivan agrees to keep it on "long term loan" (even though the smithsonian doesn't really "do" that) or accept it outright as a donation, and keep it hanging in its current location. it's bringing people in, and how can that be a bad thing?

colbert made a presidential bid, he's a figure in american politics (albeit in the comedy central fashion), and frankly - why SHOULDN'T his portrait be in the smithsonian?