Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Museums, Divided Attention, and Really Bad Commercials

Ready for something ridiculous? Check out this inane AT&T commercial about a woman whose absorption in her smartphone is so great that Facebook updates become substantiated as pieces of art in the museum through which she strolls. It's like a bad public service announcement about the relationship between ADD, self-absorption, and psychosis.

It also suggests that for young people, masterpieces in museums are not nearly as interesting as a good friend's new haircut. And while I'm heartened by the fact that YouTube commenters were offended and dismayed by the commercial, I do think this commercial reflects common fears that museum-lovers have about younger generations and museums.

There are two fears at work here:

  1. People are so distracted by technology that they can't disconnect to pay attention to what's really important. 
  2. People are more interested in their own social lives and whatever is happening right now than in the big ideas, stories, and themes that have traditionally defined us as humans and communities. 

Both of these fears have some truth to them. People (of all ages) are making bad decisions because of technology rapture--whether that be texting while driving or spending more time with screens than with family members. And social media can promote a kind of narcissism in which each of us lives in a tiny bubble of friends' rants and raves.

These issues are important. But I feel that they are societal issues, not issues specific to museums or art institutions. I think this commercial could have just as easily been framed in another context that affords focus--work, a dinner party, playing sports. This kind of behavior is a violation of attention no matter where it happens. You could even argue that the commercial inartfully points to the ways that people map their own imagination onto museum artifacts. That it suggests that museums are sufficiently populist that people feel they don't have to check their interests and comfortable behaviors at the door. In some ways, this behavior is no more objectionable than people walking through a museum chatting about their personal lives and occasionally turning to engage with the art. It's just more visible, and offensive, because of the device-mediation.

Many people feel that museums are sacred spaces for a particular kind of attentive experience, and that it would be better if people understood and valued the specialness of that experience. I agree. But I think we have to earn it. We have to help people make connections to the power of artistic mastery, scientific discovery, and historical leadership in ways that push people out of the everyday. We have to provide the interpretation, the linkages, and the sparks that bring people into meaningful engagement with our artifacts and stories.

Visitors don't want to see their own lives on the wall. But they DO want to see reflections, expansions, and distortions of their experiences in ways that allow them to form new connections. That's what compelling relevance is about. It's not pandering. It's bridging.

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