Monday, August 11, 2008

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

It’s true. I went to Wyoming and learned that I am an elitist when it comes to national parks. I like my parks hard to access, sparsely populated, and minimal in services. It’s an uncomfortable truth which is forcing me to examine my arguments for inclusivity, access, and populism in museums.

I visited two parks last week: the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. In the Tetons, I had a highly exclusive, hard to access, fabulous experience. I carried a 40-pound backpack up and down mountains and across snowfields for four days with friends. It’s an experience that requires permits, maps, physical ability, gear—a long list of barriers to entry. Few people go for it. That’s part of why I love it.

Yellowstone, on the other hand, was an access dream—and my nightmare. You could drive right up to the geysers. There were wide, flat, paved paths between the natural features. There were benches to sit on, interpretative signs to read, ice cream to eat, and trinkets to buy. There were people and trashcans everywhere. I hated it.

I realize that I have more frequently advocated for Yellowstone-style museums than Grand Teton-style ones. I believe in lowering barriers to access and creating opportunities for visitors to use museums in diverse ways. On this trip, for the first time, I truly understood the position of people who disagree with me, those who feel that eating and boisterous talking in museums is not only undesirable but violating and painful. For elitists, it’s impossible to ignore the ways others are degrading what is for you an intense aesthetic and emotional experience. I get it now. I felt it at Yellowstone.

Understanding what it feels like to be the elitist jerk helps me have a more nuanced perspective on inclusivity and access. Yes, I am a jerk—but only when it comes to my own experience. I and my outdoor values are in the minority. The national parks do not solely, or even mostly, belong to me and my backpacking friends. They belong to the millions in RVs who make the trek to Yellowstone and Yosemite every year. Providing services to support and encourage their visitation makes good sense. They are the great big public, and giving them comfort and access makes national parks a valid and worthwhile alternative to theme parks and resorts.

And while I may have had a day of frustration, supporting their experiences ultimately doesn't hinder mine. I don’t need Yellowstone; I have hundreds of remote, gorgeous mountains to climb in my life. For the people who will never engage at that level, Yellowstone is a necessary, useful option and an entry point that may inspire a few folks to increase their outdoor prowess and join me off the beaten path.

As an experience consumer, I have the luxury of being a jerk. It’s acceptable for me to only respect the parkgoers and services that reflect my values. But if I were a parks interpreter,
an experience provider, that attitude would be reprehensible and highly derogatory towards guests.

And herein lies a reason (one which previously eluded me) inclusivity is looked at skeptically by some museum leaders. They are elitist jerks! Museum directors love museums so deeply and are such sophisticated users of them that they want to protect the kinds of experiences they would choose to have as visitors. I feel fortunate that when it comes to museums, I am more similar to the bewildered, skeptical public than the sophisticated few. I don’t feel the pain elitists feel—I feel the pain that the vast majority of visitors feel.

And so I look back on the thousands of people who streamed by me in the Yellowstone parking lot with revulsion—as a jerk. But I also identify with them and look at them with hope and excitement. They are at the park. They didn’t have to be there, but they perceived something of value there and they came. They drove thousands of miles, and they deserve to roll along flat paths in their wheelchairs and strollers. They deserve ice cream with their geysers. As an elite park user, I have plenty of resources at my disposal, from maps to rangers to well-maintained backcountry trails. The Yellowstone visitors, who account for a hugely larger percentage of park visitors, deserve great resources as well. And it’s okay if I don’t care to use them.

16 comments, add yours!:

Amy said...

My mom (in separate conversations) put it well saying that you need different types of National Parks/Museums for introducing people and then you can step it up once people have learned those skills (first you take a kid to Yellowstone/a children's museum then the BWCA/MoMA) I'm on the fence about all museums being all things to all people, I love interactivity but also love my cathedrals of art. Diversity of museums for a diverse population? Is jerk too strong a word?

Nina Simon said...

I sure felt like a jerk--patronizing, pissed off, unwilling to see the value of experiences that weren't the ones I desired. When we talk about creating "visitor-focused" exhibits and experiences, I think we have underlying prejudices that those will be experiences that we would also enjoy and value as visitors. But that may not always be the case, and it may limit us from creating something extraordinary.

I remember Robin from the Walker Art Center talking about their teen website and how the teen-designed part is not appealing to her--and that's what makes her know it's legit from the teen perspective. It takes a lot of courage to support, defend, and put your heart into something that you wouldn't personally enjoy experiencing.

Anonymous said...

The movie Party Girl is one of my all time favorite movies. There's a great scene in it where the librarians and library aids are all debating this very debate in regards to libraries. I always loved that little detail about the movie -- it's a real debate. And it means very real things to those that are involved. And the movie is cute and fun, but having that little intellectual moment feels very true.

Anyway, I think it's okay to be a snob and to create experiences for other snobs. But it does take courage to welcome the unwashed masses. And the question becomes which best serves the mission of your institution. Or if they both do. I think that technology will really help microtarget (as in the case of the Walker Teen website -- which I LOVE. But my taste definitely run toward embracing the masses) audiences. Podcast tours for different ability levels for instance. Or geotagged tours.

The hardest part, though, maybe how to embrace your own elitism while embracing the low and not coming across as patronizing.

Anonymous said...

There is an access/diversity issue that is being overlooked here -- i.e. persons with disabilities. The Tetons are impossible to access in a wheelchair. What efforts are being made for universal access in this regard?

Anonymous said...

Coming from a public school bacgraound access is everything. Its about democracy and access. It goes to the 2.0 mindset of a visitor controlled experience.
I fight everyday with access and accessibility. I would kill for some unwashed masses at my institutions!

Nina Simon said...

I absolutely agree with the comments in support of physical access and bringing in the "great unwashed." I encourage you to think like an elitist and imagine which arguments might convert them to your side... for me, this park experience made me understand the people who confound me in museums--and now, I hope to be better equipped to convince them of their jerkiness.

Anonymous said...

It sort of boils down to literacy (in a broad sense of the term). Within a given category of experience (the outdoors, museums, books, games, etc) there are going to be people who are highly literate (the elitists are probably in this group), people who are minimally literate (the unwashed masses, so to speak), and all kinds of folks in between. Someone just learning to read isn't going to appreciate Ulysses, just as an English Lit prof might look down on See Spot Run. A hardcore gamer might scoff at Bejeweled or Sudoku while a casual gamer might be baffled by the latest first person shooter (though it could be argued that hardcore and casual aren't indicators of literacy).

The point is that, for any category of experience, those of us who create experiences must consider our audience. We must decide where on the spectrum of literacy our work should reside (or perhaps we try to create something that works on many levels). And, as a group, we should probably try to provide a variety of experiences that help people achieve a better understanding and appreciation (a higher level of literacy) within our chosen field.

Ideally, all those places like Yellowstone result in a greater appreciation of the outdoors amongst the general population, and perhaps some of those folks will want more and come looking for the Teton experience.

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to not automatically equate "elite" with "jerk." If only because I venture most of us are elitist in some interest or another. And often that quality of being elite is arrived at b/c of an acquired body of knowledge and experience that shouldn't be dismissed completely.

I'm always amazed by artificially constructed hierarchies. We had a conference of slip-casting ceramicists at our museum last year. And apparently slip-casting had been considered at or near the bottom rung of pottery, with wheel-throwing at the top. Who knew??

Anyway, Jon Stewart put it best on the "The Daily Show a few months ago when critics were calling Obama an elitist. Stewart said, "Not only do I want an elite president, I want someone who is embarrassingly superior to me."

Anonymous said...

For me, there are two issues here: there's a difference between making exhibits accessible or universally designed and dumbing them down, and it's one thing to adapt a pre-existing environment to make it more accessible, it's quite another to create an exhibit from scratch that excludes audiences.

I just moved to DC and I've been going to museums here with spectacular artifacts and artworks, and they're poorly lit, and the labels are low-contrast and hard to read and in places that would be virtually impossible for someone in a wheelchair to see. It would take so little to make the labels more readable, or to add hear-phones, or to include tactile models, or videos.

There's a big chunk of research that shows that when you universally design exhibits, all visitors get more from the exhibit. It's also pretty likely an elist could go to a museum with their non-elitist family. Finally, someone may have learning disabilities, or be in a wheelchair, or have low vision, or be deaf and still be an elitist.

Jeremy said...

I very much agree - it's about levels.

All places don't have to have access to everyone (sorry, but the Tetons aren't going to be wheelchair accessible for a while).

Many places have to be universally accessible - with all the attendant trash and lowest-common-denominatorization. Other places can have barriers that only the more elite visitor will bother overcoming.

The problem comes in making the choices. You don't want beer-swilling yahoos or ice-cream-dripping kids disrupting a cathedral, and some of us view natural features like the Tetons or the Grand Canyon with similar reverence.

Check out the master plan that Jeff Olson developed for the Grand Canyon, involving traffic calming, greenways, and informational gateways. It's a good example for how you can provide service for the lowest common denominator side by side with more elite-level experience.

Ellen said...

There's something national parks give me that museums usually don't: interaction with other visitors--often, even usually, people who I might not strike up conversations with in my urban, East Coast-elitist everyday life. Two examples come to mind. In Yellowstone a few years ago, dutifully driving from one mind-boggling vista and geyser to another, we'd get out of our car and take whatever short hike was available down a concrete path to get closer to the attraction. More than once we had enjoyable conversations with other visitors about the amazing features of Yellowstone. Just a couple of weeks ago in Yosemite (the park people say is being ruined by humans), my son and his girlfriend encountered a mother bear rescuing her two babies from their stranded position on a rock. A small crowd gathered. Photos were taken. On the rest of their way up Half Dome, they saw other people who had seen the bears. Names and e-mail addresses were exchanged; photos will be shared. The parks inspire such wonder that you just can't keep your feelings to yourself. They're one of the few places where we're forced to stand next to someone who might not have the same deep knowledge of, say, geology as we do and find that we're both equally awestruck. We don't do that in museums. We self-segregate. I like it when I see the masses in Yosemite. It's a sign of our national appreciation for places like that. (And P.S.: In Yosemite, there's more than enough backcountry for elitist hiking.)

Lynn Bethke said...

I just visited Grand Teton/Yellowstone last week Wednesday/Thursday so this post is very vivid for me. Didn't have enough time to do anything at Teton, but would have loved to hike (although more on a day-hike level). Went to Old Faithful and literally commented that it felt like Disneyland - Mount Rushmore felt much the same.

I think I would have liked the less structured aspects of Teton, especially since the best experience I had was running up and down a Wyoming hillside discovering unmarked, un-advertised petroglyphs. But I also let myself love being a tourist, becoming part of the oohing and ahhing t-shirt buying crowd, for a time in Yellowstone and Rushmore. So... I believe you can have it both ways sometimes; there is no right or wrong answer.

Anonymous said...

I spent 2 weeks in Yellowstone two summers ago and I didn't come away with the feeling of it that you did. It is a vast park with many, many places to get away from the "disneyland" feel. There are a number of trails that you have to apply for permits to go on and can completely get away from people.
My wife and I found some beautiful places that felt like they were ours and ours alone to just have to get away from the tourist trap areas (which I admit there are some!)
We actually came across a mother wolf and 2 pups that were near a rocky outcrop off of Yellowstone lake. We were close enough to see them easily with the naked eye. It was a wonderful experience.

Anonymous said...

These differences help to explain some of the tensions within a museum (or art gallery, in my case).

+ Education bring in zillions of kids.
+ Public programs bring in millions of other people.
+ Sponsorship represents the interests of the corporate donors.
+ Public relations brings the press in.
+ Members is organising things for the paid-up members.
+ Curators and directors are stroking their well-heeled supporters and donors.

Everybody is bringing people into the museum, but they are all bringing in different types of people. Conceptually, they are promising each group a different museum.

No wonder they don't get on sometimes.

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for the great breakdown. Of course we all want directors to focus on "our" people, whichever constituents they may be.

Lace said...


I'm a little late in reading it, but I am so glad I checked out this post. (And I thought I was the only one trying to compare National Parks and Museums...). Working for hiking trails, we wrestle with similar issues when talking about designating areas as wilderness without being accused of being "elitist."