Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Museum 2.0 Rerun: I Am An Elitist Jerk

This August/September, I am "rerunning" popular Museum 2.0 blog posts from the past. This is a personal and crowd favorite--and one of the scariest posts I ever wrote. Originally posted five years ago, in August of 2008.

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.
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