Monday, February 21, 2022

Do we really want people to visit?

These days, like many extroverts, I feel the ache of loneliness. I’ve been thinking about planning to connect with people again. Imagine if despite my great need to see people, I set up the hours when they’re usually at work and also made them feel like they needed to study up before meeting me. How likely are my friends to show up? And is it my friends’ fault? Or mine? In many ways, we’re setting up the same problem. 

A couple weeks ago, I asked people on Twitter what is one thing they’d like to change to make museums better. Many people focused on improving amenities. One person, however,  suggested that we should educate people about the norms of museums. The funny thing is that many people full well understand. After getting yelled at by guards on a field trip as a kid, they get that museums aren’t for them. Or even worse, they live in a place where only a small, privileged group go to museums. 

The thing is people don’t need museums. We don’t need to exist. Society would continue without us. And we’re not age-old. Theater has millennia of history. Music probably existed in the caves of prehistory. Literature is also old. So, as a new phenomena, and also one that isn’t a necessary amenity, I find it surprising that we’re not more focused as a field on survival. 

Someone recently said to me, “wow, if museums were corporations they’d deserve to fail.” We project exclusion through our hours and our structures. We’re open bank hours. But people will make concessions in their life to get to the bank, because they need them. Now, yes, I think museums offer incredible social good, but many people don’t know this. How much good can we do when people don’t use us? In other words, we must help people see us as valuable. Rather than asking people to bend for us, we must work to meet them. 

Art museums are particularly good at this type of “toxic friendship”. For example, museum benches show people what we really think of them. First, we usually don’t have too many. Stand, damn it! We need more space for collections. Second, we pick uncomfortable ones. If you must be weak enough to sit, we won’t make it enjoyable. If you look at old museum installations, you often see soft seating. So the clean benches of today are an improvement. But for whom? The visitors or the designers? In truth, I suspect what happens is that galleries get designed with the goal of getting a certain intellectual point across. The teams forget that humans will need to enjoy the space to even notice there is a point.

Now, you might want to scream, how dare you suggest we pander? Why focus on snacks when we’re doing the real work of scholarship and curation? Well, my question is for whom do you do this work? If you are deeply committed to scholarship for its sake alone, then why spend the time on galleries. A book is easier to share and it’s timeless. Instead, if your goal is to educate or share, then what’s wrong with investing in amenities? Do you force your friends to stand when you invite them for a four course meal? 

As a field, when we decide that our concerns and our structures supersede the comfort and interests of our audiences, then we’re in trouble. We will eventually find that other types of experiences will be more popular. And is it better to hold fast to old rules or instead to adapt to new audience needs?  

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