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Shouldn’t museums be fun?!

A museum visitor’s take on Andrew Goldstein's conversation with Philippe de Montebello

When it comes to museums I’ve found it’s often curators telling the public what it wants, then organizing collections and exhibitions as if they’re doing it for other curators. Granted they know more than we do about preserving and exhibiting artifacts and other works (though their ability to systematically tell a good story through temporary exhibitions remains in question), but when it comes to the visiting experience that’s an evolving proposition you can already see taking place in many museums around the world.

Fact is how we think about these cultural institutions is changing, as is the type of experience that generates the most impact for many of visitors.  It’s part of what struck me reading Andrew Goldstein’s interview (here and here) with former Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello, or Count Guy Philippe Henri Lannes de Montebello to be precise. He’s the Jack Welch of museums: been around for ever, a leading scholar in the arts, produced some huge shows and is considered the gold standard in how to run a museum.

As I read through his views on museums, a difference of perspective emerged between the revered 81 year-old who’s spent 30 years leading one of the world’s most recognized art institutions and this lowly 34 year-old cultural entrepreneur. It’s a difference that can be summed up between a traditional, somewhat exclusive approach (his) and a more accessible, experiential one (mine).

Given how prominently the Met features in the interview there’s a quick distinction to be made between that small category of museums and most other museums around the world. A sizable percentage of visitors – notably tourists – may go to a museum like the Met or the Louvre because they’re considered incontournable and part of the overall travel experience. These visitors could be motivated as much by intellectual discovery as just wanting to tell their friends back home they’ve been there. For most museums however, that incontournable status is elusive, meaning to grow their visitor base they have to meet them half way. A great collection is certainly a draw, as are well-organized temporary exhibitions, but so is offering an experience that can be shared, one that is as much social as it is cultural.

Back to Mr. Goldstein’s big interview, de Montebello explains that “a museum is a warehouse. It is a library. It is a container. A museum, for me, is a collection of works of art.” From an academic standpoint, this seemingly lifeless portrayal is spot on. But comparing a museum to a library doesn’t totally jive with the emerging view of these institutions, nor I feel with the image they seek to project. They are after all the keepers of our collective memory which is as much about the past as it is about the present and future. Entire generations of visitors, some of them art professionals, others art aficionados and many new to art and museums, are showing up seeking a more dynamic experience which has prompted a lot of major museums to adapt their offering.

Is this because the experiential approach is genuinely more impactful? Or is this all just a fad that will eventually pass?

For now, it seems a fairly logical progression. Museums are up against some stiff competition that didn’t exist when Mr. de Montebello showed up on the scene 54 years ago. Access to all kinds of other interests continues to emerge – be they gastronomic, entertainment, material or travel – so for museums to keep up, so must the visitor experience. He rightfully observes that “we’re in our infancy when it comes to museums”, but I don’t think this evolution towards experience, or contemporary art for that matter, is a question of “serving the flavor of the day” either. After all, “all art was once contemporary” – just not all contemporary art is good 😉

But museums beware! To Mr. de Montebello’s point, all this talk about experience cannot be done at the expense of the collection.

Maurizio Nannucci, All Art Has Been Contemporary, 2011

I do think however, that de Montebello does not altogether reject this move towards experience. “Museums are still about their collections, and about striving for a higher experience.” Indeed, they must continue to set trends and shouldn’t just be “about popular culture”, but the “silly things” like cafeterias, music and shops do in fact contribute meaningfully to how visitors recall their experiences, and therefore their susceptibility to return.

Take The Garden Café at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for instance. Or the George at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Or Untitled at the Whitney in New York! An exhibition is the perfect way to walk off the delicious lunch you just shared. Or better yet, digest the exhibition you saw with friends over coffee and snacks.

And on the subject of contemporary art, while he thinks that “maybe the Brooklyn Museum [is about popular culture]”, he is pushing for works from the Hispanic Society Museum & Library to be included in its programming. His point about local demographics is fair, but perhaps it’s also tacit acknowledgement that a museum that successfully addresses contemporary issues through art is a legitimate pursuit…?

So while Philippe de Montebello has been at this a lot longer than I have, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here. The experience he seeks in a museum is as valid as the one I seek; I just happen to think museums are more impactful when they effectively integrate the social experience into the cultural one. That said, the foundational mission must remain the priority – applying intellectual rigor to preserving and exhibiting our cultural heritage. But just as I don’t grasp SnapChat like the generation after me, Mr. de Montebello can’t be expected to grasp (or agree with) the way generations after him approach museums.

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