Relics of the Past?
About three months ago, I happened to find myself in a contemporary art museum at the same time as a sizeable group of teens. Collectively, they had decided that every piece of art in the museum was complete trash and therefore they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth from the visit.
Maybe they just didn’t like these specific pieces, or maybe they had decided long before they arrived at the museum that they simply didn’t care for contemporary art, which has a nasty cultural stigma of being lazy, unoriginal, or generally useless to mainstream audiences.
After following them around for a bit, I had a hard time forming my own opinions of the art being presented, giving in to a reflex reaction that it was all terrible.
Hours later, I had to come to grips with a pretty big question: are modern audiences responding more to what they find in a museum or to the entire idea of a museum.
Have we somehow grown beyond museums, as a people? Will future generations see fit to donate millions of dollars to keep them up and running?
The bigger question quickly became, why are museums important to the community in the digital age? Are they important at all?
Rather than making a definitive argument one way or the other, this article will take a look at different aspects of museums of all kinds and how we interact with them here in the 21st century.
The Role of Art and History
Yes, museums themselves, meaning the buildings alone, can have historic and artistic significance. (The Guggenheim comes to mind, as well as the Getty Villa just outside of Los Angeles.)
But when discussing how important museums are today, we’re really talking about what’s found inside them. Most often, museums are filled with objects of artistic and historical value.
So do we really need these objects? Do they teach us something valuable about the human race and how it has developed over time?
The brief answer here would be yes. Of course art and historic objects can communicate valuable information about the human experience, but these lessons aren’t always self-evident.
Most people will need help understanding the significance of certain pieces. Historical context can go a long way toward explaining why a museum display matters and why it was made in the first place.
Whether or not most museums successfully communicate that information is a whole different subject, and we’ll be taking a look at it later on.
Digital Vs. Tangible
Ok, so let’s assume that the objects on display in any given museum have cultural value. If that’s the case, why can’t someone just look at the same objects online, for no additional charge?
In a way, isn’t the internet the most wide-reaching and most accessible museum there is?
This is where things get tricky. Yes, you can find photos of just about anything online, from ancient Egyptian sculptures to the paintings of the great masters.
But based on personal experience, I can confidently say that seeing these same objects in-person is a different experience, not always better, not always worse, just different.
For one thing, it’s certainly more personal. Seeing a Van Gogh painting up-close is vastly different from viewing a JPEG of the same painting.
Not only that, but museum curators know what they’re doing. They don’t just find all they can and lay it out in the same room. How artworks and historic objects are arranged can create value and help create a consistent experience for visitors.
When pieces flow well, it’s because the curator wanted them to. And when they clash, it’s because the curator wanted them to.
There’s a certain amount of trust that goes into a thoughtful museum visit. Taking some time to think about what the curator wanted you to experience can make for a more fulfilling trip.
Museums and Accessibility
The question of accessibility applies more to art museums than history museums, so let’s keep that in mind during this section.
Modern and contemporary art, as mentioned above, have a reputation for being willfully obscure and difficult to understand. It’s not always true, but when it comes to certain artists, this reaction is completely fair.
If you don’t have a degree in art history, then you might find it difficult to really engage with Rothko’s ‘Orange and Yellow’.
Do museums do a good job of helping visitors appreciate art?
Well, sometimes they do.
Tour guides can definitely be a big asset, very literally guiding visitors through specific works as well as through the museum itself, in a specific order.
Anyone who doesn’t want to be a part of a tour group can typically rent an audio guide, which offers insights and historical context for pieces.
But shouldn’t museum visitors be able to get something from their trip without the help of museum employees?
Yes, they should, but this just isn’t always the case.
Think back on past museum visits of your own. Did you feel something, anything at all? Even anger can be a sign that artwork is doing its job. There’s no right or wrong reaction. Having any kind of emotional response is a sign that you’re engaging with the work.
Even those kids mentioned in the opening anecdote were having a valid museum experience, they just weren’t aware of it.
The Bottom Line
To sum things up, there will always be room for improvement in the way that museums present themselves and their collections to the viewing public. Hopefully, these cultural institutions will continue to find new ways to allow visitors to engage with displays on their own level.
To answer the question that opened the article, yes, museums can indeed have a great deal of value to the communities they serve, but we’re at a stage where you, as a museum patron, still might have to do some of the leg work yourself.
In the future, try to go into a museum, of any kind, with an open mind, ready to experience something unique.