I caught an article headline on Twitter a few weeks ago by Robert Reid from National Geographic. I am a big fan of National Geographic, I like the work they do. I want to share a snip-it from this article here; one that I think is worth mentioning. Worth drawing attention to, and frankly work making a scene over:
But I wonder how museums will fare as people travel more, and farther, looking to take a deeper dive into the places they visit? Will museums survive in an era where it’s less about seeing things than doing things? You know, that whole “travel like a local” thing.
I’ve visited well over a hundred museums, and usually find the experience overly passive. We dutifully file past old tunics or jawbones sealed behind glass, read a few words on panels, watch looping videos on a screen in the corner.
Good God the man is right. This is all wrong! We (meaning us museum workers, volunteers, enthusiasts) continue, no no wait, PERSIST in going about this the wrong way. This cannot be that hard to do, and as Reid goes on to say in his article, (if you want to read the whole thing please do so by clicking here) big money and massive budgets do not always mean the museum experience is going to be impactful.
After reading the article, I started to reminisce on some of the larger museums I have been
to, in particular, the Met and the British Museum. When I went to the Met I was in my last year of High School, and when I went to the British Museum I was in my last year of college as an undergraduate. In both instances, I was excited beyond belief- I was practically shaking like a chihuahua because I had fantasized about being there in that moment for so long. I went in, charged around the galleries searching out, locating, and staring at the objects I already knew I wanted to see. I jumped over people, I smiled, I took photos, I walked around the cases, and I marked the moments in my mind. I had an active and engaging experience; the sad part, that I only realized now, is that it was not because of the museum, but because of myself. I created the experience for myself, all the museum did was have a big enough budget to obtain and house high status antiquities that would surely be on any young archaeologist’s bucket list to see in person.
Alright before people start getting excited, I have seen some large scale museums do some wonderful things, such as the NMS in Edinburgh- I have plugged them enough here. Having said that, the NMS is not the same kind of museum as the Louvre, the Met, or the British Museum. These museums deal with people in volumes, in numbers, not in individual experiences. Their visitor research focuses on mass movement patterns of people through galleries, not comment cards or interviews. They provide atmosphere, and you are supposed to fill in the blank for the experience section. And yes, of course, as I have previously mentioned, everyone is going to feel differently about museums. As I am writing here, I am picturing someone different from myself, maybe someone like a friend of mine who is apathetic towards museums, and could go either way. Someone who might go to Paris, and be wavering on scheduling in a whole afternoon just for the Louvre: “I mean, do I really need to see all of these paintings? Isn’t what I see online probably enough? But you know what I can’t do online? Take a boat tour.”
Reid then in his article goes on to describe an experience he had at a smaller museum:
I stopped in to that museum thinking I’d probably see a bunch of old beads and left feeling like I’d been hugged.
Hugged. I love it- how long has it been since you were ‘hugged’ by a museum? How long
has it been since a museum adventure moved you, your spouse, or your child, your friend? The more I mull this over in my mind, the more I can say that I have had better and more memorable experiences at smaller museums than larger.
I think that people are changing, and a long with them, their demands. We can argue semantics over the pros and cons of the minds of the new generations, but regardless, I think people want more from their experiences. Being herded like cattle through rows of cases, bumping to and fro between other tourists babbling in strange dialects is no longer going to cut the mustard. Museum visitors will want stimulation, interaction, and a unique memory. They want to be ‘hugged’!
In my mind this puts smaller and mid sized museums at an advantage, because they will have easier found opportunities to interact with visitors on a personal level, not on a mass quantity level. They will have a better chance of having a repeat visitor than another museum. If you do or do not live in the London area, how often would you go to the British Museum? Maybe once or twice in your life? It is astonishing how many people that are British have never been to the British Museum. Why should they? This indifference to museums because big museums are indifferent to their visitors should not define how everyone has relationships with all museums. Are the big museums ruining it for everyone else? That is probably another debate for another day.
Yes, this has ended up being another aspirational blog post. Big or small, let’s engage our visitors. Let’s provide an experience, and adventure, a moment, and a memory. Let people have fun, run around, take goofy selfies, touch an object, joke with a gallery assistant, and ask questions. Museums should not be seen as an obligatory destination for travelers, simply because you cannot possibly go to New York without stopping in at the Met. Museums should have to earn their titles and ratings on Yelp and TripAdvisor without relying on prestige. Most of all, museums need to remember that we work for visitors, not the other way around! Thanks for reading.
Peace and long life.