Don't Be Hatin'

Hate. It ends up encompassing a spectrum of negative feelings; from annoyance (like when my cat Diderot upsets the kitchen trash for the upteenth time) to the mind-altering ire that fuels people to maim and kill. The word has become a lazy shorthand and carries with it enough weight to grab attention – look how many titles of columns, books and blogs you see it in. I’ll leave it to the English majors, linguists and  sociologists to parse out why we end up using such a strong word when we really mean something else. (The same can be said about the word love.)

I don’t believe James Durston really hates museums even though his column for CNN is titled “Why I Hate Museums”. If he really hated museums he would either be ambivalent and therefore not feel the need to write anything about them, or he would feel so strongly as to call for the abolition of all cultural institutions whose mission it is to preserve objects and to use them to educate people. But he has done neither.  What he has done is to say, hey, can’t you museum folks do any better? When I read his article, I got the feeling that Durston really wants to like museums. Otherwise, why would he keep visiting them? Yes, he’s a travel writer and I’m sure he and other travel writers must go places they wouldn’t choose to visit of their own accord, but I don’t think that’s it.

The comments after his column show he’s hit a nerve with some museum folks and with museum lovers, who rushed to defend how most museums exhibit their collections. What did I think when I read the article? I agreed with him. Now before you start thinking, “She’s in the wrong profession. A museum director who hates museums.” I don’t hate museums. But I think that many museums are in the “this is the way we’ve always done it” rut. Think about how things were exhibited back when museums were young: Peale’s museum for example or this image of the Walters Museum of Art in 1884, even this one (link removed -ed.) from the Smithsonian in the 1950s. Now think about some of the examples Durston used in his article – like the Stradivarius exhibit. He has a valid point. I know there are people, mostly ones who are interested in musical instruments, who would eat the exhibit up but are they the only ones the museum wants to reach? What about the curious everyman/woman?  Or should some museums just admit they are catering to a particular group and not worry about drawing in the masses?

Durston suggests museums miss the mark by focusing on clever interactives for kids alone.  Again, I have to agree. What about hands on stuff for adults? One of the interactives that sticks in my head is from an exhibit I visited several years ago at the National Building Museum. A portion of it was on historic masonry and they had real, tiny (about 1/50th size) bricks and an illustration of the different bonds used in building brick walls. You could stack them up any way you wanted and both adults and kids were welcome to experiment. I don’t agree history museums should be like science centers where everything is whirring, blinking and clanging. I do think we could do a lot better to engage our audience. Make the experience experiential. This is a challenge, I know, but I don’t think it is impossible.

I think Mr. Durston should give museums another try. This time, I recommend he visit a living history museum, like Old Sturbridge Village, Conner Prairie, Genesee Country Village or Colonial Williamsburg, and to be sure to visit the exhibits where skills and trades are being practiced.