The financial problems of several of Washington’s museums has got me thinking more about museums than I usually do. I don’t rank as a museum expert, still I suspect I’m somewhere in the middle of the pack of those the experts are trying to attract. I love some museums, couldn’t care less about others, and prefer to have fun on a Saturday afternoon rather than engage in premeditated acts of somber self-education.
There are plenty of troubled museums around the country that need more people like me. But they don’t seem to have the touch. Are museums – like daily newspapers with their declining circulation – simply victims of changing technology and public tastes? Will television and the Internet damage the Louvre as well as the Washington Post? Or are museum designers and curators simply not reacting well enough to the changes around them?
For example, last fall I went to see the new American Indian Museum and was sadly disappointed. The post-modernists, it appeared, had even infiltrated the ranks of “community curators” and created exhibits that seemed the work of magazine cover designers. One felt endlessly trapped in introductions to something without ever getting to the real thing.
The verbal abstractions were numbing, the repetition tedious, and the lack of good stories odd, given their role in Indian culture.
Here was yet another building filled with annoying verbiage and distracting design intended to instruct you on how you should feel about something without giving you a chance to actually feel it. On the other hand, a couple of months later I went to an exhibit of Dutch art at the National Gallery and every label told me something interesting and useful about the painting next to it without ever being patronizing or dully didactic and I left not only feeling good but knowing more. The lack of pretentious abstractions and snooty adjectives didn’t hurt.
My own museum experience started with the stuffed animals at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and was later encouraged by lightning flashes and crashes and other scientific paraphernalia at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where I learned to call such places ‘muzims.’ Decades before computer games there was also a black coupe you could get into and “drive” into the movie being shown in front of you. You turned the wheel and braked and at the end received a punch card that told you whether you had an accident or not. Best of all you didn’t need a license, which was, for me, still years away.
I learned to like things that were life sized whether they were stegasauri or steam engines. I looked for surprises often concealed among the stodgier adult matter. I liked being taken someplace else. . . to another land or a another time or to outer space. Sometimes after looking at the tigers or the baboons, I would stare at the backdrop of the diorama and imagine myself on that same veldt with those same creatures. Best of all, I liked the way the props all around me helped me imagine new things.
I still do. While at an impressionist exhibit at the Phillips Collection a friend, finished with her tour, handed me her taped guide machine. I don’t care for these things, in part because they intrude on my reveries, but I took the machine and went into a room of abstract paintings by Rothko. I sat down on a bench and – staring at the huge mass of color before me – turned on the tape machine as it talked about the paintings downstairs. The resulting hallucinations were quite remarkable as I blended visual expressionism with aural impressionism. But how in the world do you justify such nonsense to a highly skilled curator?
While serving as Washington correspondent for the Illustrated London News, I once spent a week in the National Air and Space Museum. It would soon become the most visited museum in the world. Air & Space had been planned and built by engineers instead of by museum people and it was the only such institution in Washington that had opened three days early and a half million dollars under budget.
As I wandered about, I began noticing that the people who created this museum enjoyed it as much as I did. There was a mini-exhibit about the starship Enterprise. And there was a pie tin from the Frisbee Pie Company of Bridgeport, CT. The legend read: “Flown upside down, the tins were not as stable as modern plastic discs and their flights were highly unpredictable, but they did fly.” I mentioned this to the deputy director, Melvin Zisfein. He immediately got up from his desk, went to the closet, pulled out a Frisbee, and then commenced to give me a pleasant lecture on the aerodynamics of the device. Later, I asked an official something about the DC-3, one of my favorites. He opened a big lateral file and as I looked down at the folders I noticed some model plane kits shoved amongst the data, waiting for someone to open them up and start building something over lunch. Then, at the end of the week, I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, boldly remarking at one point that I had found something almost childlike in the museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, “There is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them.”
I remembered thinking: what other director of anything in Washington DC would say something like that?
I raised another risky point. We are taught that all art is done by artists. But in the air and space museum I found myself feeling that I was looking at beauty as well as technology. I asked Hinners if he had ever thought of Air & Space as an art museum. He replied, “To many of us, internally, airplanes and rockets – they’re beautiful. You don’t look at them as pieces of metal, but as a culmination of a challenge to do something.”
And when that something is flying through space you come eventually to the rules of nature’s own aesthetic in which all beauty has a purpose. The curator Walter Hopps agreed, telling me that the museum had “more aesthetic appeal to most people than most art museums do for most people. I think there is something very atavistic about it. One of the root themes in art is quest – exploration.”
Today, the Air & Space Museum has two thirds more visitors than the Louvre or the British Museum. Both of the latter, incidentally, are roughly at a par with the Smithsonian’s stuffed animal museum (AKA the Museum of Natural History) and its museum of trains, cars, and other large and interesting things from our past (AKA the Museum of American History).
Part of the problem today with many museums is that their directors are trained to do things like raise money, please major donors, express major themes, and show how socially conscious and profound they are. They lack the dramatic instincts of an entertainer, the good words of a writer, or the wisdom of a photographer who knows that if a picture is right, it doesn’t even need any words.
Fortunately, I have a partial cure, which is to create museum advisory boards of 12 year olds – i.e. those most likely to enthuse about or get bored with exhibitions. After all, you can only pander to faux intellectuals and sober adults as long as you have sufficient things that are big enough, different enough, curious enough, or enjoyable enough to entice the 12-year-olds they have brought along or who happen to be in the room bothering them.
It can be educational but it must also be interesting. For example, I happily recall an 18th century house at Strawberry Bank that had each room fitted out for a different period of the structure’s existence, ending with a 1950s parlor complete with an early television set. History in the house wasn’t trapped in a time ghetto but took us on its own trip as we went from room to room.
So here are some of the suggestions for struggling museums that I would make if I were still twelve years old and served on one of these advisory committees:
– It’s not the wrapping that counts. It’s the present inside. Too much money has been blown creating the architectural gift wrapping of museums. I don’t care what a museum looks like on the outside. After all, I’m paying to go in, not to stand on the sidewalk. Besides, once an architect does something, you’re stuck with it. You can’t take it down from the wall and put it into storage. Spend your money on the stuff inside.
– The interior of the building should also work for the visitor and not just the architect. Tens of millions of dollars have been wasted making huge spaces that just delay or confound the visitor’s approach to objects and their stories.
– The best museums are like the best attics. Everywhere you look there’s something worth looking at.
– If you want to know how good an exhibit is, listen to it. The best exhibits get people talking and so the room will be noticeably louder.
– Take me somewhere. One of my favorite museums is the Tenement Museum in New York City. From the moment you step into the dark first floor hallway until you leave you are carried into that building’s past. The Churchill bunker in London is the same way. Not just a visit but a voyage.
– In some house museums you wouldn’t be surprised if the former owner suddenly walked through the pantry door; in others you might as well be in just another antique shop. Three of my favorite house museums are right here in Washington. In each case it is the ghosts’ own contributions that make them work: the Frederic Douglass’ little shed he called his “growlery,” the beer parlor in brewmaster Christian Heurich’s mansion, the mike for a seminal talk to the nation in Woodrow Wilson’s home along with an icebox in the kitchen standing near one of the first refrigerators. Materials that connect the exhibits to real experience.
– Have some big things and put them in spaces that make them seem natural rather than captured objects. Zoos know this and even have a name for their larger creatures. They call them “charisimatic mammals.” All museums need charismatic objects.
– Have lots of places where you can sit and think about what you are seeing while feeling what it would be like to have it in your own living room. A few uncomfortable benches in the middle of the room aren’t enough.
– Have places where you can sit and read something about what you’re seeing.
– Don’t have too many small things. The eye tires of endless pots and pieces of jewelry behind glass.
– If you need to prove how culturally sensitive you are, show it with the exhibit and not with a badly written label.
– Don’t tell me how to feel about something. Let me discover it for myself.
– There need to be lots of stories. Much of what we learn is by anecdote, not by carefully constructed outline and timeline.
– Design should never interfere with, nor replace, a good story.
– Have some buttons to push that cause things to happen. And make sure that they work.
– Make your exhibition less like a cathedral or a classroom and more like a fair.
If more museums were like this, more of them might not be in a mess.