The hazards of cleaning the attic

I’M A LITTLE LEARY of the planes to renovate the National Museum of American History. There seems to be a notion abroad that the problem with museums is the space they’re in when, in fact, it’s often more a matter of what’s on the walls and on the floor.

I recently spent some time in the recently renovated Museum of Modern Art, which is full of new space. I suddenly had a subversive idea. I walked into a large gallery and stood in the middle of the room, about as far from the works as they would have typically been had I purchased them for a new McMansion on the California coast.

I found myself alone. Close to 90% of the others in the gallery stood about one to five feet away from the paintings, reading the labels, examining the brush strokes and looking thoughtful. I had positioned myself where I assumed many artists would prefer me to gaze at their work, but I felt like a philistine. I also had a hard time seeing the paintings behind all the people crowded around them.

The point is that people often behave differently than how others – such as artists and museum directors – think they should. In fact, the crowd in MOMA would have been perfectly happy viewing the art had it been hung inside a railroad car. I stood there and gloated about the millions that had been spent to make me happy in my “space.”

Here’s how Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post describes the plans for NMAH:

“After four decades of sending visitors through a maze of hallways and galleries, the museum is planning to redo the core of the building, adding 10-foot-high ‘artifact walls’ on the first and second floors — glass cases that will display hundreds of items from the museum’s vast collections. The center of the 750,000-square-foot building will have an atrium with a new skylight and a glass staircase that will allow visitors at the entrance from the Mall to see all the way through the building to the entrance on Constitution Avenue. . .

“The announcement of the new plan for the building comes four years after a blue-ribbon commission issued a report sharply critical of the museum’s layout and organization. The report said the museum didn’t meet any obvious test of comprehensibility or coherence,” adding that even its employees got lost in the building. It suggested old-fashioned timelines, directories of the events of American history and a more coherent narrative.

“The panel was most concerned that the museum was claustrophobic, uninspired and cluttered. ‘Now it has opened up the lines of sight horizontally and brought in light vertically,’ [commission chairman Richard] Darman said.”

In fact, the museum as it now exists is one of the most popular in the world. It is indeed cluttered, just like an enticing attic or basement; and it is sometimes uninspired but never claustrophobic or incoherent. It represents, with surprising honesty, the anarchistic chaos of American virtues.

Now, I admit I’m biased. The museum is filled with things I like, starting when you first walk in the door and ahead of you are the chairs, tables and counters from the ice cream parlor down the street from where I lived as a kid. Then there’s the steam engine that is so big they had to build the museum around it and the upright transposing piano made for Irving Berlin. Berlin was self taught and preferred to play on the black keys, just like Mr. Platt, my anthropology teacher, who also gave me pop piano lessons in high school. In another room, there’s a big navigational buoy sitting like a Roman statue to warm the heart of ex-coastguardmen like myself and an actual piece of Route 66 as well as a mid 1980s minivan just like the one I used to have.

Yes, I’m biased, but approximately three million people each year find similar icons with which they can recall, relax, reflect, and bore their families talking about.

But planners prefer things neat, comprehensive and with a coherent narrative. Not to mention timelines, even if nothing much happened in 1837 and even if time lines are not a particular useful way to organized as multifaceted a culture as America’s.

And they love that space. Says Trescott, “The museum is planning to redo the core of the building, adding 10-foot-high ‘artifact walls’ on the first and second floors — glass cases that will display hundreds of items from the museum’s vast collections. The center of the 750,000-square-foot building will have an atrium with a new skylight and a glass staircase that will allow visitors at the entrance from the Mall to see all the way through the building to the entrance on Constitution Avenue.”

The problem here is a combination of too little and too much. Once I’ve spent ten seconds seeing all the way through the building to the entrance on Constitution Avenue, what will I do next? Probably ask a guard where they’ve put the trains. On the other hand, ten foot artifact walls with hundreds of items – based on other such exhibits I’ve seen – will quickly wear me out. Such things remind me of the back room of shoe stores and I’ll probably soon ask a guard whether they still have Irving Berlin’s piano.

There is a tendency in the museum world these days, as elsewhere in America, to use design as a substitute for evidence, style as a substitute for reality, empty space as a substitute for substance, and abstract words as a substitute for specific knowledge. Ironically, it all costs a lot of money that could better be spent on creating the sort of alternate realities that actually draws people to such places.

The sad thing is that the Museum of American History already understood this. Now it seems to want to forget it all.

 

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