I Hate “Why I hate Museums”. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. I’m completely willing to admit that, because my mother did not finish college, she might have found museums to be the best place to take her young Latina daughter to educate her. I’m a museum studies major, it’s fairly obvious I like museums. Love them, even.
It’s not surprising people who work in museums love museums. Neither is it surprising to me that lots of people dislike them, as CNN’s James Durston laments in “Why I Hate Museums.” More power to Mr. Durston. But I have some problems with his argument, or at least some gut reactions that remind me deeply of my mother. If I was going to complain I was bored, she would wisely tell me one or two different things: 1.) Only boring people are bored, or 2.) You’re bored? Go clean your room.
Which isn’t to say Mr. Durston is a boring man — I’m sure he’s quite interesting, well-traveled, and has been to more museums than he cares to count. But I’m also reticent to listen to a critic who hates where he goes advise me on where to go. And conversely, I’m sure we can all recognize there’s no point in trying to convince a food critic to love a desert he hates.
But that’s not what I think the problem is. Plenty of people dislike museums, and while I disagree — we’re all allowed to dislike or misunderstand different fixtures of society. Some of us love the Superbowl. Some people can’t tell a touchdown from a third down and others can’t tell a Manet from a Monet. That doesn’t make these people unintelligent, it’s just not their area of specialty. But my problem with Mr. Durston’s article isn’t that he dislikes museums — he’s entitled to — my problem is that the article is meant to be provocative and little else. I suppose that’s what opinion articles are for, but view it from my perspective: What does Mr. Durston like? Enjoy? Not medieval ceramics, not algae, not beer chalices, not bowls, plates, Islamic art, Napoleon’s personal effects, George Washington’s home; the Sex museum is boring, the Beer museum isn’t “intoxicating” enough.
But he seems to think children have fun at museums.
I thought this was the most interesting part of this article. Children have fun, don’t they? He states:
Kids do seem to have a good time when pushing buttons, pulling levers and magnetizing soap bubbles (right up until they stop having a great time and turn into wailing bundles of hair and tears only a little more bored than the parents).
Which having interned at a Children’s museum as an educator, I would have to say is more the nature of children than the nature of museums. Perhaps Mr. Durston should take a leaf out of their book, if he’s not enjoying things. Maybe he’s bored because he’s not having fun. Which isn’t to say museums don’t have problems in accessibility, I certainly think they do — but the complaints of the article seem easily fixable, even nonsensical at points:
- There’s not enough information on the labels — but he refuses to listen to audio guides. If you refuse the solutions to obtaining more information, what is a museum worker to do?
- Children have fun interacting with exhibits — but museums are stiff, dry, and academic. Too adult and too childish at the same time.
- "Free" museums require public taxes to pay for them. This is silly — of course government funded museums are funded by taxes. The government doesn’t magic money out of thin air - or at least it shouldn’t be doing so. The reasons for our national debt aside, it seems ridiculous to complain that museums must be paid for with actual money as opposed to…some strange nebulous alternative. Museums as he mentions, are one of the few public institutions that earns money, generating $7 for every $1 they spend. So is a minute percentage of public taxpayer dollars the issue, or is the issue that Mr. Durston just really hates museums? Does he believe they run themselves or that we all have a Daddy Warbucks taking us in as the redheaded orphan of government funding? The Smithsonian is a government opened museum — so it’s not surprising or out of line for 65% of it to be funded by the public.
I’m frankly, unsure what the problem is with those things. If you refuse the solutions, we can’t fix the problem. If you have problems with museums receiving money in order to be free, you’re going to have to expect to spend a lot more on entry fees. People complain about the amount of funding the Smithsonian receives, but in the same breath forget to count just how many museums the Smithsonian is composed of — Nineteen museums, nine research centers, and over 140 affiliate museums. Is it any wonder they might have a bigger need for funding than a singular museum?
Mr. Durston complains he can’t eat snacks in the galleries but also laments the cafes we do offer. He says museums aren’t engaging, but then complains that gift shops, well, exist. And for those of us who do study museums, for better or for worse, we recognize that gift shops make our museums accessible, portable, and gift-able. You can continue learning at home with books or postcards. You can present the experience you engaged in to others as a gift, an accessory, a conversation piece. Artists can sell their wares, we can pick up science kits for nieces and nephews, and all in all, museum gift shops do precisely what Mr. Durston wants from his entire museum experience.
Still, this isn’t enough. And he’s not wrong, museums do need to engage. But we can’t be all things to all people, especially when those people contradict themselves in the same article. The education director at the Phoenix Art Museum (where my Museum studies class is being held) suggests this attitude means I shouldn’t go into education. And while that’s not my goal, I’ve done other education internships — I don’t think it’s detrimental to admit you can’t win everyone.
The question this article raises for me isn’t “Do people dislike museums?” I know they do. And it’s not “what’s wrong with them?” because all the contradictions aside, I understand where the complaints are coming from. My question is how to we process this kind of feedback? How are we failing to make our missions clear when visitors bemoan that: “Nothing subverts a museum’s mission like a shiny, digitally printed banner broadcasting $4.95 replica Davids.”
I don’t think we’re just failing to be accessible, I think we’re failing to make museums comprehensible. I don’t think it’s just museums, either — as the issues seem to extend to basic maths and civics (Government institutions are paid for by taxes because it can’t be absolutely free), public manners (libraries don’t allow for snacking either), etc.
My question is also: If kids are enjoying museums, but Mr. Durston is not, where has his joy gone? Why the ennui when other people are enjoying themselves? Should museums be trying to please everyone, or just the people who might be open to being museum-goers?
I think it’s an honest question. Perhaps my youth or perspective in this field is getting in the way of how I respond to such complaints. Perhaps in equal response to Mr. Durston’s ennui I have hubris — I’ve taken even the most reluctant friends to museums and still had them enjoy the experience even if we both disliked what we saw.
Is the problem entirely fixable issues in museums or in this instance, is part of the problem simply that it’s not this CNN reporters cup of tea? I take no offense if it isn’t — but I don’t think we should radically change or alter museums based on the experiences of people who hate the concept of museums.
I’m not the only one puzzled by the article:
Mr. Durston, as you know, many pieces have information about them displayed or you can listen to audio give you even more detail but I’m disturbed that this isn’t even enough for you as you state. (Then, if something did go beyond this you are disappointed that they have a gift shop afterwards.) Heck, I don’t even want all the information for each piece because I’m the kind of person that would read or listen to every damn one. I’d lose my mind. I can appreciate like items in the same exhibit without feeling the need for minutiae. I’ve also attended many museum exhibits that reenact certain periods, tell stories, show movies, have other related displays and so on. I believe that museums have come VERY far in the 40 plus years I’ve attended them. Museums are educational but they are also about preservation and finding the right blend is important. I’d like to think that this diatribe is a somewhat altruistic attempt at getting museums to increase their patronage but please stop trying to make it all about you and your particular attention span.
— Chrissy Carr
I’m the last person to say that museums are perfect at what they do. They aren’t, but no industry is. Still, perhaps part of the problem isn’t just what we’re doing, but explaining why we’re doing it that way, and what has to happen for it to change, especially in an age of instant gratification expected. Perhaps then we’d be able to have a better dialogue about the purpose of museum gift shops, of audio guides, or why labels are often so sparse. Even just explaining that museums include zoos, have films, video games, cartoons, oral histories, etc… It’s the least we (the museos) could do to justify our own careers and institutions.
What do you think?