Monday 21 June 2010

I just want to be left alone

In a speech given recently for a dinner for the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, Stephen Fry talked about those feelings of embarrassment and intimidation that can creep up on you when visiting exhibitions:

Are we supposed to know facts about the artists and their works? Are we supposed to talk? Shall we be entirely silent and slowly stand and stare at works without comment and without revealing what we feel or shall we occasionally dare to say that we like this expression, or that shape, or those colours? Do we whisper to our companions, or do we imitate that awful show-off over there who is talking so knowledgeably and loudly about morbidezza, sfumato and golden sections? And isn’t it actually snobbish of us to disapprove of him, he is obviously enjoying himself and what is wrong with him imparting his enthusiasm and knowledge to his companion? Why should we assume he is showing off, doesn’t that assumption reveal nothing but our own self-conscious insecurity? Oh dear. It’s all so complicated. Aren’t we just striking a pose too, the pose of one who refuses to listen to any nonsense about art history, or pay any attention to the tradition or biographical background of the works before us. In fact we are going to ignore the so-called masterpiece in front of us and stylishly prefer the lesser known work next to it, just to show how original we are and how unswayed by reputations.

Further in, Fry wonders whether technology will save the bemused visitor:

Maybe the technology will save us. With earphones on and lost in an audio commentary we are perhaps more likely to close out the outside world and be left alone with the art work, which is what we want. And you don’t even need the audio commentary, with only the earphones you can zone out of the embarrassing present and into the artwork.

Sometimes, when my feedreader is filled with posts about participatory museum experiences, I worry that museums are going to become the new shop, filled with people (or technology) butting in to your quiet browse to ask 'Can I help you engage more with that?'. Will I have to start wearing faux-earbuds, the international signal for leave-me-the-hell-alone?

I had an interesting exchange last week over twitter with a friend who said that as an introvert, what he wanted was people-free hours at museums - a chance for him to visit without having to interact with anyone at all. (I resisted the opportunity to suggest a few places where such visits are the standard setting).

I'm all for museums and galleries becoming more welcoming, less aloof, more accommodating. But at the same time, I want to hold on to some time standing in quiet galleries, letting the artist and the curator do the work for me, and doing my own task of just looking and thinking.


staplegun said...

I saw some research recently that noted GLAMs have basically two distinct customer groups - those who want the traditional serious research-like experience and those who just want any (interesting/cultural) experience. Both groups accepted that the other's needs are valid.

It's not really news, but good to be reminded.

Usually it's futile to try to satisfy both at the same time - it's better to provide different, separate outlets for each end of the spectrum. Like in Te Papa, where there's the artwork mashup (that caused such outrage at the time) but also the traditional 'works hung on empty walls' part.

Each to their own (provided we cater for both).

We have mums-&-bubs times, maybe there could be others like 'Meditative Mondays' or 'Wordless Wednesdays' or 'Thoughtful Thursdays'.

staplegun said...

Then there was this piece today from The Independent - The decline of Britain’s public museums.

Maybe the pendulum has swung too far towards populism and it's time to find a better balance featuring both ends? Though as the article notes, that's an uphill battle with the media (who usually ignore the free exhibitions).