Wednesday 11 November 2015

Hammers and nails

I pointed to Holland Cotter's 'Toward a Museum of the 21st Century' piece in the NYT a few weekends ago, when it came out, but I re-read it recently because of something smart Koven J Smith wrote on the Blanton Museum blog before the MCN conference last week, 'On Technology and the Museum of the 21st Century'.

I'm not as taken with Cotter's piece as some seem to be. It's not that I don't disagree with points like this:
Major urban museums in the United States are getting crowds in the door, but diversity isn’t coming in with them. Despite the dramatic increase in minority populations in this immigrant nation over the past half-century, and a wave of multiculturalist consciousness, our major art museums remain largely the preserve of better-off whites, a group that is losing its majority status in urban settings. 
And, more recently, there is evidence of significant shifts within that core audience, as once-shared pools of knowledge and interest change. These changes are most graphically evident at so-called encyclopedic institutions, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In them, non-Western art has always been a hard sell. But increasingly, so are formerly reliable stretches of Western art.
It's more his contention (sweeping generalisation ahoy) that museums are stuck in (or stubbornly clinging to) a 20th century mindset of build-it-and-they-will-come, hang-it-and-they-will-appreciate-it that is ill-suited to the needs of a more fluid, more porous, rapidly changing 21st century social landscape.

It's interesting, for example, to contrast his assertion that The Broad encapsulates some of the worst tendencies of this so-called 20th century mindset ("you’d think that a new museum devoted to contemporary art would be the place to find a 21st-century paradigm, but so far, no. The Broad, which opened with tremendous fanfare in Los Angeles this fall, is not a contender.") with Shana Nys Dambrot's assertion in the LARB that The Broad is just the 'gateway museum' we need in the 21st century, to ease younger and non-traditional visitors on to the encyclopaedic museums Cotter is smoothing the pillow for.  And painting all museums with the tainted brush of destination/vanity museums in Saudi Arabia hardly reflects the incredibly hard and generous and experimental work I saw happening in places like Indianapolis and Minneapolis in particular.

But anyway. Arguing with an opinion piece is rarely fruitful. Koven's post however uses Cotter's article to launch a much more useful line of enquiry than my own, with a meditation on something museums struggle deeply with when it comes to implementing digital technology (and I'd say lots of other things too):
We’re good at integrating emerging ideas into what we already do, but we’re not good at assessing whether what we already do is actually what people want. This is nowhere more evident than with the clumsy way so many museums attempt to address visitor needs with technology.
It's a classic 'if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail' problem.  As he concludes: 'Paraphrasing Arthur C. Clarke: to a museum, any sufficiently advanced idea is often indistinguishable from technology.' It's certainly something I thought about a lot when I was away: about how digital folk in museums tend to be restricted to making digital products, and not often enabled to contribute their expertise and ideas to the full visitor experience. If the online people were released into the offline world - what might happen then?

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