What is a 'museo-phobe'?

August 29 2013

Image of What is a 'museo-phobe'?

Picture: V&A

Someone you and I would be bored to tears by, I suspect. The 'Senior Producer' for CNN's travel website, James Durston, tells us why he hates museums:

I've always hated museums.

Yet twice or three times a year, I somehow find myself within one, shuffling from glass case to glass case, reading the little inscriptions, peering closely at the details, doing what any "good traveler" does.

Two hours later I walk out bored, hungry and far less glad to be on vacation than when I went in.

The main thing you learn in museums, it seems, is how not to run a museum.

"Vase: Iran; circa 15th century," I'm told, time after time, as if this is all I need to know.

As if what isn't said I should know already.

As if I'm not going to forget every dusty nugget of non-information the moment I walk away.

"The Age of Algae: September 1-December 15; $15 only," they offer, as if charging me for something I don't care about is a privilege.

Worst of all, there's a climate of snobbery surrounding this whole industry.

Confess that rather than stare glumly at an old beer chalice on a plinth you'd prefer to drink happily from a shiny new one in a pub, and you risk being outed as an ignoramus.

Well, I'm outing myself. I'm a museo-phobe.

Well do us all a favour James and leave the museums to those of us who like them. However, here's Maurice Davies of the Museums Association approving when Durston writes:

It feels to me like someone created a rule back in the first days of museums - ‘stick it in a case and let people look at it’ - and that no one has had the courage or the imagination to take things on a step since.

To which Davies responds:

Here he hits the nail on the head; in the 21st century, museums are still dominated by an essentially 19th century technology - putting things in glass cases or on the wall with little labels. Of course there are other approaches but this is the main technique used by most. [...]

If preservation trumps fun then museums are really in trouble.

The thing is though, nine times out of ten, there is no other way. We're about to put on an exhibition of Samuel Cooper's portrait miniatures here at Philip Mould & Co., an exhibition which would be impossible if it weren't for museum quality, secure glass cases. We'll have over 50 works by Cooper on display, including his most famous portraits. Of course, it would be great fun to let visitors handle all the miniatures, and perhaps even wear them or play miniature frisbee with them. But fortunately all those who are lending Cooper's works are able to do so because, over the centuries, they and other owners have astutely ignored Maurice's advice, and allowed preservation to trump pretty much everything. 

Update - a reader writes:

Bingo! That helps explain why CNN is so boring and superficial....

Update II - another reader writes:

Museums enjoy nearly sacred status in today's world for many reasons. In the greatest of them, one finds works of mythological reputation, the sort people make pilgrimages to, and having seen them, check them off a "bucket list" which leave their lives more enriched. For some, museums are their only opportunity to see great works of art, and many an art lover has had their "road to Damascus" moment there, an epiphany which unlocks for them what great art can be about. For others, the contemplative atmosphere alone may be the closest thing to a spiritual calling they experience, and the mere act of being within those walls may provide a comfort, a belonging they find nowhere else.

But for each of those, how many have had similar experiences to James Durston's? Ricochetting off label to label, occasionally stopped by a name we think we recognize to look up briefly?  Vast rooms crammed too tightly with objects or paintings, rock hard floors which quickly make their presence felt, plenty of ropes and glowering guards to let us know what's not allowed. Throw in groups of school children, an impromptu tour, an "important" exhibition where only those in front get to truly see the works, hoards wandering not quite knowing what to do with themselves before the gift shop is found? And oh, yes, all that glass. Hardly the stuff of optimal viewing. Durston speaks of continuously returning, trying to find whatever it is museums hold for him. How many more simply give up?

You point out you will not allow visitors to play frisbee with your Samuel Cooper's on display at Philip Mould. Wise move; preservation, especially for antique art is paramount. But there will be the occasional client, I wager, who will ask to see one in private, hold it in his hand, and contemplate it in much the same fashion as when it was originally created. And for most, even the act of seeing only 50 in the intimate surrounding of your gallery is a far more "honest" (I'm not sure that's the right word) experience than the attempts made at some of these overblown public institutions. Auction houses regularly let their visitors handle the works they are considering purchasing. And London, and a good many other cities, are filled with galleries which would gladly allow people into a more intimate setting to consider, even without buying, the works they have on display.

To use an awkward analogy, zoos in the 19th century were the rage, bringing rare species never before seen to the masses, and no one's education was complete without regular visits. Today, we see them largely for what they were; animal prisons, horribly artificial, which put on display more our cruelty than any particular animal. I'm not suggesting art is a living thing. But we continue to shift away from that sterile display of animals to one more in keeping with their "original" context. And all are better for it.  

This note will not derail the (largely financial) momentum toward bigger museums, a greater centralization of the art market, more "blockbuster" shows hustling thousands before works for moments at best. But at some point, cannot someone ask is it the best we can possibly do to show off the best of what humans are capable of?

Update III - another reader adds:

I don't think that museums are what Mr Durston hates, but merely boredom. His pint-pot might help greatly with this..

 Glass is always problematic for viewing things through.. I have a terrible time when I want to see through it whilst standing at my windows.

 'If preservation trumps fun, then museums are really in trouble..'  I think that should be the other way around if you are sane..

 I always go to museums to see great antique art, and ordinary modern people - both are very revealing if you look at them the right way.

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