False dichotomies, straw men, and real change

So, there I was, sitting at home thinking about PEM’s announcement of the new architect for our expansion. I was hired to be part of the team tasked with filling that space with meaningful art experiences and I think about it incessantly. I had gathered a pile of recent interesting articles that might help me in that work and was looking forward to digesting them. Then along came the Sunday New York Times, and Judith H. Dobrzynski’s  article “High Culture Goes Hands-On” and those plans went to Hell. If you follow me on Twitter, you probably already know I’m not a fan of the piece, but if you’re new to the game then I’ll confess I found it a smarmy, elitist, passive-aggressive bit of whinging, the kind of which I’m heartily sick and tired of reading. The aggrieved sense of privilege dripping from it made me want to wad up the paper and toss it in the trash. Oh, New York Times, you make me so mad sometimes!  Don’t even venture into the comments, you’ll regret it even more.

Rather than wasting my time and yours pointing out the myriad conflations, mischaracterizations, and opinions couched as fact in the piece, I thought I’d try to explore some more substantive therapy. And going back over my pile of juicy, neglected Sunday reading, they all bear on some of the themes in Ms Dobrzynski’s article.

The Museum  – Temple or Bazaar, or Both?

Egypt – Temple of Seti I, Abydus. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection (S03_06_01_018 image 2401)

The tone of the article seems to lament museums’ drive to find more ways to engage their audiences. Ms Dobrzynski seems to be in the same camp as Alain de Botton in thinking that art museums are supposed to be secular temples to culture; timeless and changeless. She writes, “In ages past, art museums didn’t need activating. They were treasure houses, filled with masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making, to speak to the universal. Visiting one might be social — you went with friends — but fairly passive. People went to see beauty, find inspiration, experience uplift, sometimes in a spiritual sort of way. Museums housed their heritage, their raison d’être.” Very much in keeping with the view of an ideal art museum experience articulated by Benjamin Ives Gilman of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1918. Gilman championed what has become the dominant paradigm for art museums since then; the white gallery housing only a few objects, provided with benches so the lone visitor could appreciate a single artwork at time in a properly contemplative state.

It was also a radical departure from the cluttered salon style hangings that had been the fashion beforehand. And both are of course, different from the ways religious art was displayed in religious contexts, and different from the ways the elites hung portraits of themselves at home, and different from the ways that objects that didn’t start off as objets d’art were displayed in their original use context. And we won’t even start on the changing role of mission of museums between the birth of the first modern museums and the present… She blithely presupposes an eternal state of being that never was, and laments it’s passing in favor of gaudy spectacle. In fact, her piece is a perfect counterpoint to a lot of the uncritical, unreflective fluff that gets written about participatory design in museums. Both set up a straw man of the Gilman type art museum, one to wax nostalgic over it’s alleged demise, the other to tilt at it like Don Quixote going after his giant. Neither position helps us figure out the task at hand; how to incarnate the mission of our museums using the resources (usually our collections) at our disposal. I mean incarnate in it’s original sense – to embody in flesh – because so much of what makes museums special has to do with their materiality.

Materiality, participation, and digital interactivity

Medical School, Sydney University – interior view of laboratory Digital ID: 4481_a026_000381

The Medical Museion in Copenhagen is near the top of the list of museums I mean to visit next time I’m in Europe.  The work and thinking coming out of there is always provoking in that way that solid thinking always is. If nothing else, go read this blog post on their manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions. Good stuff. Adam Bencard wrote a recap of a workshop they had recently called Objects first – thoughts on a deeper engagement with materiality that is a wonderful, short exploration of how object-based learning can and should be done. Putting a diverse group of people in contact (literally) with collections objects triggered a remarkable outburst of creativity as the participants jointly (not alone in silent respectful awe) explored these objects and dreamed up things to do with them in that museum.  Being in the presence of the authentic and being able to interact with it (a naughty word to Dobrzynski) gave them an experience (another naughty word to Ms Dobrzynski) they could not have had with a picture, a video, or an interactive, or with simply staring at the objects in cases. Adam’s rationale for the workshop says it all:

“What is the point of it? The point is that objects are powerful. Engaging with them has the potential of opening up our emotions, our imaginations and our ideas. They open up parts of us that are otherwise difficult to tap into. Their effects upon us are unruly and we respond to them in unexpected and opaque ways. They have presence.”

It reminded me of being at ASU a couple of years, going through their immense meteorite collection with one of the faculty. At one point he picked up a vial with some meteorite fragments in it and said, “Want to know another world smells like?” Um, yes? I can’t remember anything else about that visit, but just writing about that moment triggered a strong memory of it. I smelled another world once.

Museums are all about change

Audience wearing special glasses watch a 3D “stereoscopic film” at the Telekinema on the South Bank in London during the Festival of Britain National Archives UK Catalogue Reference: WORK 25/208

The fact that Dobrzynski prefers a more passive Gilmanesque museum experience is a personal preference and, as such, unassailable. But she makes it sound as though the Gilman model has existed since museums came into being, and that just ain’t so. Her treasured status quo was once a response to the status quo, a radical rethinking of what a museum should be, and be like, in response to its times. While I haven’t done a quantitative study of it, most museums I know of seem fairly resolved to remain relevant as relevant in this century as they were in the last, and this requires adaptation and change. Gilman’s world, where black and white photography, silent pictures, and telephones were the high technologies of the time, is very different than ours. And if museums intend to be forces for good, and change the world (or at least our visitors’ lives) in meaningful way, it requires us to be responsive to the world around us. Hand wringing and lamenting what might be lost might make for comforting reading to an older, affluent audience, worried about the future, but it doesn’t help us as museum professionals figure out ways to meet our audiences, including the ones we do a terrible job of currently reaching.

On the London School of Economics blog, Andy Martin wrote Lessons from civil society: how a ‘Theory of Change’ can help tell a bigger impact story which offers up insights into theories of change and how they might apply to the cultural sector.  He proposes three questions he thinks any non-profit trying to change the world needs to ask itself. 1.) How does change happen? 2.) Where does change happen? and 3.) What is my role in making change happen? They may seem trite, but answering them fully and honestly is a daunting challenge because the answers might take your institution out of the safe “culture” bubble museums exist in, and call into question the status quo of how we do our business. As anyone who has worked in a museum knows, a lot of our business practices are and structures are holdovers of bygones eras.

The how question is about aligning programs to strategic goals, and making those goals realistic and achievable. The where question is really all about audiences and the environment you’re working in. Is it a tough economic climate? Is there a lot of competition in your sector for attention and resources? My favorite quote from this part is “Haphazard work can have an impact in favourable conditions and impeccable work can fail due to tough circumstances. Separating how much of your impact is environmental is highly subjective, but essential to learning.” Word. With the What question he basically asks us to think about what we can do to cause the change we want to see in the world, and then do that and not anything else.

Change that occurs just as a response to prevailing fashion is worth calling into question, regardless of what direction the change moves towards. But mindful, strategic reshaping of goals is necessary for survival. Just doing the same old thing is clearly not going to be a viable proposition for most museums. And articles like Dobrzynski’s don’t really help clarify the way forward.

Participation vs appreciation: how many times do we need to say it’s not an “either/or” proposition?

Life class, Nat’l Academy of Design LOC Call Number: LC-B2- 3475-9

One part of Dobrzynski’s article that steamed me most was her willingness to go along with the proposition that museums can only be passive, or interactive. Chuck E. Cheese’s, Build-A-Bear Workshops, Niketown all get trotted out as examples designed to provoke the disdain of the Times readers.  I especially like her throaway line about Las Vegas’ art museum closing, as though Chuck E. Cheese and Co. personally put the museum out of business.

Do we need to be all one or the other? I don’t think so, and I don’t think the profession is abandoning one mode in favor of another as much as its including other ways alongside the more traditional. The most cutting-edge installation I can think of is David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art, which has no wall texts, and is hung according to its owners wishes – not a twentieth or nineteenth century aesthetic, but more like an eighteenth century one. With mobile devices. Which I loved. Contemplation and participation can co-exist, if thoughtfully done. Read Koven Smith’s paper from Museums and the Web 2009, The Future of Mobile Interpretation. It’s specifically about mobile, but like most of Koven’s writing, is much more broadly applicable, and a great example of a structure for gracefully incorporating new modes of interpretation in a traditional art museum framework.  Read any of the Tate’s recent digital strategy papers. There are ways to appropriately mix approaches that cater to audiences from the passive to the active and many in between.

So, rant rant ranty rant rant! Critics! Shallow thinking! Outrage! Resolve!

There, I’m done.


Judith H. Dobrzynski, Sunday New York Times “High Culture Goes Hands-On” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/11/opinion/sunday/high-culture-goes-hands-on.html?_r=0

The Medical Museion, Copenhagen  Manifesto for creating science, technology and medicine exhibitions. http://www.museion.ku.dk/2011/02/a-manifesto-for-creating-science-technology-and-medicine-exhibitions/

– Objects first – thoughts on a deeper engagement with materiality  http://www.museion.ku.dk/2013/07/objects-first-thoughts-on-a-deeper-engagement-with-materiality/

Andy Martin, London School of Economics blog, Lessons from civil society: how a ‘Theory of Change’ can help tell a bigger impact story  http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/08/06/theory-of-change-helps-tell-bigger-impact-story-andy-martin/

Koven Smith, Museums and the Web 2009, The Future of Mobile Interpretation.  http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2009/papers/smith/smith.html

The Tate Tate Online Strategy 2010–12  http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/tate-online-strategy-2010-12

– Tate Digital Strategy 2013–15: Digital as a Dimension of Everything http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/tate-digital-strategy-2013-15-digital-dimension-everything

P.S. all images surfaced courtesy of Serendip-o-matic. Give it a whirl!


  1. Thank you for writing this, Ed. I’m tired of this brand of reductivism and am glad to see your thoughtful response. My only consolation is that maybe they are really afraid we’re going to disrupt something.


    1. I think it is a clear indicator of how the balance *has* shifted, that rather than an attack, it’s couched as more of a lament. She knows she can’t turn back the clock or shift things, so all she can do is sniff at the work people *are* doing. I find it immensely heartening how little support the piece has gotten, aside from the usual comment churn. Dennis Kois, from the de Cordova fired off a nice little rebuttal in Slate that’s much nicer than my rant. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2013/08/in_defense_of_big_bambu_the_artist_is_present_and_joyful_experience_in_the.html That’s progress, and an indicator of how the times *have* changed. So, take some comfort in that, and keep doing what you do. Let the professional commentators sniff all they want.


  2. Next time Slate comes calling for a rebuttal, I’m going to send them to you instead… you said it much better than I, although I heartily second your concluding ranty rant rant. And, now I’m also jealous. I want to smell another world!


    1. Thanks, Dennis, though I think your Slate piece might engender a bit more reasoned discourse than my post. 😉 I’m at a bit of a loss at the moment of how to counter this kind of knee-jerk commentary. In fact, I’m at a loss to know whether its worth responding at all, since so many of the people writing these kinds of pieces seem to be unconcerned with evidence.

      Is it better to call them on their crap, or just keep working and let them worry in print?


  3. I think one of the biggest problems with that article, which you touch on here, Ed, is this idea that there is but one way for museums to be (whether that one way be “contemplative” on the right, “participatory” on the left, or whatever). Every community is different, but we pretend that every museum in every community can/should work from similar models. To blindly assume that any single model will always succeed is folly. It might be that the museum in Las Vegas closed because they adhered too closely to the “contemplative” model in a community that didn’t want that at all. Conversely, it might be that out there right now there’s an extremely interactive/engaging museum struggling to connect with a community that doesn’t want that, either.

    And, as you mention, even those beloved models of the past were often (or maybe always) transitory. To not recognize that is to expose us to the same kind of thinking that pretty much killed off jazz as a living art form. When Wynton Marsalis and his ilk constructed inflexible barriers around the definition of what jazz is/was/could be, it stopped responding to the present the way any meaningful art form should. We should be wary of that.


    1. Yeah, the rock-throwing punk inside me always wants to huck something at the fences that people try to erect around what they deem acceptable. Your point about the Las Vegas museum is one I cut while editing, but well taken. They might’ve been also been poorly-run, or under-endowed. The point should not be to blindly hew to an imagined orthodoxy, but to continually strive to resonate, whatever that winds up looking like.


  4. I taught a medieval studies class this past year, and we spent a lot of time with objects in the Harvard Art Museum’s depository. The class was structured around sustained, meaningful interactions with real stuff, and the HAM staff did an amazing job helping us work with their collections. There was something about the egalitarian nature of the objects – their tangibility, their humility, their thereness – that completely changed the energy of the class. Working together to make meaning from strangeness helped us become a community of learners…and it was awesome. Thank goodness the HAM helped us develop an interactive experience for our kids!

    Also, I really appreciate your note about the long history of museums; it was really shameful for the NYTimes to publish an article that was *so* anti-historical and universalizing. (I’m interning at PEM this summer — I mean, hello, East India Marine Hall!)


    1. Come by Integrated Media’s offices some time and say “Hi!” We’re conveniently located in an unmarked, off-site location. 😉 Ask anybody, they’ll point the way.


  5. I agree with Zoe’s point that the original Times article by Dobrzynski was not sufficiently grounded in knowledge of the museum’s historical changes and was universalizing. A great person to read on the various iterations that the museum has gone through is Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, a recently retired British academic. She writes about the the “princely palace”, the “cabinet of the world”, the “Royal Society Repository”, and the “disciplinary museum”–each of which is produced by a set of historical circumstances that she argues, makes it’s use and appreciation of objects distinct.

    Also, as Koven Smith points out museums are also linked to the audiences and needs of their local communities. The community context of a museum adds yet another layer of specificity to the consideration of what a museum is supposed to be and do. Clearly the gross categories of contemplative and participatory do not capture what (contemporary) museums are for differing visitors. Nick Prior has written about how museums use various strategies to simultaneously appeal to different visitors.

    Still, Dobrzynski’s critique of the participatory museum is indicative of a profound shift in the philosophical orientation of museums away from a focus on the care of objects and on the curator as the expert producer of knowledge, and towards regarding the visitor as an active collaborator in making meaning. Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries, called this opposition one between “experience” or “interpretation”. A visitor-centered visit is coming to the forefront of the art museum world, I believe as a result of the onset of this New Museology, in combination with an expanding consumerism that sees leisure choices as moments to exercise intellectual agency.

    Dobrzynski’s critique is also a indicative of a resistance to the New Museology. Lots of critics and journalists who prefer a contemplative environment in which to aesthetically appreciate mastery reacted very negatively to Tate Modern’s opening hang. One can see a similar resistance in Frank Stella’s inflamed response to MoMA’s attempt at a more visitor-centered, open ended curatorial strategy in the exhibition “Modern Starts”.

    In short, the museum is becoming more focused on the visitor as an autonomous maker of meaning, and there are identifiable, underlying reasons for these changes. I’ve written a PhD thesis on this topic and hope to publish a book soon. I’ll be happy to provide more information to anyone who is interested.


    1. Hi Seph,

      Thanks for your comment, especially the examples and pointers to other sources! You’ve pretty much captured the zeitgeist, and the feelings of two of the three major players in this equation; museums and the cultural elites who have traditionally been strong allies of the sector.

      Museums, especially art museums, which have been accused of being insensitive to the needs of their audiences and elitist, now run the risk of being accused of pandering if they try to be more responsive to larger societal trends like participatory design and personalization. It’s an awkward place to be in, no doubt.

      Th reason I’m so passionate about it is that I that I think that our greatest allies in the future are those current visitors. Increasing their sense of personal agency in relation to their lifelong learning seems to me to be the best path forward, and the one most likely to produce the committed advocates museums need to survive.


  6. Joyce Carol Oates recently tweeted “There is the N Y Times & there is the “N Y Times.” One is the greatest of newspapers, the other a random assemblage of amateur blogs.” To me, the Dobrzynski piece showed ignorance as much as it showed resistance to change.


  7. Ed, I was re-reading Mary Douglas’ How Institutions Think today, and the below section jumped out at me, on institutions, and their classification of problems. (Pg 91. Its fair to note that this quote is somewhat removed from context, but hopefully still a useful thinking tool, and one you can look into further if it’s of interest.)

    “Institutions systematically direct individual memory and channel our perceptions into forms compatible with the relations they authorize. They fix processes that are essentially dynamic, they hide their influence, and they rouse our emotions to a standardized pitch on standardized issues. Add to all this that they endow themselves with rightness and send their mutual corroboration cascading through all the levels of our information system. No wonder they easily recruit us into joining their narcissistic self-contemplation. Any problems we try to think about are automatically transformed into their own organizational problems. The solutions they proffer only come from the limited range of their experience. If the institution is one that depends on participation, it will reply to our frantic question: “More participation!” If it is one that depends on authority, it will only reply: “More authority!” Institutions have the pathetic megalomania of the computer whose whole vision of the world is its own program. For us, the hope of intellectual independence is to resist, and the necessary first step in resistance is to discover how the institutional grip is laid upon our mind.”

    It seems to me that museums are caught right in this paradox of wanting both “more participation” and “more authority”, and that this discussion jumps right in the middle of those desires. Are they contradictory? I don’t think they are, but it’s worth asking: Does authority allow for participation?


    1. Wow. Heavy stuff! I’m gonna have to ILL a copy today and read! Thanks! The authority-participation dilemma is interesting. Are they mutually exclusive, or are they ends of a continuum that we’re uneasily sliding back and forth on? My initial thought is the later rather than the former, but I dunno…


  8. I think Dobrzynski’s piece was a refreshing call to question. Her piece says simply two things: 1) there is pressured to change museums today, and 2) something could be lost in this change.
    The last line in the article is the summation, “When so many people go instead for an experience, that aspect of art museums — a key part of their identity — is at risk.”
    She didn’t say participatory experience is the devils work. She made a call to question what we might be throwing away.

    From the very first paragraph you paint her view as “smarmy, elitist, passive-aggressive bit of whinging, the kind of which I’m heartily sick and tired of reading.” and that Dobrzynski “opinions couched as fact”. Isn’t a Op-Ed piece in the NY Times suppose to be just that, a knowledgeble opinion? Ok, you don’t agree…but swarmy? And simply calling someone elitist is pointless.
    You also chide Dobrzynski claiming she thinks that “Art museums are supposed to be secular temples to culture; timeless and changeless.” Where did she say that?

    What’s wrong with asking us to question the current state of neo-liberal language and the policies that it promotes? Do the plethoras of vague pronouncements of for engagement, diversity, participation, the creative class, creative placemaking etc. really mean anything as concrete as we think they do?
    You end by declaring, “Do we need to be all one or the other?”
    Dobrzynski never said you do.


    1. Hi Richard,
      Thanks for your comments. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking questions, particularly of the dominant paradigm. I think the Times piece engages in a lot of literary trickery to make the author’s point that she doesn’t like a lot of contemporary art. Despite stating that not all “experiential” endeavors are bad, she only lists ones she find problematic. Then there was that whole aside about Las Vegas and the implication (since corrected by the Times) that Chuck E. Cheese and Co. killed the art museum. She may say that she’s not advocating an “either/or” solution, but the reality is that the Gilman-style museum she clearly prefers based on her description of things that might be lost, is one where was only one kind of experience, the passive one. It’s disingenuous.

      And the point of calling it elitist was to highlight the fact that despite the carefully neutral language she was presenting her particular preference for how she likes to experience a museum as if it was the way museums had always been, which is a classic elite view.

      There is plenty of windy rhetoric worth poking at, and plenty of art world trends that could benefit from being exposed to the cold light of day. This piece does neither, really.


      1. Ed, Are we reading the same article? Nowhere did Dobrzynski suggest that Chuck E. Cheese “killed the art museum”. What she is suggesting is that the trite, experience -it-and-then-move- on attitude of business’s like Chuck E. Cheese might not be the best thing to promote for all art institutions.
        So if we ever get to the point where all museums have post-it-note rooms for audience engagement, and interactive- iPads- where you get to correct any mistakes you feel the painting has, or art collections are curated by the popular vote on the street via text messaging, if all of that becomes the new classic idea of a museum experience, will that mean I get to call you elitist?


        1. We’re certainly parsing it differently. Re: the Chuck E Cheese part: she certainly did suggest. The original version of the article went straight from Chuck E Cheese et al to the LV Museum of Art closing with no explanation of why, as if the one resulted in the other. Even the corrected version now up certainly links the two very directly.

          If I ever pen a NYTimes op-ed piece like that, then by all means call me elitist, because it’ll be true. Don’t hold your breath, though.


  9. Ed, I stumbled upon your blog while researching Gilman. You really are “thinking” about museums, how refreshing.

    Not incidentally, Gilman was a proponent of free admission to museums. He was perhaps as much of an opponent of exploitation through popularisation as he was of popularisation itself. No wonder the liberal- progressives hate him.

    Cordially, and looking forward to revisiting your blog,

    Paul Werner, editor, WOID, a journal of visual language.
    author, “Jump Jim Corot: Cash, class and Culture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art [forthcoming]


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