Tilting at Windmills, Part Two

Experience and Participation 

CC BY-NC-SA image by Flickr user barnoid

In Part One of this series, I tried to unpack my visceral reaction to people focusing on immersion as a good or bad thing. My reaction stems from immersion being used as a stalking horse for the real issue, which I think is that kind of optimal experience Csíkszentmihályi called “flow.” Getting hung up on the the delivery system rather than the actual meat of the matter made me think about August and all the steam vented by critics like Judith Dobrzynski about “participation” and “experience” and how they’re responsible for ruining everything.  I ranted about it at some length. I won’t get into how completely off-base she is when she blames museums for displaying the kinds of contemporary art she doesn’t like, and instead focus on trends in museum practice, like participatory design and an emphasis on “experience.” Like the talks I’ve had about immersion, this was clearly another case of people attacking manifestations of deeper issues that are harder to talk about. When Dobrzynski bemoans the plague of participatory design in museums, she gets at the heart of the matter – the place (or lack thereof) for authority to manifest itself.

When interpretation feels like interference

Nothing to see here! CC-BY NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Jeremy Brooks

My understanding of this was greatly aided by Regan Forrest’s latest post called “Mediation or interference.” Read her whole post. It’s short and good. Read the comments, too. Regan and I both come from science backgrounds and have the inherent bias to be explicit which can be challenging in an art museum where interpretation and education tread very carefully around the galleries. We both have had experiences of interpretations we thought effective being deemed intrusive or pandering by others because they were perceived as interfering with their experience of the art. And there was that word interfering again, one of the factors Bitgood listed as inhibiting a sense of flow. Could it be that this emphasis on active participation was standing in the way of some visitors having their optimal experiences? I think Regan’s use of the word “mediation” was very apt. It literally means “to be in the middle of.” Successful mediations can be like having a trusted guide at your side whereas a less successful one can feel like someone’s literally getting in your way.

For those who prefer a passive approach to their museum-going, museums’ attempts to provide more mediation for the active learners will probably always come across as intrusive. So, it becomes a question of balance, how much of each kind of experience is the right amount for your content and your audiences? Dobrzynski herself is clear that it’s not an either/or situation, as much as a question of degrees. She and I doubtless draw the line in different places, but that’s life.

What does authority look like nowadays? 

Who gets to step up to the podium? CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user karindalziel

Upon reflection, the most intriguing part of her opinion piece was how much she dwelt on issues of authority. Part of the problem for art museums (and I think this is one way in which they diverge from other kinds of museums) is the way that they have had aspects of religious institutions placed on them by Western secularizing culture. Pulling out the descriptors used in Dobrzynski’s article associated with good old-fashioned art museums and you get “treasure houses, masterpieces, the universal, cultural treasuries , beauty, inspiration, uplift, spiritual, thrill, contemplation, solace,  inspiration.” This is the language of the art museum as secular temple to Culture as popularized by writers like Alain de Botton, who famously said in yet another opinion piece beating up art museums, “You often hear it said that ‘musems of art are our new churches’: in other words, in a secularising world, art has replaced religion as a touchstone of our reverence and devotion. It’s an intriguing idea, part of the broader ambition that culture should replace scripture…”

There is also a reverence for authority among the critics most aghast at anything experiential or participatory. After listing the usual punching bags of participatory or crowdsourced projects, Dobrzynski laments, “Shouldn’t those decisions be left to the experts? If not, what do they do? Why study art history?” In a further foray into the participatory wars, she reprints verbatim a nasty accusation-laden opinion piece from a Santa Cruz website, beating up museum director Nina Simon for allegedly driving off professionals with art and history expertise. Another opinion piece by Stephen Kessler in the Santa Cruz Sentinel laments that

“Hands-on self-expression, the “interaction” of scribbling something on a piece of paper and sticking it on a wall in response to an exhibit do not really advance a creative agenda. They indulge a collective narcissism that might be better embodied in a bring-your-own-mirror show where everyone would be given a space on the wall to hang their looking glass for a long feel-good gaze at themselves. It could be called “Reflections in Interactivity,” and I’m sure it would be very successful.”

Suffice it to say that this view of the equation is,

visitor participation = the complete overthrow of traditional authority. 

In another manifestation of this phenomenon, Suse Cairns provides a thoughtful recap of a recent Twitter dustup about 3D mashups of art objects that wound up involving art blogger and critic Lee Rosenbaum, Don Undeen from the Met, and Koven Smith from Denver Art Museum. In the midst of badmouthing Undeen’s work at the Met as “hokey” and “counterproductive” to deeper understanding of the art, she says “I’m fine with bringing digital experts into the museum, but close oversight must come from the knowledgeable art experts.” She assumes, and perhaps correctly, that there was no curatorial involvement in the Met project’s Undeen is working on. The apparent absence of authoritative voices is a constant refrain, and I think the important issue underneath all the handwringing about “participation”.

This notion that these kinds of participatory projects are the equivalent of letting the inmates run the asylum echoes a concern widely held in the art historical community, not just by critics and curmudgeons.  Dallas Museum of Art’s director Max Anderson’s “The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions” goes so far as to list crowdsourcing’s threat to authority as Problem #6.

“Museum curators, once guardians of the unassailable fortress of institutional authority, were never infallible, but they are now, often as not, simply one voice of many. Their saturation in the physical properties of an object may not entitle them to insulation from criticism or rejoinders, but they are being increasingly sidelined as debates of an interpretive sort enjoy as much currency as the lifetime study of objects in close proximity. One solution is for art historians and curators to devote more pages and column inches to explaining why art matters and why it should move us, and to be less patronizing about the relevance of our discipline just because the public does not see the point.”

Unlike some of the other writers I’ve mentioned, Anderson actually is interested in solutions that are more nuanced than just “Get rid of all this newfangled crap and put things back the way they were.” Anderson, in one sentence, provides a way forward. More engagement, less patronization of the people upon whom we depend for our livelihood and institutional raisons d’etre. Among his ten solutions, Anderson lists “Curators should be less fearful of academic reprisal if they talk to visitors like human beings rather than writing labels for their peers.” Too often, I’ve been in museums and had that feeling the audience for a particular label or exhibition wasn’t the public, but rather the peers of the creators. The result of that kind willful neglect of the audience is manifested in things that childish CNN “Why I Hate Museums” piece by James Durston. The tone of the piece really grates on me, but under the bile the author makes some valid points. Visitors, like everybody else, don’t like being ignored and/or patronized.

Ignore it and maybe it’ll go away. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Lulu Vision

In many ways, this conversation has tremendous parallels to one from my grad school days in historical archaeology. I still recall having a heated debate with an emeritus history professor about the seeming disparity in how much archaeologists cite historians versus how much historians cite archaeologists when they’re writing about the same subject. Without batting an eyelash, he said “The day an archaeologist writes something that’s readable by anybody other than archaeologists, I’ll read it.” Well, that certainly shut me up, because it was (and remains) a valid criticism of that field, and, to a lesser degree, of museums.

The way forward is not to cede the field to the crowd, but rather to meet them, bringing along all the authority and expertise that draws visitors to museums in the first place. It is starting to happen. A prime example is Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One. I have some issues with it, but one place it succeeds beautifully is that uses the whole museum’s expertise to make a new kind of visitor experience. Not just educational, or technological, but those plus substantial curatorial support.

There are other examples out there. Who else is doing great work marrying authority and participation to make memorable museum experiences?

In the third and final installation of this series, I’d like to look at the “issue” of visitors taking photographs in museums.

[UPDATE 11/4/13: I replaced one quote in the MAH paragraph after finding a more grown-up example of the dissenting view on participatory design.] 

Further Reading:

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi
Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention
New York: Harper Perennial, ISBN 0-06-092820-4

Judith Dobrzynski
“High Culture Goes Hands-On”
The Sunday New York Times, August 10, 2013

Regan Forrest
“Mediation or interference.”

Alain de Botton
“Why Our Museums Of Art Have Failed Us And What They Might Learn From Religions”
The Huffington Post, March 14, 2012

Suse Cairns
“I like your old stuff better than your new stuff.” On 3D mashups, appropriation, and irreverence”
museum geek

Max Anderson,
“The Crisis in Art History: Ten Problems, Ten Solutions”
Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, 16 Dec 2011


  1. This is Don Undeen.
    Thanks for the mention, Ed, and I’m glad to see the activities of the MediaLab at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are spurring some conversation. And though I don’t agree with Lee Rosenbaum, I’m glad that people still care enough about Art to get upset about it.

    And at the risk of undermining your argument as it relates to our 3D mashup work (though it supports your closer), I should clarify that curators and educators have always been deeply involved in our 3D activities.

    The 3D Hackathon we held almost two years ago, and the recent 5-day 3D Intensive for Teens both began with a museum tour, where they met with curators and educators to talk about objects that would likely be fruitful for 3D mashups. We also talked about issues of cultural sensitivity, understanding that many works in the collection are spiritually significant to practicing religions.

    One thing we learned from the event, which we did not anticipate, was the deep effect that conversations with curators had on the artists at the events. It changed their approach to the event and their final products.

    Also, the curators, every one, had a great time with the artists. Who wouldn’t want to talk about what they love, with a good listener who turns that conversation into a physical manifestation?

    In the years since, we’ve made a practice of bringing digital artists into the museums to meet educators and curators to talk about new works they want to make in response to works in our collection. The artists always come away with new ideas, and the curators have always been willing to do it again, so they must be getting something out of it.

    As the “Digerati” (ugh) in the museum, we’ve got a unique opportunity to create that space where, like you said, the crowd can meet the experts.


    1. Hey Don,

      Thanks for the comment and clarifications. I’d hoped to have been down to see what you’ve been doing by now, but work keeps me busy. Maybe December.

      I am not surprised that the curatorial departments are heavily involved. I think that part of our work is combating the *perception* that these kinds of projects are clandestine affairs, run by rogue “digerati” like yourself. How do we encourage and support them to add their voices loudly enough that they get heard by the Rosenbaums and Dobrzynskis of the world?


  2. Thanks for the mention Ed. One of the great things about the blogosphere is how we are all able to keep riffing off one another and refine our ways of thinking in a way that’s far quicker than academic publishing.

    In reading your post and thinking about mine, I’ve noticed that one type of museums – a BIG type – is missing. Or at least not explicitly mentioned. (Social) History museums. It’s easy to see how this has come about – as Gretchen Jennings recently noticed, mainstream media coverage of museums is almost exclusively about art museums. (http://museumcommons.blogspot.com.au/2013/10/arts-coverage-isnt-museum-coverage.html)

    Then there’s people like you and me who have waded in from the science arena (and there’s a context there too – museum visitor research cut its metaphorical teeth predominantly in hands-on science centres).

    I think it would be interesting to bring history museums into the tent a bit more, particularly when considering ideas of authority. I’m reminded of Andrea Witcomb’s recent article in the July issue of Museum Management and Curatorship (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09647775.2013.807998)
    A quick illustrative excerpt “. . .how sensorial, embodied forms of knowledge that express themselves though feelings in response to the material, aesthetic, and spatial qualities of the exhibition/interpretation play a role in the production of meaning rather than focusing on the more explicit rational, information based content of the display. My focus is on how exhibitions that consciously use affect in their interpretation strategies to elicit such feelings might offer an insight into how embodied experiences can be translated into critical forms of thinking.”


    1. Hey Regan,
      This kind of rapid thought development and refinement is one of the primary joys I get from blogging. The Witcomb paper sounds great. I’ll have to see if I can my hands on a copy.


  3. Great run down Ed. Another related issue not dissimilar to this, is that of is brand police. Can every message be controlled and is it a good thing if it were to be anyway?

    In digital development, the cyclic and incremental “launch, user test and improve” nature of agile also causes major anxiety for some people.

    Lots to ponder. Thanks


    1. Thanks, Andrew! Ah, branding… Yeah, that’s a whole ‘mother kettle of fish. As is the inversion of the traditional “perfect it and then open it” model.


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