I was reading an old article that Janet Tassel wrote in the Harvard Magazine about the role art museums play in civilization. She goes on a bit in different directions, but ultimately reflects the line of thinking that museums are repositories of collected objects that showcase the greatest achievements throughout the ages. As institutions, they should be be set apart and keep a view to the long arc of history, not the whims of popular society.
In the article, James Cuno (then of the Harvard Museum, now head of the Getty) and Philippe de Montebello (the Metropolitan) both concur that museums are by definition elitist. “That is what art is, and that is what every visitor to the museum is—by crossing the threshhold they are joining the elite.”
This got me to thinking – the other day I went to the Hirshhorn to see Ai Weiwei’s exhibit “According to What?” I was really looking forward to it and wanted to make sure I took my time and thought about the works and gave each and every installation and object the thoughtful consideration it was due. Given I might have been a little hungry and going to an exhibit with low blood sugar is not the best, but I found myself distracted and really annoyed by almost everyone around me.
I was put off that no one seemed to treat the show with the same deference that I was giving it. I know it was a holiday weekend and a lot of people were travelling but really…pulling suitcases through the museum? It seemed to me like the kids were running around – making shadow puppets on the walls of video projections; people were taking calls to arrange travel, to make dinner plans, and who know what kind of sordid engagements. One guy had his skateboard – and the cameras were click, click, clicking….ughhhh!!!
I got to the installation of beautifully crafted chests that are designed so that viewers can look through their various openings and see the phases of the moon. After waiting patiently for my turn to check it out, when I got to the opening my lovable and humorous partner was there smiling through the other side.
He got me to stop a moment, breathe and re-frame my experience. I could choose to enjoy myself or not and I could choose to be bothered by the crowds or not. I looked around and actually envied those other people – the kids running around without a care and the adults that didn’t need to give their full attention to the exhibit. How wonderful it is that children are exposed to art and given the opportunity to be themselves around it. All those visitors were living their lives in a setting where art was a part of it.
It occurs to me that a lot of us don’t get that luxury of experience – I didn’t grow up running around inside museums and galleries. For most of us, if we do wind up crossing that ‘threshhold’, we stand in awe of what we’ve been missing.
For those lucky elite, they’re not missing a thing.