August 25, 2010

Cathedrals of Culture?

The Wall Street Journal continues to break down art museum stereotypes with a long piece on the new generation of art museum directors and their increased sensitivity to their communities.

The notion that museums are no longer "Cathedrals of Culture" is not new for most museums, but the ways that art museums are beginning to reach out are remarkable, for these typically most conservative of museums.  The charge, not surprisingly, is being led by contemporary art museums. like the Walker, but the attention such programming is getting is good for the whole museum community.

August 18, 2010

Visitor Studies is finally getting some love!

The Wall Street Journal has a good piece focusing on the Detroit Institute of Arts' visitor studies program called The Museum is Watching You.

It is wonderful to see visitor studies and evaluation finally getting some recognition in the mainstream press, but it is sad that it is apparently only getting covered because art museums are now doing it.

 One quibble: I am quite sure that the author's suggestion that "many museums dedicate 10% of their operating budgets to evaluation" is not true. The one museum he cites may well do so, but surely that is an exception.

“It is a drunken orgy and they are all having sex!”

The Financial Times had a good piece about the Metropolitan Museum's new director Thomas Campbell. (He's not really so new, but in museum-staff-turnover time 2 years counts as a rank newbie). The interesting bit comes about halfway through:
We assume a great deal of knowledge in our audience; I’m conscious that we need to do more for our general visitors.
We assume people know who Rembrandt is, for example. We have wonderful, thoughtful labels next to each Rembrandt painting, but there’s no overview of who he was and, frankly, considering our international audience, I doubt whether many of them do know who [he] was, or the significance of a particular period room, in a broader context.  
"What I’m trying to do is to get the museum rethinking the visitor experience from the moment that people arrive at the museum: the signage they encounter, the bits of paper they pick up, all the way through to the way we deliver information in the galleries. And obviously that’s an enormous task. We’ve got a million square feet of gallery space and tens of thousands of objects on display, so nothing’s going to change overnight.
Campbell seems committed to maintaining the Met's scholarly reputation,while also allowing that perhaps all of us are not quite up to the same level and may need a little more explanation, or perhaps just some plain speaking.  What about the drunken orgy? There is a story here about Campbell's own education:
an Italian teacher at Christie’s who once asked him to describe a Titian bacchanal and, after Campbell had groped for a succession of scholarly terms, admonished him with an explosion of plain speaking: “It is a drunken orgy and they are all having sex!”
Sounds like the right guy for the job.