The "Big Top" Exhibit

In the US we often think of museums as rarefied places brimming with all that a culture values.  Perhaps even the museum space itself is an impressive Beaux Arts beast of a building or, better still, a symphonic Frank Gehry structure singing its siren song to passersby.  Though the architecture may be seductive, increasingly pricey museum tickets are not typically spontaneous purchases like chewing gum at the grocery checkout.

The proverbial Iowa tourist in New York City likely has already planned to pay the “recommended” $25 admission when she visits a cultural center this summer.  She steps into the grand galleries trusting the curators to have selected only the finest treasures for exhibition.  She expects that an object’s cultural significance will be explained to her and if it isn’t she might observe that her 6-year-old could have painted Picasso’s “Dora Maar in Armchair.” 

If “The Iowan” is our gauge for common sense American sensibilities on all matters from presidential primaries to tourism, then what is our responsibility as museum professionals to the museumgoer expecting cultural preservation and education?  To answer that question we need to hop on a train leading away from America’s heartland to a time and place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  In that Gilded Age this country’s wealthy elite poured their riches into establishing our better-known cultural institutions such as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan in New York City. 

The Gilded Age was a key period of transition for the American museum.  Curiosity cabinets appealing to circus goers’ expectations had been the stuff of earlier artifact repositories.  People like Chicago candy manufacturer cum collector Charles F. Gunther provided the public with amusing artifact displays that included Civil War relics alongside the skin of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Yet among the newly rich of that era, there were those who strove to be more genteel than the Midwest confectioner.  Such people used their tremendous wealth to establish museums that would showcase their largesse while edifying the masses.  Today, Iowa Tourist visits a museum expecting to learn something from the material culture on display.

While early 21st century museums retain their lofty missions to educate and preserve, there have nonetheless been shifts in how they do this.  For well over a decade, savvy museums have lured young professionals into their hallowed halls by sponsoring boozy DJ-ed evening events on the first Friday or Saturday of each month.  Such parties echo earlier 20th century annual museum gala events that ostentatiously lured the nation’s elite. 

While being photographed at the Walker Art Center’s “Rock the Garden” event isn’t quite the same as being photographed on the red carpet at the Costume Institute’s Annual Gala, there’s still ample cultural currency in the occasion.  Moreover, special events ostensibly raise funds while raising cultural institutions’ public visibility.  Such events have been quite popular, which suggests that people continue to value what our most prominent cultural institutions set out to promote over 100 years ago: cultural preservation and education.  Though the partygoer may only catch a glimpse of the talked-about sculpture, there is a sense that one has at least made an effort towards personal refinement by simply attending.

It’s certainly useful for cultural institutions to establish themselves as destinations for the smart set.  Earnest Iowa Tourist sees photos from an exhibition’s opening party and makes plans to visit.  In pursuit of personal edification, she goes to the museum and finds early 21st century exhibitions barely reminiscent of late 19th century display cases filled with labeled shrunken heads.  Places such as the Field Museum of Natural History have moved instead toward shrinking their mystique with exhibitions that show the public what goes on behind the scenes.  Increasingly a museum visit means not only seeing art and artifacts but also seeing conservators at work in glass walled labs or curators sitting behind a roped off desk as René de Guzman did at the Oakland Museum of California in 2010.

Along with the admirable trend toward greater inclusiveness and openness, the blockbuster exhibition has emerged.  These spectacle exhibits draw crowds.  Yet as scholar John Potvin recently noted in the Journal of Curatorial Studies, too often they lack “critical investigation, intellectual rigour [sic] or contextualization.”  One subject of Potvin’s critique is the Met’s Savage Beauty (2011), an exhibition that featured beautiful garments by fashion designer Alexander McQueen yet fell short of sufficiently explaining their cultural relevance.  Iowa Tourist is thrilled that the much hyped blockbuster exhibit is open (not coincidentally) when she makes her mid-summer, weekend trip to New York City.  And we who work so tirelessly to conduct research and select artifacts are thrilled to have her visit.  Yet we must be mindful to strike a careful balance between garnering popular appeal and preserving critical inquiry.

Cultural institutions have a responsibility to raise thought-provoking questions.  At best it is intellectually lazy to put culture on display in an attractive envelope without explaining what makes an object worth preserving and studying.  While the spectacle exhibit draws visitors and perhaps inspires some critical inquiry, it can teeter dangerously close to becoming mindless amusement.  We must be mindful that our museum exhibitions do not become fleecing curiosity cabinets.  Public cultural institutions ought not to compete with “exhibition and entertainment experiences” such as those delivered by Premier Exhibitions, Inc., creators of “Titanic: The Experience.”

Premier Exhibitions, Inc. is a for-profit entertainment company and not a museum, though its endeavors reflect a broader museum trend toward the “big top” exhibit.  There is value in increasing public awareness of our cultural institutions, yet popular exhibitions do not need to sacrifice meaningful interpretation in the process.  Museumgoers are not simply paying, empty receptacles for prosaic information and unexplained dazzling displays.  As cultural interpreters, we have a responsibility to our visitors to cultivate knowledge and encourage critical dialogue.  The early 21st century marks a new phase of museum culture with a lasting impact that remains to be seen.  What can we responsibly deliver to the Iowa Tourist this summer?

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