April 17, 2010

Santa Fe museum notes, Part 1

The New Mexico History Museum opened last year, but the permanent exhibits feel like 20th-century thinking. They made me wonder — again — why museums are so uncomfortable taking a stand on their own content.

I was in Santa Fe last week, hiking, gallery-hopping, and choosing between red and green chili. One of my first stops was the New Mexico History Museum, which opened a year ago behind the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors, America’s oldest operating government building. (Take that, New England.)

The permanent exhibits convey some of that revisionist spirit, reorienting America’s origin story away from England and the northeast and toward Spain, Mexico and the southwest. That’s refreshing: we come to museums in part to have our assumptions shaken up a little. I could feel that pleasurable sense of something being reframed in my head as I made my way through the galleries.

But the means by which the museum conveys that fresh story felt incongruously dated. Contrary to the museum’s intentions, expressed in its press releases and brochures, the core exhibits struck me as familiar, handsome, institutional museum display and discourse: dispassionate, “objective,” and didactic, a one-way communication of facts and images from museum to visitor.

The facts, objects, and images are certainly interesting, and they’re juxtaposed in accessible, thoughtfully-designed displays. But they’re merely interesting: a cerebral experience rather than a social, ethical, emotional, or spiritual one.

There’s nothing unusual about this; I could have been in any serious, accredited history museum in America. So with apologies to NMHM, I’ll argue that there are two kinds of lost opportunities here. ...

1. Visitor as exhibition component

The first is that the exhibits feel complete without us: they don’t leave a “hole” for visitors to fill. There’s no role we need to play to close the circuit with our own ideas, reactions, beliefs, emotions, interpretations, jokes, whatever. We feel spoken to, not spoken with. The exhibits limit our identity as museumgoers to the musing, chin-stroking “learner.”

This is more than a question of interactivity or “learning styles.” There are plenty of touch-screen media panels here. It’s about participation and ownership, about how the museum conceives the relationships between the museum, its visitors, and its stories.

And participation and ownership are about relevance, since the question of ownership boils down to, “What are visitors supposed to do with all this history? How do we make it ours, take it in and take some kind of responsibility for it? What’s our job here?

The answer offered by these exhibits is: Your job is to draw your own conclusions; we’re just reporting the facts in a refreshingly balanced, nuanced way. Which brings us to the second problem…

2. Curator as author

The second lost opportunity is that these exhibits acknowledge the visitor’s subjectivity, but not the museum’s. Sure, there are open-ended statements and questions here. But to me, the open-endedness felt a little disingenuous. Take this panel on Manifest Destiny (with apologies for the bootleg, cell-phone photo):

Manifest destiny … encompassed the belief that white Anglo-Saxons were a special race and rightfully the superiors of other peoples. Their expansion would also spread the “blessings” of Protestant faiths and democracy. Fulfilling this destiny was all-important — and it could be accomplished by force, if necessary.

The curators’ attitude here is both obvious and evasive. You can feel the tight irony, especially in those quotation marks around “blessing,” but the text is elliptical rather than up-front about its point of view, as if leery of telling you what to think. In a narrow sense, the museum is right to be leery: nobody wants a return to the days of authoritative, institutional rhetoric in which political positions were cloaked in academic objectivity.

But isn’t the whole lesson of Postmodernism that there’s no such thing as objectivity? Today, museums’ reticence to take a stand feels miscalculated, even faintly paternalistic, as if the curators are trying to protect us from the great, persuasive weight of their own opinions.

In a broader sense, though, the problem is too little subjectivity. If the curators were more present in these exhibits — if their voice, personality, passions, sense of humor, and (yes) politics were forthrightly incorporated — then the content wouldn’t feel like institutional rhetoric, it would feel like human communication. We’d know who is talking to us, and better yet, we’d know why.

And because the museum would be modeling for its visitors the kind of personal, active engagement with history that it wants us to have, it would encourage rather than override diverse individual conclusions. That’s no paradox. In the twenty-first century, a museum that clings to the last shards of objectivity in its own interpretation will have a hard time getting its visitors to embrace their subjectivity and make meaningful interpretations of their own.

I understand that history in New Mexico stands at the disputed intersection of “three cultures” (the phrase refers to Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo communities, although each of those terms is a monolithic oversimplification). You can’t please everyone, here or anywhere else. But that’s an essential part of the point, and exhibits like these attempt to sidestep it at a real cost. Museum visitors want something alive and authentic to identify with, or to identify against. They want to think and learn, yes, but they also want to feel, to respond, and to connect on a human level. That’s what lets them discover something not just about history but also about themselves, and about the intimate relationship between the two.

Stay tuned for Part 2

I realize that what I’m calling for here is controversial, so I look forward to your perspectives in the comments. And watch for Part 2 later this week, which will be about the tension in museum experiences between the specificity of objects and the generality of exhibit narratives.

1 Comment »
Dan Spock — July 02, 2010

I think this question of museum voice has four distinct variations. The first, the authoritative voice, is the one you describe at NM. Ostensibly dispassionate and objective and always expressed in the third person, it is the most traditional and, hence, comfortable museum stance. The explicit assumption is that a museum must convey information in this voice in order to maintain its role as an authoritative institution. In this spirit, the museum will often try to adopt an thesis-style presentation modeled on academic writing, a sort of soft rhetorical interpretation. In history, the implicit assumption is that museums have some special power or knowledge base that prepares them to reconcile history's contradictions -- a fallacy. Plus, research shows that visitors find this voice tedious and this is why it is often the object of parody (Museum of Jurrasic Technology.)

The second variant is the "powerful voice." In this approach, the museum permits itself an advocacy position. This approach has become pretty routine for zoos, aquariums and natural history museums around mission-driven issues such as conservation. It has been problematic for history museums, however, probably because history museums more often derive substantial funding from government sources and have been created as celebratory institutions, which in turn makes them prime targets in the culture wars. Exceptions to this are the civil rights and holocaust museums which have been created with advocacy missions from the outset. Significantly, there is evidence that visitors are resistant to exhibit interpretations that adopt a hectoring tone.

The third approach involves multiple perspectives. Rather than a monolithic voice, the museum dials back its own narration and cobbles together a narrative composed of the voices of many individuals, even from different sides of an issue. Reportorial in nature, the institution can still strike a neutral pose while offering a somewhat balanced interpretation composed of a multiplicity of voices. Another plus is that visitors prefer getting their interpretation straight from the source in a story, rather than thesis, form. Still, the museum makes informed judgments and selections about which voices the public will get to hear in curatorial fashion and even a multiplicity of voices will not inoculate a museum from the umbrage of determined ideologues who see no place for the points of view of their opponents in the museum.

The fourth variant is the museum-as-public-forum. In this approach, the museum makes the means available for the public to express themselves through the museum. Modeled on the Web 2.0 revolution, the museum adopts a position of "radical trust" in much the same way that social media sites or wikis do. There have been but a few experiments along these lines. It remains to be seen whether museums will find effective ways to host these activities in ways where the public feels that they are both authentically responsive to their needs and worthwhile, while at the same time museums see them to be safe and manageable enough that they can be sustained.

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