Monday, May 30, 2016

Join the museum. Beat the crowds. See the good stuff. Ignore the hype.

Photos by Peter Rozovsky
I spent a pleasant late Sunday afternoon at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where I renewed my annual membership and was glad to do so. We owe much of what we know about the ancient world to scholars and archaeologists who worked out of that institution, notably James B. Pritchard and S.N. Kramer, and, if the museum were in New York or Chicago, it would be even better known. (Philadelphia would rather brag about being the headquarters of a company with possibly the worst reputation for customer service in the country and for being home to a lot of restaurants with hipster names.)

The only sobering bit of the visit was more evidence of what American museums must resort to in the face of declining public support and a population that would rather send text messages. Museums have naturally had to temper their educational and aesthetic concerns in favor of commercial considerations, which has led science museums to mount special exhibitions with titles like "The Science Behind Pixar," presumably with hefty support from the corporations involved.

At art museums, it means special exhibitions devoted to what sells, which means the Impressionists in every possible combination of artists, patrons, subjects, and sub-subjects. And at the Penn Museum, it means calling its exhibition of art from ancient Phrygia (the heart of what is now Turkey), where teams from the museum have excavated for decades, "The Golden Age of King Midas" and promoting it with a headline that caters to an audience whose attention span has been diminished by click bait: "What was behind the legendary story of King Midas and his Golden Touch?"

Add a trend toward multimedia interactivity (which doubtless means lucrative fees to the consultants that recommend the interactive features and the companies that install them), and it can be difficult to find, contemplate, and be held by the objects. You know, the things that one comes to the museum to look at. And I was not surprised to discover that the books section of the museum shop had been moved to s smaller area, its former corner taken over by souvenirs and other non-book merchandise.

I don't condemn American museums for doing that they must do to survive, but I do mourn the necessity for doing it, and I urge visitors not be discouraged by the flashing lights. Buy museum memberships so you can pop in for an hour or two of quick aesthetic enjoyment. Remember that there is very much more to a good museum that its headline exhibitions. Join the museum. Beat the crowds. See the good stuff.  Ignore the hype.

 © Peter Rozovsky 2016

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Blogger Nan said...

Such an important post. Thank you.

May 30, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I figured why rail against the dumbing down of museums and get called an elitist? Instead. I thought it more constructive to try to cope with (and help others cope with) the unfortunate trend.

May 30, 2016  
Blogger Nan said...

Unfortunate, indeed. Eons ago, my now husband and I used to go to a museum in Boston, and listen to docents tell us about the paintings. We were in a sort of heaven.

May 30, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Docents seem still to be around, except here they have been replaced by gimcrackery designed to make the museum visit an interactive experience.

May 30, 2016  

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