Why museums are worth visiting

On 21 August 2014, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article in its Traveller section: ‘Boring, pricey and crowded: 17 reasons why I hate museums’. (It was based on a slightly longer article from the Telegraph, London.)

This response is in the form of an open letter to its author, Oliver Smith:

Dear Mr Smith,

Thank you for your article, which questions why going to museums is often assumed to be a must-do activity when travelling. However, I would like to respond to some inaccuracies and inconsistencies.

Firstly, although the subtitle is ‘17 reasons why I hate museums’, many of your reasons refer to “you” (i.e. the readers of the article). Wouldn’t it be more consistent, and honest, if your reasons were written in the first person singular?

1. For example, your first reason is stated as: ‘You only go because you’ve been told to’, when what you really mean is, “I only go because I’ve been told to.” How very obedient you are!

You then refer to a tourist guide to Budapest: ‘Forget beautiful parks, trendy bars and historic baths, what tourists really want to do – the author believes – is spend an unforgettable hour inside the city’s thrill-a-minute Ethnographical Museum.’

So, I gather you believe that these three things are what tourists really want to visit. Let’s look at them one by one:
‘Beautiful parks’: sure, no argument there. By the way, are you aware that many museums are set in beautiful parklands?
‘Trendy bars’: Are these really that different in different cities? This sounds about as enlightening as going to McDonald’s in every foreign city you visit.
‘Historic baths’: Historic, eh? A bit like a museum, then?

2. ‘You’d be happier doing something else

Of course what you mean is, “I’d be happier doing something else.” The example you give is an anecdote about how you once decided to sip wine with a friend by the river instead of queuing for the Uffizi Gallery. Hmm, sipping wine next to the Arno River versus queuing for the Uffizi. Hardly a fair comparison, is it?

3. ‘The artefacts are boring

You say you didn’t mind the Old Operating Theatre and Museum in London because you find things such as ‘human organs in pickling jars… endlessly compelling’. But you find ceramics and religious art dull. Referring to the Groeningemuseum in Bruges, you write: ‘Its collection consisted almost entirely of biblical scenes by Renaissance and Baroque artists. Yes, I have a very limited grounding in art history, but to my eye – and to those of many others, I venture – they all looked the same.’

I wonder if you have the same attitude towards other people. Unless they excite and entertain you in the first few minutes, I suspect you just dismiss them. You might be surprised what you’re missing out on.

4. ‘The atmosphere is funereal… tourists shuffling in silence down hospital-like corridors, bored security guards, and jobsworths waiting to pounce on anyone who dares to laugh, send a text message or eat a biscuit…’

This is your first valid point, at least partially. Many museums are too dour, but this is changing.

5. ‘You’ve no idea what you’re looking at

It feels a little churlish to say this, but of course what you mean is, “I have no idea what I’m looking at.” You go on: ‘Museums – even the best funded – assume a worrying degree of knowledge, offering painfully little information about the items on display. How many people will be enlightened by an inscription that reads “clay pot, 1200-1300, Russia”?’

This is an even more valid point. That’s where museum education departments (which come under various names) come in. There is a real skill in creating labels and text panels that are informative without being overwhelming, engaging without being patronising.

6. ‘The interactive displays are useless, and often out of order

Unfortunately this is also too often true. Of course if they are useless, then you shouldn’t be upset when they don’t work.

7. ‘Screaming children

So, children never ‘run, shriek or pick their noses’ elsewhere? Seems like a funereal atmosphere (see point 4) might be more to your liking.

8. ‘Their parents… interpreting displays in loud, patronising “isn’t this fun, Hugo” voices.’

Next time, listen in. Who knows? You might learn something about 13th century Russian clay pots.

9. ‘There’s nothing fun for adults… Why is innovation solely employed for younger visitors? Do they really believe adults are sufficiently entertained by a neatly arranged collection of pewter spoons?’

This also contradicts your fourth point. Also, the best innovative programs for younger visitors have something worthwhile to offer adults, too. Next time you see an “interpretive performer” in action at a museum, have a look at the adults nearby. Some of them are probably there without children. They are there because they find the experience enjoyable and enriching.

10. ‘They’re too crowded… people make a beeline to the only painting they’ve heard of.’

The reason why people flock to famous original works of art is because they find these works have a personal connection to them (albeit one mediated through reproductions and mass media). There are always other works that hardly anyone else is looking at. And there are plenty of museums that are hardly ever crowded.

11. ‘They cost a fortune in public money

You have partially answered your own point when you say, ‘they provide wider economic benefits’. Also, a museum’s purpose goes far beyond providing an air-conditioned place for tourists to visit. It preserves objects (of cultural, historical or scientific significance) and does valuable research.

12. ‘Entry fees are pricey, even then

Your pricey examples are not funded by governments. A temporary exhibition at Tate Modern might have high entry fees, but the permanent collection doesn’t. And £18 / A$32 might be ‘eye-watering’ to you, but if you went to a concert for that amount, you probably wouldn’t complain, would you?

13. ‘Most of the objects are kept out of sight

Why is this a reason not to visit a museum? If anything, it increases the chances that the next time you visit, there’ll be something new to see. And don’t forget museums lend items to other museums.

14. ‘People have started taking selfies there

How disrespectful! Seriously, as per my response to point 10, it’s another way for people to make a personal connection to a museum object, particularly a work of art.

15. ‘It’s all on the internet, anyway… Google Art project means you can view thousands of masterpieces in stunningly high resolution, without selfie-takers.’

Yes, what a wonderful resource! But why does Google Art project have to be a substitute for the real thing? According to your argument, why bother travelling at all? There are so many high-resolution photographs of amazing parts of the world, available online.

16. ‘The gift shops and cafes are a rip-off

Some are better than others, and most sell better souvenirs than you can find in the main tourist precincts. But don’t forget, sales in museum gift shops and cafes go towards the costs of running those museums. In some cases, they enable museums to to have free entry.

17. ‘Sometimes the works are fake (in China, anyway)

Well, according to your fifth point, it wouldn’t make any difference to you, would it?

Jonathan Cooper

Posted in Museum education, Museums.

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