A Counterpoint: Why Museums Will Never Be Like Churches

He Died For You - Canton

One of the many possible reasons why museums will never be like churches...

“The British museum,
though in some respects awe inspiring
and a corner stone of world culture
and the achievements of the human race……
kinda boring, wish I was in the pub,
what a soulless unappreciative cretin I am”
Anon, Facebook

According to the UK’s Brain Laureate, Alain de Botton, museums should be attempting to instruct the soul, as well as the eye and the heart. A few weary cries went up on twitter, people shrugged, went on with their business.

Couldn’t let this one lie, though, could I? I thought it would be appropriate to respond; especially since I’ve been, over the last few years, working in a church which is also a museum. A museum-church, if you like.

Eglwys Teilo Sant

Here is a picture of it

Now, you can go here to find out all about it: today, I’m more interested in chewing some de Botton cud. Why is the presentation of truly transcendent art presented in such a ‘bland’, ‘academic’ way, he asks? The engine of his opinion piece was that museums should be employing a more paternalistic, moral model in their engagement with visitors. To paraphrase: “Why can’t they be more like churches? At the moment they’re no more than libraries with cases.” (To which I would add: what’s so bad about libraries?).

Along the way, he picked up a few bizarre assumptions which provoked a collective response of: “Which museums has this man been visiting?”

According to his experience, museums are ‘secular church[es]’ which ‘enjoy unparalleled status’ but ‘don’t do enough with the treasures they have’. Visitors attend in ‘quiet reverence’, even though these institutions are ‘notoriously bad’ at telling people why their collections matter. He also seems to think that museums only hold visual art: such a giant straw man that I’m going to call on Christopher Lee to deal with it, since I’m busy writing this.

Wicker Man

Cheers, Chris.

Let’s take those in: all in all, a pretty damning view to take of these cultural institutions, considering their brief. It’s obvious that the BBC wouldn’t commission an opinion piece from the UK’s most prominent pop-philosopher called ‘Gallery Interpretation Panels Can Be Boring’, and so I understand that he’s had to generalise and up-sex a little bit. He uses the goosebump-inducing Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice as a template to aspire to. That national collections should try to be a bit more like the most amazing building in the entire world is a laughably unhelpful.

The very sensible answer to most of his complaints is: “errr, time? Maybe money? Then maybe some more money for marketing?”. Museums all across the world are reaching out in new ways – cheaply, and at a pace never before seen, considering a proportion of curators live in deep time.

The question of guidance is a more complex one, especially since the authorial voice is gradually being phased out in many galleries. (This may also be the opportune point to mention the phasing in of the term ‘curator’ to mean pretty much anyone who chooses anything, as long as it appears in a discernible sequence.) The question of plurality and diversity is something most collectors, especially experts, already appreciate and are keen to communicate better. Indeed, there are people working at, and visiting, our public institutions so keen on variety, they can talk for seven hours about regional variations in types of wooden spoons. Trust me: I was there.

Why, then, does interpretation often bore, or alienate its audience? What we contend with is the historiography of our own collections. This is so inextricably linked to the aims and research interests of our forebears that, very often, the information we might ask for today is absent in the museological inquiries of the past. The age of the Curator’s ‘pet project’ is over, at least in publicly-funded museums, but the information gathered during that period still informs us about the objects today. While auditing collections could redress this to an extent, it would be immensely time consuming – and probably expensive, since project funding is nowadays more often awarded for engagement rather than research.

In addition, as the quote at the top this post illustrates, you can present a pitch-perfect, aspirational collection of gubbins and visitors might still feel like shit when they look at it. Without a mediator of some sort, people are overwhelmed or confused when museums try to shake their assumptions about life and the universe to the core while they’re being pulled to the next display by a screaming child on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Film Museum

"Welcome to our museum. Prepare to question all you hold dear."

Who are we to say whether or not someone’s inspired by what they see? Is the effect instantaneous or cumulative? How do we measure it? More practically, even if I came up with a magical formula which informs and empowers, how would I tailor such an experience to in excess of 600,000 visitors a year? Experimenting with user-generated interpretation is a good start, and, as a sector, I hope we’ll learn how we can design for this using tangible materials, as well as new media. Unfortunately, if we decide to go down the telling-people-what-to-think route of gallery instruction, I think we have more to learn from the sneaky semiotics of advertising, than the processional and material cultures of the Christian Church. Sorry Alain.

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