Museums have always been about more than housing art, be it in the service of the work itself (how to bring out certain aesthetic qualities) or by making a broader social statement. Yet, something less obvious than simply creating a distance between observer and the observed or curating the works of a specific artist is at play. What also informs the modern museum-going experience is the ‘who’ viewing the art and what exactly that person’s expectations of the experience are.
For much of the 20th century—and really all of the 19th century—to enter a museum was to be in the midst of Greatness. The requisite emotion was awe; the self was no longer the center of one’s attention. It helped if museum-goers were familiar with the story of art, so that they could direct that awe appropriately. Yet, this story served an even deeper purpose, as the transformation of the museum in the last fifty years has shown. Museum-goers demanded to be edified by that story. But now that story—that the past was a series of great masters to kneel before—is itself becoming a relic. The public has changed and, so the notion goes, so too must the museum.
The progressive-museum-going experience has its beginnings in the end of the 19th century, and has, since then, steadily grown in the United States. The idea is not only about housing artworks under a roof but about being an agent for social change. The museum as subversive. Or, if that is too ambitious, the museum has become not so much a custodian of great art as an institution that caters to the museum goer’s experience. But if that experience has become less about art, then what has it become more about?
One argument is that the museum needs to be more attuned to how an individual sees him- or herself against the backdrop of Art. Spaces for easy congregation, whether at a museum café or a large open area in between statues, are addressing this need. Installation art, in which there is no art in the traditional sense, but a space created ad hoc, where the museum goer is part of the experience, is another trend highlighting a shift away from “unselfing.” Some maintain this renewed focus on the self is alarming, and point out that museums are trying to attract younger generations by offering “selfie spaces” where individuals can use smartphones to take pictures of themselves standing next to the likes of the David. This is an extreme example, given that many museums are not focused on pandering to the popular masses, and perhaps points more to how its proponents are clearly reactionary. Many of these critics insist on clinging to the traditional model, the one in which museums have become little more than bastions of stuffiness, an old-world order frozen in time, deaf to the sensibilities of a changing public.
What needs redefining is the simplistic dichotomy between upholding the value of Art and catering to the whims of the public. It misses the subtle dynamic of how the museum-going public both engages and disengages with conscious curatorial and structural adaptations. For instance, the public--underscoring the trend in placing the self at the center of the experience--has become more demanding of an interactive experience, not surprising given how digital technology itself is predicated on an individual-mediated response to the intake of information. One idea a museum could play with, if some have not already, is for the docent to go online, allowing the individual to “curate the experience” as she walks past works of art chosen with this end in mind. Museums might also experiment with other approaches; whether these involve classic works or collections outside of the western canon, or whether they can be described as installation art is besides the point. Saying that any of these approaches are compromised presupposes that there is only one experience. In fact, museums in the stuffy mold should still exist, but they should also be content with their diminished status.