The museum and ways of looking

Following my last post about Michael Kimmelman’s NYT article, I’ve been thinking more about museums as products of their audiences, but also as producers of their audiences.

Starting with the act of “looking”—the lack of which Kimmelman misses in the Louvre to begin with—one might ask: did this “looking” (and lack thereof) simply go elsewhere? According to Kimmelman, it’s obviously not occurring in museums anymore.

But let’s take one step back: there may be multiple types of “looking.” One which matches Kimmelman’s expectations, slow looking, has become rare, and others have become more common, which have taken the place of slow looking. It may also be the case that slow looking is still common, but has moved out of museums. If we understand slow looking to be a type of looking, we can think of it carrying on in some other venue. This may be because an aspect of the environment has changed which has affected the contexts within which slow looking thrives, and which mean museums no longer cater to it. But perhaps we should think of museums as being perfectly suited to slow looking, indeed they are probably built the way they are to satisfy slow looking.

So what could be the reasons for this change in viewing habits in museums? Perhaps people are less compliant with the museums required means of use, their structures. Looking at society and social groupings, the raising to the middle classes of a broad mass of people without the background to accept this social construction (the museum), meant that the museum lost its audience, the audience made for it (or made in its image, perhaps) or that it made.

I’m obviously assuming here that the museum, as we know it today, was made for the middle classes. The middle class were somehow encoded into the building structure, as its ideal audience. It was made for them, by them, and at the same time represented them, mirrored them, providing a “natural” environment for them. I’m suggesting this is partly to do with education, too, at least to the extent that education contributes to the making of classes, and hence in terms of the perpetuation of museum-like thinking. So if another group of people do not experience this particular aspect of education, or if education changes such that it does not represent this particular aspect, that group will not feel comfortable in this museum that is not built with them in mind. I talk about this in terms of classes, and maybe that’s facile, but it is somewhere to begin with for me.

Lot’s of material there, which I am not going to go into in this short post, so let’s cut to the strategies to address this situation.

This loss of its audience can be addressed by the museum in many ways. Opening museums up to more people (no entry charges, etc.) provides one solution – which provides the potential to educate a new group of people in the museum’s ways. But this doesn’t change the museum itself in the other direction, a failing which I think could be fatal. The museum is attempting to adapt people to become its audience, but not adapting itself to its people and their new ways of looking.

Again, a very insufficient ending to a subject I find very interesting, and which will resurface in the future, no doubt.