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.

Slow looking

Some extracts from Michael Kimmelman’s article in last weekend’s NYT lamenting the demise of the slow observation of art, with some brief comments:

…What exactly are we looking for when we roam as tourists around museums?…

A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels, as if learning that one or another of these sculptures came from Papua New Guinea or Hawaii or the Archipelago of Santa Cruz, or that a work was three centuries old or maybe four might help them see what was, plain as day, just before them.…

“…plain as day…”? Sorry, surely this is the problem, it’s never plain as day. Visitors need some context to understand the works, or maybe that’s what they should expect from a museum. That’s the “job” of the museum: to provide a place to see works in some kind of context. Kimmelman seems to be suggesting that the visitor should just take what’s “just before them” at face value, which I suppose they could, but it seems that is not providing enough to hold the tourists interest, hence creating the premiss for Kimmelman’s article.

Visiting museums has always been about self-improvement.…

<sighs> I think it would be more accurate to say museums have always been about someone’s idea of improving other people. The Louvre (the subject of this article) being a case in point. When it was opened up to the masses after the French revolution, the displays were adjusted from being the private collection of the king, to being specifically designed to demonstrate and inculcate an idea of France’s place in the world in “the people.”

Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look.…

…the canon of art that provided guideposts to tell people where to go and what to look at was gradually dismantled. A core of shared values yielded to an equality among visual materials. This was good and necessary, up to a point. Millions of images came to compete for our attention. Liberated by a proliferation, Western culture was also set adrift in an ocean of passing stimulation, with no anchors to secure it.

This wistful nostalgia for an overarching ideology to guide our thinking, is a bit sickly. The “liberation” he speaks of will inevitably lead to new ideologies, perhaps ones better suited to the material and the proliferation, in the same way that it will lead to new ways of seeing and presenting art – new museums even. The tourists’ inattention in the Louvre is symptomatic of this change in viewing patterns and its sensible for the museum to try and identify how to address these new patterns.

Slow looking, like slow cooking, may yet become the new radical chic.

That, I think, is wishful thinking. Just because this is how it was in the past, and what museums have been created to cater for, does not mean it will be so in the future, or that museums will be suited to our viewing habits in the future. Our viewing habits adapt, and institutions will be created to serve those habits. Museums which work by “slow-viewing” will still have a place, and will go in and out of vogue as times and tastes change, the definition of “slow-viewing” will also change to meet these new requirements.

Kimmelman, Michael (2009), At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus,, 3 August 2009.