What makes a good museum?

Last week the Wall Street Journal had an article about how museums are keeping tabs on what visitors look at most, how long they spend at exhibits, whether they read the explanatory notes posted nearby. They may even take notes on conversations people have, to get a better idea of people’s reactions to what they see.

It’s all about optimizing exhibits to attract more visitors. Like everyone else, museums feel the pinch of the struggling economy, and they need to make sure they use their scarce resources most effectively. If an exhibit doesn’t get people to stop and look, it’s not benefiting either the museum or its visitors. Maybe it needs to be rearranged, or maybe it needs to be more interactive. Maybe the objects on display simply need to be replaced by others that generate more interest.

I briefly thought about writing a blog post about it, but decided there wasn’t enough there to interest me, so I couldn’t really expect it to interest you. Then a co-worker stopped by the front desk (where I work, and where the Wall Street Journal sits on the counter), and pointed to the article. “Do you realize what that will do to museums?” he ask me.

I had thought it would improve the exhibits (which is clearly its intention), but he thought otherwise. People will spend more time at pop art, he said, so the great works of art will gradually be replaced by whatever is most popular. I wondered if he was right.

Then this evening I found another article about museums. The country’s top art museums now have directors who are in their 40’s, and have a significantly different outlook on what the museum should be than their older predecessors. “Not so long ago, directors were proud to say museums were ‘cathedrals of culture,’ collecting, displaying and preserving the best art. Today, that’s regarded by some as elitism.” Well, that certainly lends credence to my co-worker’s concerns.

As I read through the article, however, the emphasis seemed to be more on creating new opportunities for the public to interact with the museum and its exhibits, rather than to replace certain kinds of exhibits with other kinds. Having visited museums as a child myself, and then having taken my own children to a number of museums, I know that opportunities to do something besides just look are a big draw.

I still remember an exhibit at The Children’s Museum in West Hartford, CT (which I went to on class field trips more times than I can remember), which showed how different size stones settle into layers based on their size. There was a tube filled with water and pebbles of different sizes, and you turned the tube upside down from its previous position, then watched as the stones rearranged themselves. Of course, you had to wait for your turn to turn the tube.

At museums I have visited with my sons, I have made a “tornado” of water in a tube, inflated models of lungs, done a computer simulation of a pioneer journey west, played Pong (in an exhibit of how video games have changed over the decades), and tried to create something artistic with various materials available. Of course these exhibits appeal to my sons a great deal more than those where you just stand and look and read. But they have a good deal of appeal to me also.

Some museums, and some exhibits, I have enjoyed just for the looks alone. When I went back to visit Valencia, Spain (during my year in Madrid), my favorite museum was the Museo Fallero, showing figurines from previous years, as well as how fallas are made and how the festival has evolved. My most recent museum visit was to our local art center – I enjoyed the exhibit on Springs Sprockets & Pulleys so much that I wrote a blog post on it, and I still intend to get back there with my husband sometime. (The exhibit does have some interactive elements, but mostly I just enjoyed observing all the amazing details.)

If I were to design a museum, I would not want it to be too big. I think one thing I liked about the Museo Fallero, and our local art center, is the limited size. When I go to a huge museum like the Smithsonian, I feel like I need to get my money’s worth by seeing all that I can, but after a couple of hours my brain seems to suffer from overload and I can’t get interested in anything more. I remember walking through some of the great museums of Europe, such as the Louvre, having seen too many great paintings to be able to appreciate any more (yet reluctant to leave because I knew I probably wouldn’t get to go back.)

As I took a walk around the block with Al this evening, I asked myself what kind of museum I would want to build, if I had the opportunity (e.g. time, money, land, permits). One interesting idea would be a museum about pets. How have dogs and cats been bred over the centuries, to arrive at the variety of breeds we have today? How do societies differ in how they view pets? How are they depicted in popular culture? (Lots of interactive possibilities there.) And of course you would want to have some living samples, but as pets live with people, they would all have to be temporary exhibits, brought in by and with their owners on some kind of rotating schedule.

There would be certain drawbacks to such a museum, of course. Lots of clean-up to do, for one thing. And people like my husband, who are allergic to many animals (especially cats), might not be able to visit at all. (Though there’s another idea for an exhibit – what causes allergies to animals and how do people deal with it.)

Sitting here in our computer room, I see the dragon figurines my husband and my son collect, and that gives me another idea. A dragon museum wouldn’t have any live animals (unless of course you wanted to have a komodo dragon on display), but there could be a lot of artwork, both in two and three dimensions. There are some great books and movies about dragons, as well as all the legends (in Europe) and cultural connections (such as Chinese New Year). You could even have a natural history section on what animals might have given rise to the idea of dragons.

Another idea would be a “how it works” of the infrastructure that we depend on every day but rarely if ever see. What does it look like when you go down a manhole, and what are those tunnels for? How do the water and electricity and natural gas get into my house (and out again, in the case of water)? I don’t think they could manage to have visitors go through the entire water cycle the way the kids do on the Magic School Bus, but it could certainly be interesting to travel through a simulated set of pipes (not filled with water, of course).

What kind of museum would you build, if you could?

One Response to What makes a good museum?

  1. Margaret says:

    Fascinating subject. When I was growing up, I really loved museums. I don’t remember whether I made Pauline impatient or not, but I know that my husband and son can get frustrated with me because I’m never ready to leave. (Wait, there are more details here.) I do remember as a teenager deciding that when I grew up, I would try to live in a place with a lot of great museums so I could try to visit repeatedly and get to see all the exhibits thoroughly. (I did do some of that as a young adult living in Chicago.) I like your suggestions for museums. Pet dragons, I suppose? (For people allergic to cats in a pet museum, you would just have to have the living samples in a separate area.) I love “how it works” books and videos, so something doesn’t necessarily have to be interactive per se, as long as it involves physical movement, or a sense of story or plot. (I always enjoyed going to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.) But then I am one of those people who can enjoy an old-fashioned museum with nothing to do but read long descriptions and compare the details of the description with the object in front of me, and enjoy it a lot, so I represent a very small percentage of what those museum observers are seeing in their visitors.

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