December 17, 2010

Culture Kettle’s museum side: My post on the Center for the Future of Museums’ blog

This week I'm the guest blogger for AAM's Center for the Future of Museums, whose director Elizabeth Merritt has been an indispensible sounding board as I’ve developed Culture Kettle. As soon as I wrote the post for her, sever al people pointed out new exhibits that are just the kind of innovation I'm calling for. Or are they?

I introduced Culture Kettle in a general way last week on this blog, and before that in the news section of our site. My new post on the CFM blog focuses, not surprisingly, on Culture Kettle's potential museum work.

In that post, as an example of both the possibilities and the limitations of art museum practice, I mentioned Peter Greenaway’s Last Supper “vision,” a multimedia, immersive installation currently running in New York. I argued that there’s a reason Greenaway’s work is installed not in a major art museum but on the less contested, more theatrical ground of the Park Avenue Armory: it breaks most of the traditional rules of art museum display, including the one that says the museum’s job is to get out of the way of the artworks, to interpret them as unobtrusively and objectively as possible so visitors encounter the artist’s vision rather than the vision of the curators and exhibition designers.

Given that radicalism, it’s something a shock to hear that Greenaway’s hopes for his audience are just like those of museum curators and educators: he says he wants to bring people closer to the masterpiece in question, make them slow down and really look at it, and in general (in Holland Cotter’s paraphrase in his New York Times review) “to revive visual literacy.” Same goals, different means.

Which raises the question, which set of museological rules are better at generating those outcomes, and for which kinds of audiences? That’s a question Culture Kettle can help answer, in part by conducting deep, thoughtful evaluations of both familiar and experimental art experiences, and in part by setting up some of those experimental experiences in the first place.

I realize that museum curators work with artists all the time to do something interventionist and creative in their galleries. But would the curator do something like that on her own? Probably not. The impulse—and somehow the freedom—to do it usually comes from the artist or other outsiders. It’s hard to avoid concluding that this sort of creativity and active presence in the design of the museum-visitor interface is just not part of the curatorial job description.

The same question comes up when I think about three other examples people have mentioned to me this week: ...

  • “What Makes Us Smile?” at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The show was co-curated by Matt Groening (yes, “The Simpsons” creator), the artist Gary Panter (who was responsible for the surreal cartoon look of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse”), and the museum’s founder, Rebecca Hoffberger. The images of works from the show online do look fun, sometimes even funny. And people who have seen the exhibit tell me there’s some humor in the installation, as well, such as the (spoiler alert) whoopee-cushion bench waiting for unsuspecting visitors to plop down. But mostly, it seems, it’s the artworks on the walls that do the funny stuff. Two questions: What would it take for a museum director or curator to stage such a show without a Matt Groening or a Gary Panter to license the risk and own the idiosyncrasy? Can we imagine a show in which perfectly serious artworks (or historical objects or scientific images or whatever) are installed and interpreted in a way that’s funny?

And this pair of exhibits, which an archaeologist-curator told me about and which look similarly…well, cinematic:

  • “Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology” which premieres next April at the Montreal Science Center and which will juxtapose the real (ancient objects, historical facts) and the fictional (props from the Indiana Jones films, such as the headdress pictured here). The Science Center is apparently just a venue; the exhibition was developed not by a museum (although the Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania is loaning objects from its remarkable collection), but by National Geographic, Lucasfilm, and Montreal-based X3 Productions. I’m interested to see what kind of dialogue this will spark in the museum field. The exhibition’s website says it will be traveling to “twelve world-class institutions in Canada, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.” I’ve heard that the absence of a U.S. venue is a matter of licensing restrictions. But is curatorial or museological resistance also part of the equation? The Penn Museum is shown as a partner on the exhibition website, but the project isn’t mentioned anywhere on the museum’s website.


  • Adventure in the Valley of the Unknown at COSI, the science center in Columbus, Ohio. The popular exhibit, which reopened in spiffy form several months ago after a five year hiatus, is also Indiana Jones-inspired, although less officially than the new Canadian exhibit and without the authentic artifacts. Designed as a participatory quest, COSI’s Adventure is a museum experience for the gamer generation, complete with challenges, clues, levels, and a final goal. It was designed and produced by an outside firm, Roto Studio, but of course museums’ exhibit departments rely on outside firms all the time. This project probably qualifies more than the other examples as a museum’s own innovation.

So the envelope is being pushed, at least in certain directions at certain places, by some individuals. Culture Kettle needs to take all that de facto R&D into account in its own work. We’ll try to add to the picture in at least two ways: first, by rigorously and comparatively evaluating those experiments in ways that build shared knowledge relevant across contexts and projects; and second, by pointing out, when necessary, how much wider our bandwidth of innovation could be — spotlighting the assumptions that aren’t yet being tested, the possibilities that aren’t yet being explored, and taking up the challenge of doing so.

Again, please consider this a call for collaborators. If you’ve been thinking along these lines in the museum field (or in the performing arts, where Culture Kettle will start), post a comment below or get in touch.


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