February 10, 2010

Familiarity can breed comfort, too

Re-reading Catcher in the Rye has me wondering about the delicate balance that museums have to strike between the new and the familiar.

Like many people, I’ve found myself thinking about the book since the death of JD Salinger last week. It’s been many years since I’ve read it, and the details are a little hazy in my mind. I remember Holden’s obsession with “phoniness” and that he has a kid sister named Phoebe. And one detail that’s always stuck in my mind: that he makes a visit to the American Museum of Natural History.

I paged through my copy of the book this morning and found the passage where Holden visits the museum. It’s a lovely moment and fun to re-read it now that thinking about museums is my full-time job. What really struck me, though, is why Holden likes the museum so much:

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs...”

Now, Holden’s psychological need for stability might be greater than most people’s. Nevertheless it got me thinking: I counsel museums about the need for new-ness in the visit experience far more often than the need for same-ness. In both qualitative and quantitative research, visitors (especially young adults) tell us that their desire to learn, see, or experience something new is a strong driver of their attendance at museums. So it’s natural to focus my thinking on how museums can keep the experience “fresh” so that the appeal of the new is a continual draw. But by taking that focus, have I under-valued the role of ritual and nostalgia in the museum experience?

My family lived in suburban Houston when I was a teenager, and my friends and I spent many hours hanging out at the Museum of Fine Arts. I left Texas for college and my family moved back East, so it’s been at least 15 years since I’ve been to that museum. I’m already looking forward to going there during AAM’s 2011 annual meeting in Houston. And I have to say that, as much I’m looking forward to seeing what’s changed and looking at the museum through the eyes of a thirty-something museum researcher rather than a seventeen-year-old suburban kid, I’m really looking forward to it for nostalgic reasons. To being in the same galleries where the guards watched my friends and me warily to make sure that we didn’t get too close to the art. To standing in the very spot where I learned about Fauvism. To seeing the Mary Cassatt that my mom loved (above).

That any one person can have multiple — and even competing — needs and expectations when visiting museums points to a big challenge facing the profession: how to provide outstanding experiences for the many audience segments that visit, especially when being in one segment or another isn’t a fixed, stable characteristic of the individual. More on that in a future post.

How about you? What role do nostalgia, ritual, and tradition play in your museum attendance? When do you go to museums to see something new and when do you go to them to see something “old”? And if you're a museum professional, what are you doing to facilitate both kinds of experiences for your visitors?

1 Comment »
Peter Linett — February 11, 2010

Interesting all around. Now you've got me thinking about whether the two impulses (newness and familiarity) can be met at the same time. The Tate (Britain, not Modern) used to talk about a "present day eye on the past," a sense of re-experiencing older artworks in a new way. And in theater we often see new interpretations of familiar classics.

But thinking that way would require art museums to think about their interpretive strategies as more prominent and interventionist than they usually do...more theatrical. Natural history museums are more comfortable with this (though maybe not in Holden's day).

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