May 28, 2010

Museums and subjectivity: food for thought from the AAM annual meeting

I’ve got a lot of blog-catching-up to do, and I’ll start with a few ideas I heard in Los Angeles this week at the American Association of Museums gathering. As some of you know, I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of subjectivity in cultural institutions, and I was happy to hear several speakers strike the same note.

Subjectivity is one of those ten-gallon abstractions, but I just mean the human, personal presence that animates an act of communication — say, a museum exhibition or a symphony performance.

That presence can be felt on at least three different levels. If the story is about Einstein’s discovery of special relativity, the storyteller might emphasize the subjectivity of the “characters” in the drama: Einstein’s struggles, feelings, thought process, beliefs, or the way he burst into the apartment of his friend Max Born to share a realization that had just clicked. I find this kind of subjectivity more common in science books than science museum exhibits, which tend to be more about concepts than scientists. But we do see a little of it.

Or the storyteller could emphasize the audience’s subjectivity — the responses, feelings, beliefs, and ideas in our minds as we take in the story. Museums have been doing this since the dawn of interactive museum displays, but exhibits like “You! The Experience” (at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry) and the rise of participatory, co-created experiences show how comfortable museums have gotten with the subjectivity of their visitors.

But what about their own subjectivity? What about the feelings, commitments, attitudes, and plain old human personality of the storyteller(s)? In our Einstein example, how does the “author” (of a book or any other form of cultural communication) connect to this story? What does it mean to her, and how and why did she come to know it? ...

These days, the people who write books or produce podcasts, radio shows, and documentaries are often present in them in a big way, or lots of little ways. Think of Janna Levin’s books on physics or Sarah Vowell’s on American history. Listen to Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich do science.

Yet museums tend to be leery of this kind of subjectivity, as I’ve observed here before. I’m not sure why this is, but their conceptual roots in the Enlightenment and their institutional foundings in the Modernist era probably have something to do with it: both periods were about celebrating and conserving the hard-won benefits of objectivity and scientific rationalism.

But if you listen to today’s cultural audiences, as my colleagues and I do for a living, you may wonder why museums don’t try subjectivity more often. Visitors (and more importantly, potential visitors) reveal that they’re looking for not just the what and why of the story, but also the who. In fact, they seem to want the who first, as a personalizing pathway into the what and the why. They want to connect as people, to people — not directly to pure abstractions or distant masterpieces.

I did hear that message at AAM, although mostly from people outside the museum field. Here are a few examples, with apologies for paraphrasing and taking things out of context.

  • In a panel on “Creating Experiences for Millennials,” one 25-year-old panelist from outside the museum field (who was present as a representative of that generation, and whose name I didn’t get) was asked about her most memorable museum experience. She recalled visiting a history exhibition where a woman who had participated in the Selma civil rights protests talked about her experiences, first-hand and with emotional depth. Museums work best when they’re “personal” as well as “interactive,” the panelist said — and her example suggested that the content feels personal to us only when it’s personal for the museum or its partners-in-storytelling.

  • The moderator of that panel, Jessica Sickler of the Institute for Learning Innovation, told a story about evaluating a science exhibit panel with young visitors. The prototype featured images of two teens talking to each other about the cool specimen at hand, but the kids found it laughable. Instead, what they wanted was an image of the scientist talking personally and authentically about that specimen and why he or she found it cool. In other words, they were less engaged when the museum tried to emphasize their subjectivity, and much more interested in the museum foregrounding its own.

  • Fred Dust from IDEO exhorted institutions of all kinds to “be transparent about what you believe,” even when you think your opinions or beliefs are different from those of many members of your audience. (Better to have people disagree with you honestly than to have only a vague idea of where you’re coming from.) Of course, Fred also emphasized the need to understand visitors’ hearts and minds. But he suggested that museums must start by making sure they know what they stand for and get comfortable “putting it out there.”

  • Theater director and cultural activist Peter Sellars spoke movingly about the perils of objectivity, which for him is too often about avoiding our individual “connectedness and responsibility to the world.” For Sellars, cultural experiences should involve a two-way gaze: the performance or artwork we behold should look back at us, metaphorically or actually, in a living, human-to-human connection. Hiding in neutrality or professionalism is just that — an avoidance strategy. (Sellars had some amusing things to say about the white walls and “sanitized” feel of most art museums, which for him feel like hospitals or prisons. “The art is either under arrest or sick.”)

  • And Kathleen McLean, a California-based exhibit developer and author of several influential books in the field, confirmed what I’d read in the New York Times about her latest project, the community-driven reconfiguration of the Oakland Museum. The exhibit includes text panels written in a personal mode — and signed — by scholars, local artists and writers, etc.

But that’s still the exception rather than the rule, as McLean ruefully noted. Much more familiar is the approach described by California-based curator and filmmaker Arthur Dong, who sat on a panel about his exhibition “Hollywood Chinese” at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. In his films and in this exhibit, he said, he likes “to leave a lot of space — a lot of space — for viewers to draw their own conclusions.” To Dong, the creator’s job is largely to present the facts, objects, and images in an “interesting” manner and get out of the way. (That word "interesting" came up again and again on this panel, and more emotional or ethical terms were rare.) Subjectivity might unduly color or bias the response of the audience.

To me, that whole set of assumptions feels a little dated (as did the exhibit, based on the photos we were shown). The way culture works today, it’s subjectivity that encourages and catalyzes the response of the audience. Without it, the exhibit — or film or book or other cultural communication — feels merely “interesting.” Dutiful. Withdrawn, somehow.

So ironically, cultural creators who strive for objectivity in order to license a wider range of reactions may end up limiting those reactions by setting a tone of dispassion and pseudo-scientific disinterest. Subconsciously, the audience asks, “If you’re not upset about it...or excited about it...or whatever...then why should we be?”

(For the record, I was a little upset about it.)

Do you know of any museums that emphasize their own subjectivity as storytellers or curators? How does it strike you? And if you were in LA, what did you hear at the conference? Subjectively, of course.

1 Comment »
Dan Spock — July 02, 2010

Did you ever see the exhibit "LA: Light, Motion, Dreams"? It was at the Natural History Museum of LA in, maybe, 2005 or 06? Its theme was the collision of the human and natural worlds in the LA basin. It was almost devoid of written interpretation and featured such striking set pieces as the backyard pool of a Hollywood Hills case study house and on the diving board is a coyote with a house cat in its mouth. The designer was Francois Confino and has made his reputation by making very visual and personal interpretations of various themes through striking visual bricolage tableaus. I thought it was terrific, but a lot of people were completely mystified by it.

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