Museums and galleries as we know them today are going extinct. The sparsely hung white walls, the stifling silence interrupted only by hesitant footsteps, the evil glare from the intern behind the reception desk, the dependence on paragraphs of restrained text on wall plaques — all slipping away into the past. I don’t mean to be too fatalistic; there are no full substitutes for concrete spaces built purely for in-person encounters with art and historical artifacts. Yet the way art institutions are architecturally structured, ideologically swayed and intellectually and physically accessed are beginning to reflect well-thought out alterations, along with the strategies and means employed to present their interpretations of information.
It’s absolutely critical these transformations take place if the arts are not only to stay edifying among circles of already-devoted aficionados, but to inspire more creativity and contemplation than ever in audiences less likely to know Whistler from Turner. And as technology today can transport us everywhere from nearly anywhere, fracturing the public’s leisure time with new kinds of virtual-commuting, household dynamics, types of income and other distractions in all directions, art institutions must competitively scramble more than ever to fund aspirational budgets and move bodies through their collections and gift shops. What is emerging as a result, many say, is the “post-museum.”
“Post” infers a moving beyond some obsolete form of museum. Indeed, as Eilean Hooper-Greenhill writes, “the ways in which museums work today are based on ideas that emerged in nineteenth-century Europe — many of these ideas are no longer relevant. The idea of the museum is changing; it is being transformed and re-imagined.” Hooper-Greenhill terms this outdated Western institution the “modernist museum”; the first formalised public museums based on the model of jumbled aristocratic cabinets of curiosities, endowed by high society to elevate and humanise the sooty common masses. The modernist museum traces its smartypants roots to the rationality and catechisms of the white male-centric Enlightenment, and upholds the belief that what can be seen is valid and important.
The modernist museum’s rebellious successor, the post-museum, though still struggling to hatch from its shell, is premised on a new relationship between the museum and its audience, a major part of which is a more dynamic approach to the rendezvous between the visitor and museum narratives. Formerly austere galleries, established as sites for use of the eye, are being reinvented as spaces with more noise, more objects to handle — even more opportunities to smell and taste the past — and which are more physically complex but wholly-graspable to all demographics.
In the post-museum, there should be an equal interest in intangible and tangible heritage; objects will be cared for, but concentrated on more for their interactive or educational use than their accumulation. The institutional voice will become one among many other forms of context-based communication, teach in ways that speak to all different sorts of intelligence, confess its own shortcomings and promote lines of unconventional questioning. Most crucially to the goal of boosting public engagement, the museum will not be limited to its own walls, but will move outside its cloisters as a set of processes (physical and digital) into the spaces, concerns, and ambitions of communities. By doing so, the post-museum can honestly aim to overturn entrenched negative attitudes towards cultural institutions, likely instilled in non-visitors by a brush with the elitism of the modernist museum, and to reach technology-obsessed younger generations in an instructive, meaningful way.
One-way didacticism will no longer suffice. To not only survive, but flourish, in the future, scholar Graham Black believes post-museums must seek to engage and involve their users, on-site and online, on a number of levels: by still providing enjoyable, exciting and stimulating experiences for families and groups of friends to participate in together, whether on a one-off visit or as regular users; by focusing on developing their audience into frequent guests while still welcoming the likes of tourists passing through; by engaging with users as active participants, contributors and collaborators on a learning journey together, rather than passive recipients of unchallenged wisdom; by reaching out to build partnerships and exhibition platforms in their communities; by continuing to change and take on new meanings and roles as society continues to transform itself; and through building ever-closer relationships with their users, creating new funding streams.
Museums which prefer to ignore scholarly advice like Black’s will not necessarily shrivel up and disappear, for large factions of traditional audiences would probably spit at the tweaks to curatorial practice I’m advocating for. Yet I’m also advocating for the sustainability and amplification of cultural influences, influences which could be quite beneficial and mellowing to society if presented on terms more individuals can get behind. I sincerely believe that institutions choosing adopt the tenets of the post-museum will fair markedly better in decades to come. As coauthors of experience understood to be real, museums are battling for the public’s allegiance with such manufacturers of illusion as movies, television, theme parks, and advertising. Hence, it is pertinent that museums become as innovative and fastidious in the selection of experiences they purvey as they formerly professed to be ardent their expert care of static objects. If putting post-museum pedagogy into practice allows institutions to become more sensorial, participative, and egalitarian places, visits to such places could easily be as, if not more, enticing than trips to the cinema, and could in return make the stewardship of material culture, forever a key role of any museum, less financially burdensome.
One of the most beautiful elements about broad transitions to forward-thinking display techniques and institutional agendas is that astute or vocal visitors can seize the power to shape outcomes, to essentially help construct the museums of the future. For the post-museum thrives on dialogue that challenges the rhetoric it broadcasts. Patrons utterly ideologically, culturally and politically at ease within an exhibition are rare and tend to enjoy being spoon fed in a bland way. What the post-museum must draw in, and make enjoyable for the public to be, is a diverse, critically-thinking audience that assesses how visual, written, spatial and participatory aspects collectively effect the subject matter on display, those in connection with it, and all who will see it. By considering institutional intentions and hypocrisies driving arrangements of objects, text and space, exploring what is between the lines or left unsaid, trying to discern who benefits or suffers the most from specific presentations and perceptions of material — and sharing their opinions by word of mouth or in written, even tweeted, reviews — visitors can make the programming they attend more inclusive, well-rounded of a higher calibre and stimulating in suprising ways.
Theorising is the easy bit; what will post-museums actually look like? I foresee exhibitions that go beyond smacking paintings onto plain walls, using decor and lighting to create enveloping atmospheres and moods that evoke time periods and personal biographies associated with what’s being shown. I see the outer walls of entire institutions transformed into temporary works of site-specific art, more open spaces and seating for comfort and conversation, additional, lower-set text panels designed especially for children, glass vitrines that allow objects to be viewed from all sides, racks of costumes to try on, games to play, supervised areas to draw, paint and sculpt in, public dance studios, replicas of precious items to be fondled and admired up close, push notifications on smartphones prompting further exploration of ideas or institutions’ websites, off-site installations and lecture series in overlooked neighbourhoods, and banners promoting unprecedented amounts of crowd funding campaigns. Like it or lump it, I see lots of touch screens, allowing viewers to flip through more detailed information or similar objects too delicate for display in a collection with the tip of their fingers, to watch exhibition trailers, order gift shop items or snacks from the café for pick-up, take quizzes, be polled, leave feedback, or share their museum-going experience directly on social media. I hear music, artist quotations and interviews, actor portrayals and criticisms drifting across cleverly-hidden speakers, I smell the pleasing aromas of era-specific cooking demonstrations and laboratory-bottled scents pumped in set the scene and provoke visceral memories…
Art history and archaeology present astonishing evidence of dramatic evolutions that have taken place throughout the human story; material traces of massive upheavals in science, social conditions, philosophy and visual understandings which depict reformations built on prior traditions. Destined to care and speak for such symbols of progress, courage and ambition, museum curators, administrators and boards of directors should be unfraid to think far, far outside the box, to rework their institutional identities and thrive in, without pandering to, our radical times.
References: Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 2000)
Graham Black, Transforming Museums in the Twenty-First Century (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012)
Charles S. Stanish, “On Museums in a Postmodern World”, Daedalus, The MIT Press, Vol. 137, No. 3, On Cosmopolitanism (Summer, 2008)
Hilde S. Hein, The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective (Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution, 2000)
Margaret Lindauer, “The critical museum visitor”, New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006