A continuation of a discussion of Museums

Posted August 26th, 2014by Jeremy Johnson

What is the role of the museum in the progression of our society? Well… lets keep in the spirit of off the cuff writing and thought development. By writing that, I mean to say that I am not necessarily convinced that everything I say is actually what I feel, believe, or know. (And they are significantly different things. Those that know me well know that when someone says “I feel that…” when they mean to say “think” or “know” automatically poke at my stressor buttons.

The topic is huge, and at the core of Meddling with Nature. In many ways we are archivists, contextualists, teachers, and of course Artists. I have also done my time working 40 in a museum, for better or worse; not just the volunteer “smile while I take your picture” part, but in the guts and stacks… playing with water pressure, rolling out tables, and once (just once) dropping a bronze head older than Rome. So in short, yes… this is going to be a long public conversation.

We first have to ask whether or not a museum is living or simply a hall of records. Does it research? Does it have a core philosophy that is not strictly in adoration of the past? Is it conservationally relevant or simply a side show? The Natural History museum of London is really tricky because it is so very old, and has lived so many lives and lived them all on different sides of the divide. The museum itself is independent from the British Museum (1963) but was not actually a place your screaming children would ever see until Richard Owen made a few changes and architectural improvements. While Owens, Wallace, and Darwin did not see eye to eye, he was truly the father of the public museum. Actually Nate, had you visited a little while ago it would have been Owens visage who greeted you rather than Darwin. And had you visited even past that, Darwin was solo star until very very recently. That little pic of you and the Wallace portrait is VERY recent, and very important for Naturalists like us. (Obviously you knew who you were standing next to and just making a comment about the modern need for selfie. Otherwise I would have killed you when you got off the plane!)

The distinction between a public museum and a research collection is important not because of the collections, which often times are of equal caliber, it’s in the access to the public that makes this conversation go wild. Do we modern apes revel in the conquest of our ancestors? When we look at the Vatican collections are we in awe of humanity or its domination? When we look at the Apollo 13 capsule after entering an entry room with a flight ready SR71 blackbird and carefully constructed USS enterprise shuttle ticket desk adjoined to a community college in Kansas, do we marvel at the same? Or is this about human achievement and progress. What purpose does the Field Museum serve with its high prices vs. the Smithsonian which is free?

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Firstly, in some ways you get what you pay for… Government Museums are often propaganda for the country they represent. Many would be shocked that I firmly believe that the Smithsonian is a shit museum in comparison to the really expensive “public” museum in Chicago who will really turn a blind eye if you don’t have a ticket on hand. Compare this with the Kansas Cosmosphere that charges its rate strictly to keep open, and will charge you an assload more if you want to see a silly IMAX presentation. BUT… are they doing work that matters? In all the cases mentioned above YES! The Field makes it very clear, the Smithsonian seems to have no idea how to relay that to its patrons, and the Cosmosphere insists that you watch poor scientists dusting off transistors from the 1970’s to prove their point.

Yeah… there is no edit on this, so sorry for not being nearly as succinct as I normally try to be, but let’s move on.

You are correct that buildings themselves are capable of creating a transcending space. You cite Cathedrals and Deco scrapers, as you well know they both carry the same gravitas. They make you feel so great by realizing you are so small. It’s collective in nature. A good museum will do exactly the same thing in its public education component, but don’t get me wrong; it is JUST a component of the work being done at museums. (Well, the good ones.) What separates a museum from a sideshow attraction?

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Can the Field have the same mission statement as a small town barbed wire museum? Actually… yes! Can a billion dollar collection fleece its patrons the same way a carney show selling postcards of pickled pucks and admissions to horse hair bearded women next to the man-eating-chicken? Yup. And this is where museums can go terribly wrong. I have long held the belief that modern museums went in a vey unhealthy direction in many of their public outreach and education components. The museums not well established often have gone the route of sacrificing progress for profits. That may seem unfair, but usually it is the fault of a few crappy marketing directors who use fear tactics of “modernity.” They often force good collections to become nothing more than whores paid for by the parents of screaming children who are told that their maladaptive youth would benefit from seeing old shit for olds shit’s sake. That may leave a sour taste in your mouth when you visit even to most effective and meaningful museums, such as the British Museum of Natural History. Don’t for a second think that the work done there is the same as the public statements of the ailing failing Natural History Museum of Cincinnati. The latter ran from the idea that the collection was itself valuable to the public. That does not at all mean that the local museum isn’t doing great work, it just means that researchers and scientists have absolutely no say in the exhibitions or public components. They ensured this by keeping the two mission statements in separate buildings. Don’t be fooled, the building itself is one of the best Deco specimens available to us!

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Then there are other local Cincinnati museums that suffer from a complete lack of understanding about the public, but have exquisite collections, staff, and drive. A perfect example of a place that is doing it right in terms of conservation is the Lloyd Library. If any of you readers in the area have never heard of this spot… you need to… Now… Right now. Here is a place that may have a PR problem, but they have not let PR dampen their highly important work. I like to think of them as critical archivists, and all of them know more than any one of us ever will about their chosen fields. Honestly, their main fault is not realizing how engaging they could actually be if they wanted to. Perhaps in a lot of ways they realize that removing the “by appointment only” stipulation would cheapen their long term goals? Maybe people just don’t pay enough to keep the lights on, but the one thing that is clear from places like this is that there are more things in a 15 mile radius than most people could every possibly know. The complete Elephant folios of Napoleon’s conquest? Totally got that at Lloyd. A botanical book written by Jean Jacques Rousseau with editorial (sometimes quite inflammatory) remarks written in the margins? Totally touched physically flipped through that. ;) The thing is… its not in a Hope Diamond Shrine, its on a shelf next to mushroom identification in French. It IS significant, but it keeps company with all the significant stuff that no one but a select few care about. Velvet ropes? Nope… just really careful and expert librarians who are excited to see your excitement at being near something truly important. (to people like us.)

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So yes, Museums are a valid expenditure of public and private money, but there is never a guarantee of ensuring that the public gets what is offered, but there are proper ways to placate screaming children while preserving the integrity of a collection or rational expansion of minds: 3D enabled fluff content visors and earphones solidly soldiered together with ball gags for both the youth and the parents. We cant forget the importance of the categorical nature we seem to be so good at. We must name stuff, and make available they physical objects that scream out who we are and where we come from… but lets not judge the display artists too harshly, save that for the board members who more often than not have their heads WAY up their asses, and applaud the precious few who avidly fight for rationality in the museum world, Richard Owens, (cantankerous as he may have been) Johnathan Hunter, and every patron of the Arts that secures their wealth in the objects they foresee as significant.I don’t think I need to argue too much for the validity of the sacredness of objects that lie behind the velvet ropes and ammonia cleaned glass, rather the method in which they are “objectified” and turned to make a buck. Can an art museum sell off collections for a new skylight cafeteria? Most would be surprised to know that, no… this is not a standard practice, and there are self regulating practices (that sometimes break down) keeping stuff like this from happening.

Ahhhh… but then there is the Hope Diamond, a geological wonder that is only as precious as our patience to not bust up a thousand more of them in favor of the cost benefit analysis. You see… it isn’t worth it for the diamond trade to hold out hope to find the next Moby Dick. Its much more cost effective to collapse the vein and let God sort out the wedding bands. Large diamonds are a thing of the mining past, we wont find a gem like that again any time soon,

hopediamondBut you are right… Why do we care about this Smithsonian catch? Because we are in awe of what some people will pay for stuff. I would care about this diamond if it were in the diadem of an emperor, not because of the material rarity, but because of the personal one. People are told what is expensive, this damn rock was worth only 141,000 dollars in the 1800’s. One nice sized cul de sach 5 miles from the mall and a good farmers market. Now it has exploded to a healthy 350,000,000. Is the price increase one conversation between one rich guy and another? Probably… but the truth is, the object is lauded for its physical characteristics, not its 400 year old history and supposed curse. (the fodder of failing physical worth.) Is this rare in the universe? Hell no, we call it a white dwarf, or for a more personal note, we named one Lucy.

This is the culture we are in. What is the bottom line? Once we hear it we always er on the side of honor.

Antiques Road Show:

“Do you have any idea what this spoon is worth?” (Queue dramatic music)

“No sir, I really have no idea.”

“You are sitting on $100,025!”

“Oh God! (sob sob sob) I never would have thought!”

“So, what do you do now?”

“Well… (sob sob sob) I am going to keep it for my grandkids.)

Two weeks letter that spoon is sold at auction for $1000.00 to a lowball local museum, or for $200,000 to a reputable collector or backed museum, likely because it has TV history now, and there are plenty of attractive photos to put up near by.

OR:

Antiques Road Show:

“Do you have any idea what this spoon is worth?” (Queue dramatic music)

“No sir, I really have no idea.”

“Well, it will currently go between $100.00 and $500.00 dollars!”

“Oh God! (sob sob sob) I never would have thought!”

“It may have been more had you not cleaned and restored it, but its still a pretty good payday, no?”

“Absolutely! I really feel the lord is looking out for us!”

“So, what do you do now?”

“Well… (sob sob sob) I am going to keep it for my grandkids.)

Two weeks letter that spoon is sold at auction for $1000.00 to a lowball local museum, or for $200,000 to a reputable collector or backed museum, likely because it has TV history now, and there are plenty of attractive photos to put up near by.

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I know I have gone down the rabbit hole a bit… There is no way to really respond to all of the intense points you bring up in this one post, so I hope one of you meddlers will help reign me in a bit! Thank you Nate for taking me out of my normal comfort zone of heavy edit. There is so much to say about the topic of Museums and our reaction to them… but in the spirit of making this quick and organic, you get this as it is. Your turn kids!

-Jeremy

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Posted in: Museums | Philosophy
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