The financial problems
of several of Washington's museums has got me thinking more about
museums than I usually do. I don't rank as a museum expert, still
I suspect I'm somewhere in the middle of the pack of those the
experts are trying to attract. I love some museums, couldn't
care less about others, and prefer to have fun on a Saturday
afternoon rather than engage in premeditated acts of somber self-education.
There are plenty of troubled
museums around the country that need more people like me. But
they don't seem to have the touch. Are museums - like daily newspapers
with their declining circulation - simply victims of changing
technology and public tastes? Will television and the Internet
damage the Louvre as well as the Washington Post? Or are museum
designers and curators simply not reacting well enough to the
changes around them?
For example, last fall
I went to see the new American Indian Museum and was sadly disappointed.
The post-modernists, it appeared, had even infiltrated the ranks
of "community curators" and created exhibits that seemed
the work of magazine cover designers. One felt endlessly trapped
in introductions to something without ever getting to the real
The verbal abstractions
were numbing, the repetition tedious, and the lack of good stories
odd, given their role in Indian culture.
Here was yet another building
filled with annoying verbiage and distracting design intended
to instruct you on how you should feel about something without
giving you a chance to actually feel it. On the other hand, a
couple of months later I went to an exhibit of Dutch art at the
National Gallery and every label told me something interesting
and useful about the painting next to it without ever being patronizing
or dully didactic and I left not only feeling good but knowing
more. The lack of pretentious abstractions and snooty adjectives
My own museum experience
started with the stuffed animals at the Smithsonian Museum of
Natural History and was later encouraged by lightning flashes
and crashes and other scientific paraphernalia at the Franklin
Institute in Philadelphia, where I learned to call such places
'muzims.' Decades before computer games there was also a black
coupe you could get into and "drive" into the movie
being shown in front of you. You turned the wheel and braked
and at the end received a punch card that told you whether you
had an accident or not. Best of all you didn't need a license,
which was, for me, still years away.
I learned to like things
that were life sized whether they were stegasauri or steam engines.
I looked for surprises often concealed among the stodgier adult
matter. I liked being taken someplace else. . . to another land
or a another time or to outer space. Sometimes after looking
at the tigers or the baboons, I would stare at the backdrop of
the diorama and imagine myself on that same veldt with those
same creatures. Best of all, I liked the way the props all around
me helped me imagine new things.
I still do. While at an
impressionist exhibit at the Phillips Collection a friend, finished
with her tour, handed me her taped guide machine. I don't care
for these things, in part because they intrude on my reveries,
but I took the machine and went into a room of abstract paintings
by Rothko. I sat down on a bench and - staring at the huge mass
of color before me - turned on the tape machine as it talked
about the paintings downstairs. The resulting hallucinations
were quite remarkable as I blended visual expressionism with
aural impressionism. But how in the world do you justify such
nonsense to a highly skilled curator?
While serving as Washington
correspondent for the Illustrated London News, I once spent a
week in the National Air and Space Museum. It would soon become
the most visited museum in the world. Air & Space had been
planned and built by engineers instead of by museum people and
it was the only such institution in Washington that had opened
three days early and a half million dollars under budget.
As I wandered about, I
began noticing that the people who created this museum enjoyed
it as much as I did. There was a mini-exhibit about the starship
Enterprise. And there was a pie tin from the Frisbee Pie Company
of Bridgeport, CT. The legend read: "Flown upside down,
the tins were not as stable as modern plastic discs and their
flights were highly unpredictable, but they did fly." I
mentioned this to the deputy director, Melvin Zisfein. He immediately
got up from his desk, went to the closet, pulled out a Frisbee,
and then commenced to give me a pleasant lecture on the aerodynamics
of the device. Later, I asked an official something about the
DC-3, one of my favorites. He opened a big lateral file and as
I looked down at the folders I noticed some model plane kits
shoved amongst the data, waiting for someone to open them up
and start building something over lunch. Then, at the end of
the week, I interviewed the director, Noel Hinners, boldly remarking
at one point that I had found something almost childlike in the
museum. He was not bothered in the slightest but said, "There
is nothing more stultifying than being pushed into the common
conception of adulthood. If enthusiasm, hopes and dreams are
associated with childhood, I hope we never grow out of them."
I remembered thinking:
what other director of anything in Washington DC would say something
I raised another risky
point. We are taught that all art is done by artists. But in
the air and space museum I found myself feeling that I was looking
at beauty as well as technology. I asked Hinners if he had ever
thought of Air & Space as an art museum. He replied, "To
many of us, internally, airplanes and rockets - they're beautiful.
You don't look at them as pieces of metal, but as a culmination
of a challenge to do something."
And when that something
is flying through space you come eventually to the rules of nature's
own aesthetic in which all beauty has a purpose. The curator
Walter Hopps agreed, telling me that the museum had "more
aesthetic appeal to most people than most art museums do for
most people. I think there is something very atavistic about
it. One of the root themes in art is quest - exploration."
Today, the Air & Space
Museum has two thirds more visitors than the Louvre or the British
Museum. Both of the latter, incidentally, are roughly at a par
with the Smithsonian's stuffed animal museum (AKA the Museum
of Natural History) and its museum of trains, cars, and other
large and interesting things from our past (AKA the Museum of
Part of the problem today
with many museums is that their directors are trained to do things
like raise money, please major donors, express major themes,
and show how socially conscious and profound they are. They lack
the dramatic instincts of an entertainer, the good words of a
writer, or the wisdom of a photographer who knows that if a picture
is right, it doesn't even need any words.
Fortunately, I have a
partial cure, which is to create museum advisory boards of 12
year olds - i.e. those most likely to enthuse about or get bored
with exhibitions. After all, you can only pander to faux intellectuals
and sober adults as long as you have sufficient things that are
big enough, different enough, curious enough, or enjoyable enough
to entice the 12-year-olds they have brought along or who happen
to be in the room bothering them.
It can be educational
but it must also be interesting. For example, I happily recall
an 18th century house at Strawberry Bank that had each room fitted
out for a different period of the structure's existence, ending
with a 1950s parlor complete with an early television set. History
in the house wasn't trapped in a time ghetto but took us on its
own trip as we went from room to room.
So here are some of the
suggestions for struggling museums that I would make if I were
still twelve years old and served on one of these advisory committees:
- It's not the wrapping
that counts. It's the present inside. Too much money has been
blown creating the architectural gift wrapping of museums. I
don't care what a museum looks like on the outside. After all,
I'm paying to go in, not to stand on the sidewalk. Besides, once
an architect does something, you're stuck with it. You can't
take it down from the wall and put it into storage. Spend your
money on the stuff inside.
- The interior of the
building should also work for the visitor and not the architect.
Tens of millions of dollars have been wasted making huge spaces
that just delay or confound the visitor's approach to objects
and their stories.
- The best museums are
like the best attics. Everywhere you look there's something worth
- If you want to know
how good an exhibit is, listen to it. The best exhibits get people
talking and so the room will be noticeably louder.
- Take me somewhere. One
of my favorite museums is the Tenement Museum in New York City.
From the moment you step into the dark first floor hallway until
you leave you are carried into that building's past. The Churchill
bunker in London is the same way. Not just a visit but a voyage.
- In some house museums
you wouldn't be surprised if the former owner suddenly walked
through the pantry door; in others you might as well be in just
another antique shop. Three of my favorite house museums are
right here in Washington. In each case it is the ghosts' own
contributions that make them work: the Frederic Douglass' little
shed he called his "growlery," the beer parlor in brewmaster
Christian Heurich's mansion, the mike for a seminal talk to the
nation in Woodrow Wilson's home along with an icebox in the kitchen
standing near one of the first refrigerators. Materials that
connect the exhibits to real experience.
- Have some big things
and put them in spaces that make them seem natural rather than
captured objects. Zoos know this and even have a name for their
larger creatures. They call them "charisimatic mammals."
All museums need charismatic objects.
- Have lots of places
where you can sit and think about what you are seeing while feeling
what it would be like to have it in your own living room. A few
uncomfortable benches in the middle of the room aren't enough.
- Have places where you
can sit and read something about what you're seeing.
- Don't have too many
small things. The eye tires of endless pots and pieces of jewelry
- If you need to prove
how culturally sensitive you are, show it with the exhibit and
not with a badly written label.
- Don't tell me how to
feel about something. Let me discover it for myself.
- There need to be lots
of stories. Much of what we learn is by anecdote, not by carefully
constructed outline and timeline.
- Design should never
interfere with, nor replace, a good story.
- Have some buttons to
push that cause things to happen. And make sure that they work.
- Make your exhibition
less like a cathedral or a classroom and more like a fair.
If more museums were like
this, more of them might not be in a mess.