Museums behaving badly

I love museums. Science museums, history museums, art museums; there’s nothing like looking at real stuff in person. Whether it’s an antique automobile, a big old beetle in a case, or the Ardabil carpet in the V&A, being able to walk around it, get close, and engage on my own time is one of my top-level pleasures.  I’m sure I learned as much natural science in the American Museum of Natural History as a child as I did in school; whenever I’m traveling, I make a beeline for local museums.

The affection is not entirely requited in art museums, mainly  because so many of them transparently disrespect me (and all the other visitors) by pointless, insouciant, arrogant stinginess with the information that makes the art accessible.  This weekend I was at the Huntington, the Getty Villa, and LACMA in LA. The Huntington and the Getty do a pretty good job with long, informative labels that provide context, history, and some guidance about what to attend to in the works on display, but LACMA left me really steamed.

A featured exhibition was several galleries full of contemporary political art by Iranians that reached back to the Shahnameh for analogies and references, a show with appropriate local interest (there are lots of Persians in LA, including refugees from before and after the shah’s overthrow) and in any case an interesting and fruitful concept.   You should go and see it, but unfortunately you will miss a lot unless you’re already hip to recent (and ancient) Iranian history, and can read Farsi. The labels were tiny and short and one after another very political work full of incriptions, signs, and text in Farsi was untranslated. One faceplant in particular seemed to sum up art museums’ worst instincts to make not only the typical visitor, but almost any visitor, feel unqualified and inadequate.

The work, by Koushna Navabi, is a couple of dozen rings in different metallic finishes with the same portrait, a little over an inch each way:

This is the entire label we were offered:

Know whose portrait this is? Only because I’m old enough to almost remember the period, and spent some time in Iran after the coup that overthrew him, I recognized Mohammed Mosaddegh, about whom Wikipedia says “Many Iranians regard Mosaddegh as the leading champion of secular democracy and resistance to foreign domination in Iran’s modern history. Mosaddegh was removed from power in a coup on 19 August 1953, organised and carried out by the CIA at the request of MI6.” In  the oppressive regime of the shah and his SAVAK secret police that followed, Iran’s oil remained in the hands of western oil companies and their US and British protectors. Of course by 1979 this arrangement went off the rails because the Iranians had had enough of it.

Any of that useful in engaging with this work? Or is the (I presume) affectionate but rather obscure pun in the title all you needed? I hung around and asked at least a half-dozen visitors if they knew whose portrait was on the rings; none had any idea. Here’s what the curator thought she was doing with this show; I’m sure her middle-east specialist colleagues were impressed, but an exhibition like this is a lot of work: I guess she just didn’t have a minute to actually think about the visitors who would walk in the door.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

13 thoughts on “Museums behaving badly”

  1. The first link (I love museums) takes us to your article in "Democracy," which contains a link (Detroit's "about" illustration) that apparently does not take us to the photo that your article says it will. Nor does the link (Art Institute of Chicago’s picture).

  2. Well taken, for sure. Hoping you also sent this to the Museum so they can improve. I would certainly have appreciated that information.

  3. art museums’ worst instincts to make not only the typical visitor, but almost any visitor, feel unqualified and inadequate.

    When I was much younger than I am now, I had a weekend job at my local NPR affiliate as the announcer for a Saturday morning classical music show. I cannot remember what prompted it, but I will never forget getting dressed down by the station manager for saying something that (as he put it) would make the listeners think they were unqualified to listen to my show.

  4. I know just what you mean. In the mid-1970s, I spent a long full day at the Smithsonian. It might be much different now, but back then — when I was still in college, mind you — I noticed, and was deeply annoyed, by the paper-thin interpretive materials on the displays. I recall they had a recreation of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in one hall — 100 years on — and there were these mechanical marvels from 1876 looking like they'd just come from the factory. But if you couldn't tell what they did, you wouldn't know what they did. Or much who built them, or anything else. This was true all the way through, building after building along the Mall, including the space and aeronautic displays, natural history, and more. Everything had SOMETHING posted with it, but not nearly enough.

    And an interesting counter-point: some years later, in the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to visit the Corning Glass Museum in Corning, NY. I LOVED it! A much smaller museum, to be sure, but I spent many hours there because every display was marvelously notated. Not just a lot of facts and figures and context, but well-written stuff. The only exception were the study cabinets, rows and rows of glass objects with minimal descriptions; these were things intended for scholars, but unlike most museums the Corning was considerate enough to have them out on display rather than invisibly packed away. To this day it's easily one of my favorite museums.

  5. A thoughtful post. Thanks.

    I suspect that this sort of esotericism, if that's the right word, is more common with contemporary art. Would the museum be as unhelpful with ancient art, which everyone knows needs contextualizing?

    Often art exhibits result in printed catalogues, and museums usually put a few of them in a separate room, where visitors may read them. The Met in NYC is very helpful in this way. I often find myself scurrying back and forth between art works and the catalogues, which contain more information than is ever presented in wall captions.

    The Met now puts its exhibits online,as it were: each item is shown, along with the caption text, as well as other information. In some cases you can examine a work online more carefully than you can the physical object, because of the ability to zoom in or view it from certain angles.

  6. You're right–the obscure pun is insufficient. I know exactly who Mossadegh was, and "Mossy Duck" flew right over my head.

    1. Me, too. My Con Law teacher was a refugee who'd served in Mossadegh's government, I think in finance. It's been decades.

  7. Ha. Come sit by me! I am miffed at Lacma bc of this plan for a fancy – and not-to-my-taste – building, the “Blob,” which more to the point, I am not sure is necessary. (“They” said the current bldgs need some $300 million in reno. I have no way of knowing if that’s true. I don’t believe an audit was done. Though it’s possible they did one & I didn’t hear about it.) Our normally staid supes threw in $125 million of our money so I’m not happy w them either.

    Otoh, they seem to’ve started letting poor people come into the special exhibitions, which is nooooooble of them.

    I agree w you about information, for this kind of cross-cultural sharing. Maybe the new bldg is taking up too much time & energy.

  8. I've made this point before, but it bears repeating grouch grouch.. Barcodes (preferably the rich square form) allow easy access via smartphones to web pages with as much information as the visitor can stand. I've come across this in a mangrove park in Thailand, on labels nailed to trees. The cheap method is just to link to a generic website on say trees. If you have the resources of a major museum, they can set up a link to the entry in the catalogue raisonnée or whatever they call it. And create a special simplified site for young people.

  9. I agree, technology has a lot to offer here. Some museum apps are starting to do this, also audio guides (though the copy for those is very varied in quality.

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