In science centers, we try to combat the notion that science is complex work for a limited, rarified few. So we focus on the idea that “you can be a scientist” and that “science is fun.” Do these democratizing messages prevent us from pursuing interesting ways to present the extraordinary genius of some scientists and the incredible complexity and repetition of scientific work?
In art museums, we try to combat the notion that art is something your child can do, and if you like it, it’s art. So we focus on the idea that “artists are special” and that “art is complicated.” Do these elitist messages prevent us from exploring useful ways to honor the creativity in everyone and the simple pleasures of aesthetics?
It’s hard for me to emphasize exactly how much I love this blogpost. I’ve long been somewhat frustrated by the way that art and science is presented in the museum context. If anything though, I think the problem is that most museums seem to have one specific viewer in mind when they put together they’re programming.
Science museums are almost always aimed at kids or people who don’t really know science. This isn’t a dumbing-down issue, it’s great to focus on education. Education is a combination of “this is how to understand what’s on display” and “if this is interesting to you, you can do it too.” Which is great for kids and a fantastic way to jump right into the displays. The problem is that that there’s typically no alternative presentation available. It’d be fantastic to be able to go to a science museum and take the tour for people who have college degrees in mechanical engineering. Unfortunately, those sorts of tours aren’t available.
The best experience I’ve had at a science museum in this regard was at the Computer History Museum. My guess is that this was because the Computer History Museum caters to people who already know about the field and can count on non-experts being accompanied by a geek who is more than willing to serve as a tour guide.
As a result, science museums become places you take your kids—and which you avoid unless you want to deal with kids. Which is a shame. The idea that we stop learning science once we graduate from high school doesn’t help anyone.
The one positive though is that most science museums include a heavy local focus. Even if it’s at a gradeschool level, I still try and visit science museums wherever I go so I can learn about local history—whether it’s the geohistory of the region, whatever natural phenomena occur locally, or what kinds of fish populate the area’s waterways.* The science is still basic but I can use it to extract the story (and myths) of the area.
*Natural history museums, science museums, and aquariums are almost always partially-local. Zoos, not so much.
Science museums also typically do a good job at explaining process. Part of the “you can be a scientist” thing is selling the myth of work and dedication by explaining how a scientific breakthrough doesn’t come out of thin air. Instead it comes as a result of hard work and comes out of a lot of surrounding context. When science museums show science, this process is as much of the exhibit as everything else.
Art museums though are almost the exact opposite. Across the board. They’re hard to take kids to since there’s rarely an entry point. They’re not just about “artists are exceptional,” they also tend to require a background in art history just so you don’t feel inadequate. And many of them don’t even focus on the local.
There’s also a tendency to push, and for museumgoers to succumb to, the idea that “this art is important, therefore you should like it.” Which is complete crap and only furthers the idea that you have to know before you go. In the same way that the museum shouldn’t assume you’re a neophyte, you shouldn’t have to be an expert before visiting either.
Most art museums don’t even provide any background on the artistic process. Sometimes you can get context from the exhibition. But you very rarely see on display information explaining how an object was crafted. SFMOMA occasionally provides ephemera to go with important exhibitions but on a per-piece level, the only museum I’ve seen really explain craft is the Fogg Museum in Harvard* which showed—right next to the objects—xrays revealing the underpainting, displays about the composition of the pigments, and diagrams detailing the different composition of stone sculptures.
*Which I saw over a decade ago so I have no idea if it’s still like this.
I’d love for museums, both art and science, to have multiple tracks for different educational or interest levels among their guests. I’d also love for them to explain how everything is made and what its function or application is. And what context, both historical and in the related field, the object or concept on display comes out of.
I wish all museums could be locally relevant and both educate locals on their history as well as enlighten tourists on what is locally distinct.
And every museum should strive to inspire all visitors to take up and participate in the concepts on display. “Anyone can do this” does not have to be inherently patronizing. If it were, photography wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is today.