Tuesday, August 3, 2010

MOMA and too much of a good thing?

I have recently blogged twice about Glenn D Lowry (here and here), the current superstar of the US Museum director scene and his status is justified by a recent article in the New York Observer.

Three million people visited MOMA in the year to the end of June 2010, a new record in its 81 year history. Why the success? On the face of it, because it seems to be doing all the right things in current museological thinking. It’s a participatory museum, it’s a social space where people want to come to see and be seen and it has a dynamic exhibition program of temporary and permanent collections, along with associated media and film. Most notably, it has managed to reduce its typical visitor from a 55 year old woman to a 40-something of either sex.

But of course such success does not come without its critics. At the glitterati end, the opening night parties are frequently uncomfortably packed and amongst the art critics it is seen to be far too crowded to allow for any real engagement or ability for contemplation of the artworks. In the words of Tom Eccles, Chair of Curatorial Studies at Bard College, “the drive to become a social space is more of a fetish in museum theory right now”.

Well guys, you can’t have it both ways. On the one hand, static or falling visitor numbers are bewailed and the need to make museums more welcoming encouraged, and then when the crowds do come it is seen to “compromise” the experience. (I am reminded of the V&A keeper who proclaimed the Museum was at its best when there were no visitors).

Within this context, there’s an interesting new book out entitled ‘Do Museums Still need Objects?’ by Steven Cann (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010). Cann’s premise is that objects have a diminishing role in museums as people have lost faith in the ability of objects alone to tell stories and convey knowledge. He posits that the move to turn museums into social spaces has been at the expense of the objects, with the focus being on the space itself (witness the architectural statements of Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin Jewish Museum or Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim).

I would contend that Cann misses the point. Yes, the number of objects on display may have become less and yes, successful museums are succeeding through creating social spaces where people want to be, but the draw card is always going to be the real object. We know the power of the real over the virtual is compelling. And by having fewer objects on display often their ability to tell stories can be enhanced rather than diminished. MOMA may be too popular for its own good in some people’s eyes, but its success is fundamentally due to the depth of its collections and the way in which it interprets and makes them accessible.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

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