Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thomas Hoving: In Memoriam

The fall quarter of my second year in grad school, I had the opportunity of a lifetime--I interned at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sure this was one the world's largest and most renowned museums, but more importantly for me, it was the museum of my childhood. My grandparents lived a few blocks away and I grew up with family trips to the museum and playing in the Ancient Playground in Central Park next to the Egyptian wing of the museum. Growing up, the Egyptian wing *was* the museum for me. Entering the hieroglyphic-walled tombs transported me back to the days of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and as far as I was concerned, visiting the Temple of Dendur was like actually leaving the US and traveling to Egypt.

So when I was accepted for a fall internship doing double-duty in both the museum's development and registration departments, I could scarcely contain my joy. Every day as I went into work I would whisper to myself, "This is real, this real, this is real--I am really here!" Fridays, after work, I would often take advantage of the longer hours and roam the galleries, falling in love time after time with each trip through the building to the sounds of mezzanine piano bar.

At some point early on during my internship, I learned that the man who had been director when I was young--and who was responsible for many of the things I loved about the museum--had written a book about his time as director. I made a trip to the museum bookstore, made use of my staff discount and began reading. The book was Making the Mummies Dance. The man was Thomas Hoving.

I couldn't put the book down. Thomas Hoving's writing style was so unapologeticly daring and arrogant it was almost scandalous as he spoke candidly about turning the staid museum world on its ear. Blockbuster exhibitions, posh galas, the Temple of Dendur, the Euphronios krater--all of these were thanks to Hoving. Okay, maybe the krater wasn't a great judgment call, but am I grateful that I was able to see it up close and in person every day? You bet I was and am.

Even though I was already working "behind-the-scenes" at the Met, Hoving's book made me feel even more like an insider, like I was gaining truly secret insights to how the place was run and to how the business of art and museums happened. My supervisor's cautioned me to take his book with a grain of salt, some were even vaguely dismissive. But I came to view Hoving as my unofficial guide and mentor to my new surroundings, offering me a view that I found somewhat thrilling and romantic.

Of course, that is what the book was supposed to do and as the years went on I came to understand why those around me had cautioned me not to take Hoving's word as the be all and end all of either the museum world in general or the Met in particular. He tended towards the sensational over the sensible and his practices were not always best.

But I still love Making the Mummies Dance and there is no denying Hoving's impact on not just the Met but the whole museum field. As one obituary states, "Did he democratize, glamorize or coarsen the museum experience? You already know the answer. He did all three."

Mr. Hoving, you will be missed. Thank you for shaking things up and transforming the museum world.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What Ails Museums (and What Could Help)

Recently there have been several articles and blog posts all talking about the same thing, but approaching it from different angles. The subject du jour? The potential obsolescence of our profession--or to use one author's term, "fossilization,"--and how to prevent it. What are some of the key components of our mass destruction?

-- Not responding to changing demographics
-- Ignoring technology
-- Holding fast to the notion of monolithic structures

Gregory Rodriguez writes in his LA Times article that, according to a study released by the NEA last Thursday, attendance has been steadily dropping in museums for the past few years, largely because museums are not responding to the changing demographics of the American population. While the majority of museum visitors continue to be white, by mid-century the American population is predicted to be half people of color. Rodriguez posits that focusing on wooing the rising educated, middle-class Latino population could go a long way to helping museums stay in business. (For more on this topic, see this blog post)

Matt Matcuk of the Field Museum talks about not changing demographics but rather rapidly advancing technologies. Once again, however, the message seems to be the same: things are changing and museums are not keeping up. Matcuk poses three questions to help guide museums into effective ways of viewing and using new technology.

1. Are we competing with new technologies, or integrating them?
"What we have to offer doesn't compete with technology and is not undone by it. The core of our attracting power--authentic objects, immersive experiences, personal interactions--will continue to serve us, and can only benefit by being explored through today's technologies."

2. Are we hastening our own irrelevance by thinking ourselves superior to contemporary electronic culture?
"Adapting how we use technology in response to our visitors' needs is only a compromise if we view education as an inherently top-down enterprise. But that attitude--"We know what's good for you, and we're going to give it to you"--is no longer tenable, if it ever was."

3. Is technology the "demon rum" of the 21st century?
"New technologies are just like telephones, inviting neither invective nor adoration. They're just there--a part of our world. If places of informal learning focus on the technology itself rather than on the message, our efforts will appear as quaint as a mid-twentieth century car advertisement touting the miracle of the automatic transmission."

Matcuk closes with these words of caution (or prediction):
In the end, places of informal learning are subject to the same dictum that rules the natural world. Environmental pressures will force us in one of two directions: evolution, or extinction.

Finally, Robin Pogrebin's December 11 article in the New York Times suggests that perhaps there is one arena in which museums have been spending too much time "keeping up"--to our detriment. As Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art was quoted as saying, "There is a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses quality to museum building." But "keeping up with the Joneses" does not imply strategic planning and as a result, recently there has been a rash of major capital projects--new buildings and major expansions--in the museum and arts world that have been scaled down, are being rethought or have simply been abandoned, exposing institutions as over-stretched and sometimes suffering from poor management.

The question remains, however, if we follow the advice explicit or implicit in each of these articles--become more relevant to rising demographics, approach technology as the tool that it is rather than either as the devil or a god and focus on the sustainability of our buildings rather than their eye-dazzling civic appeal--will that be enough to save us? What else do we need to be focusing on to maintain the health and vitality of not just our organizations but our field?