Should Art Museums Go Interactive?

I was intrigued by two articles published this month in major media outlets that question from opposite points of view the primary purpose of art museums and the value of participatory museum experiences like The Wave.

The first, published on August 11, 2013 on the cover of the Sunday Review in the New York Times, was entitled “High Culture Goes Hands-On” and was written by Judith Dobrzynski, a freelance writer and former editor of the Times. Ms. Dobrznski states that “great museums are places of solace and inspiration,” and suggests that they are fundamentally changed when they respond to the current trend of incorporating interactive visitor experiences.  She sites numerous examples of this growing trend, including the 2011 participatory performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art entitled, “The Artist is Present,” during which thousands of museum visitors waited in long lines over the course of two months to sit across from the performance artist, Marina Abramovic, and engage in a moment of intense, silent connection.

Although the author doesn’t see the value of the Abramovic performance piece, it is a fact that many participants were moved to tears by the experience.  A documentary film, also called “The Artist is Present,” records the artist’s lengthy preparation for the project and the range of audience reactions. The Museum itself photographed the faces of the visitors each day in much the same way as we have photographed the “Faces of the Wave”at each of our installations.

 "The Artist is Present" Marina Abramovic and Visitor, 2011 Museum of Modern Art

“The Artist is Present”
Marina Abramovic and Ulay, 2011
Museum of Modern Art
Scott Rudd Photography

Incorporating a quote from a speech given by Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, in which he states that museums had to make a “shift away from passive experiences to interactive or participatory experiences, from art that is hanging on the wall to art that invites people to become a part of it,” Ms. Dobrznski is mourning the good old days when the art alone, the “masterpieces meant to outlast the moment of their making” were enough in themselves to delight the museum visitor.

The second opinion piece, “Why I Hate Museums,” by James Durston, published on August 22, 2013 on the CNN Travel Page of its website, has ignited a firestorm of responses on the site itself and in numerous on-line discussion groups for museum employees, consultants and devotees. Instead of seeing museums as places of ‘solace and inspiration’ as Ms. Dobrznski does, Durston refers to the vast majority of museums he has visited throughout the world as “cavernous rooms and deep corridors (that) reverberate with the soft, dead sounds of tourists shuffling and employees yawning” and in which there is “a climate of snobbery…” He asks, “Where’s the relevance? Why, in places designed to celebrate life and all of its variety, is there such a lack of vitality?” Mr. Durston concludes that museums should “stop relying on the supposed intrinsic value of their collections. Stop ‘presenting’ when you should be flaunting. Give me a story. Show, don’t tell.” Mr. Durston is begging for the kind of participatory experiences that Ms. Dobrzynski bemoans.

In a time when many art museums are down in attendance and looking for new ways to connect with audiences, these articles should be required reading. The first article takes the point of view of the elite, the visually literate who are able to enter these ‘hallowed’ spaces and find personal meaning in a work of art hanging before them. The operative term, “High Culture,” that is used in the title of this piece, offers an insight into why the ‘hands-on’ approach in museums is needed and is working. For many individuals, young and old, rich and poor, the thought of going into a traditional art museum to stare at paintings or sculptures with which they have no connection, is simply intimidating. They don’t have an understanding of the vocabulary and movements that comprise art history and like Mr. Durston, hate feeling like ‘ignoramuses.’

If the first goal of art museums is to get people in the door so that they can ultimately broaden their understanding and appreciation of art, then there is great value in engaging these visitors in ways that encourage them to show up.

As public artists currently bringing an interactive art installation to art museums nationwide, we have seen first-hand the simple joy that participants exude when they realize that they ‘get it’ because they ‘did it.’

 Young Man With His Piece of the Wave at the National Aquarium, 2013 Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman

Young Man Exuding Enthusiasm Holding His Piece of the Wave at the National Aquarium, 2013
Photograph Courtesy of Elena Kalman