Updated: Apr 12, 2020
One of the qualities I value most about museum exhibits is that they are public. Public in the sense that at any moment you might encounter another person, a stranger. It’s a quality that museums share with theaters for movies or performing arts, a quality that distinguishes these places from television, books, and online exhibits. The same content can be adapted to any of these media, but in exhibits and theaters, we experience that content in the company of people we don’t know.
During college, I visited galleries in New York City with my "Art Since 1945" class. I could barely pay attention to the work on display. The New Yorkers were far more fascinating to me. Their clothing, hair styles, and gestures made captivating patterns of human choice and behavior. I remember looking out the big windows of a Soho gallery, my back turned to all the art, avidly watching as people moved past carrying blue take-out coffee cups, walking dogs, arguing with each other, smoking. (This was long before cell phones, or they’d all have had that bent-arm silhouette.)
The public nature of exhibits means there's something performative in visiting them. We watch other people. We’re conscious of being watched. There’s clearly some “see and be seen” motive for going to an exhibit opening, but we might have a similar feeling of performance on any day of an exhibit’s run. If we knew ourselves alone, would we speak so quietly, move with such control, resist touching everything?
In contrast to reading or watching a movie at home, we get to watch how other people visit an exhibit. Look, it’s possible to stand in front of a single painting for five minutes, or walk all the way around the triceratops skull fossil. There, that’s what happens when someone presses that button or opens that drawer. Here are people laughing about the furnishings in a 17th-century dolls house, over there someone’s making a quick sketch of the peregrine falcon.
We overhear conversations, insightful or mundane, sometimes about the exhibit. Occasionally we might even talk with stranger, ask a question, share a thought. If someone gasps on first catching glimpse of something that stopped me in my tracks, I might say, “Yeah, me, too” and exchange a smile. When we're in an exhibit, we are sharing an experience with others.
It’s not always pleasant. Museums want as many people as possible to see the popular shows. They want as much income from them as possible, too, and these two goals don’t cancel each other out. The crowds in front of famous things or things on the audio tour are frustrating and claustrophobic. These are “social contract” moments, when I mutter “can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.”
Even if I can ignore the other people in an exhibit, I’m aware of an undeniable implication in their presence, which shades my understanding of an exhibit’s content. The stuff I’m looking at, the knowledge I’m sharing in, belongs to all of us. It’s communal property.
Writing from the middle of a pandemic that has closed public places, this is one of the losses I mourn, this shared experience of meaning making. The wellness advice columns remind us, “We are social animals,” and counsel us to connect online. I’m actually enjoying this new kind of socializing, but it’s not a full substitute for sharing a space with other people, moving our bodies through it together, directing our eyes and thoughts toward the same things.
There are predictions that many museums won’t survive this crisis. Even well-endowed museums are making drastic decisions. The Museum of Modern Art in New York just cancelled all its contracts with the freelancers who teach its classes, stating that it will be a long time before the museum will again “require educator services.” At many other institutions, public-facing staff are mediating online experiences. We’ll learn a lot as we adapt to this situation, and new approaches might enrich people’s lives when we’re free to mingle with strangers again.
And I hope we return to museums with a stronger value for the congregations we make in them.