I always had a passion for art as long as I could remember. I would beg my mother to drive me to the local bookstore where I would spend hours lying on the ground in the art section. I would emerge myself in a collection of art history books that had the most photographs of master artworks. I can remember the frustration I had with never being able to see the actual paint strokes of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, having only a small image of his painting to demonstrate his genius. I swore to myself that one-day I would travel to all the museums in the world. It only recently occurred to me that part of the reason I couldn’t see these master works was because they never traveled to see me.
Independent Journalist Judith H. Dobrzynski discusses in Unconventional Partnerships: Let’s Have More the growing number of prestigious museums partnering with smaller less popular ones, allowing famous artworks to travel to communities that would otherwise never have the opportunity to view them. One must consider the political side of sharing artworks with smaller “venues.” The reputation of a curator and the local audience are some of the things a museum must consider when lending out artwork. It doesn’t exactly benefit a more established museum to lend out art to another museum that can’t also share famous works or simply does not have the popularity to attract enough of an audience to see them. Still, I feel these partnerships are important and could really help keep older artist relevant in communities that have no direct connection to their work.
It certainly would have been beneficial for me as a child if I were given more opportunities to have a first hand experience with these iconic artworks with out the hassle of having to travel the world. We need more reputable museums willing to partner with other places that may not have the proper prestige if we hope to reach a broader audience of people. Providing more people with the chance to see more artwork is certainly never a bad thing and is always beneficial.
Recently, I have turned my focus to the educational side of the museum and the role it has played in the American education system. With the exception of those who work within the art field and a few art enthusiasts, most people I have come in contact with have only experienced an art museum through a grade school field trip. They have little interest in the artwork they were brought to see and did not feel particularly more inclined to visit another museum, yet schools continue to insist upon museum fieldtrips.
There is no denying the significance of the museum from an educational standpoint, but why is that we continue to find students uninterested in the museum experience? Countless studies have been created to help establish the value of school field trips to cultural institutions. Researchers in favor of educational reform from the University of Arkansas conducted a rigorous study of various school groups that took a single one-hour guided tour of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. When comparing the students who received the tour against students who did not, the results showed that those who received the guided tour retained more content, increased their critical thinking skills, increased their “historical empathy” for people who lived in different places and times, increased their tolerance for diverse points of view, and increased their interest in visiting museums.
Although I do not find these results the least bit shocking, it does raise some questions about the quality of the experience students may have during their museum visits. The students from the Crystal Bridges report received a docent tour, or guided tour given by an educator who works for the museum. Executive Director Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and author of The Participatory Museum raises some questions in her blog entry Arts Assessment: Let’s Stop “Proving” and Start Improving regarding the outcome of these docent tours. If all of these test subjects received a docent tour, then how do their outcomes differ from school groups who visit but do not have a facilitated experience? For me, this sparks an even bigger question. Should museums put more resources into these docent programs or fewer?
I believe that a docent tour has the ability to provide more of a historical context to the artwork and helps the visitor understand the cultural significance of that work. For this reason, it is a great thing. This is why I believe it essential that museums place even more emphasis on providing its visitors with a guided experience, especially students. One of the problems I have encountered with these tours is that I find them boring and fail to provide me with the opportunity to interact with the works at my own pace. They are often times provided for historical artwork that does not seem relevant today to a student more concerned with their identity on a popular social network. These museum studies are helpful in securing the educational importance of the museum, but doesn’t really provided any possible solutions that could help students become more interested in having another museum experience. We should spend less time assessing the value of the museum experience and spend more time strategizing how we can use docent tours to help educate and promote the museum experience. We need more docents, more ways to connect the historical art works to current times, and more creative methods to keep students interested using modern technology. I feel that we must pursue new approaches to attract a younger audience. Otherwise, people may continue to regard their museum experience as that “one boring field trip I had when I was in school.”
The museum has solidified its position as an institution of authority since the beginning of its existence. It functions as a generator of historical, scientific, and artistic relevance. With its main purpose being to collect and display a collection of historical artifacts and objects of significance, one may question who holds the power to decide what is deemed important. Some may argue that museums identity lies with in the hands of the ruling class. Throughout history, the social elite has continuously commissioned craftsman of all medium to enshrine their culture and preserve their legacy. Those in position did this with the intention that the “artist” would individualize their way of life enough to separate them from the poor and legitimize their superior status. They also begin to collect objects of rarity to demonstrate their access to exclusive things. Craftsmanship, individuality, and rarity are the qualities that the social elite seek when collecting works of art. To obtain or hold possession of anything demonstrates ones power and authority over all who does not. I believe the concept of a museum stems from the ruling class. The invention of the museum, in some ways, may be a result of the aristocracies desires to distinguish themselves from everyone else.
If museums originated with the hope to preserve and share the history and culture of our planet, then the wealthy funds and governs it. It is no secret that those who maintain the collections within the museums have a prestigious education, which is usually a person from a wealthy background. People trust education, resulting in the public trusting the museums decisions on what we deem significant or of quality. If we desire more of a diverse audience for these museums, we must promote local artists that demonstrate craftsmanship and thoughtfulness within their given medium. The museum must do its best to remain current with technology to help customize the viewer’s experience. We must also not deny access to artists who work in a nontraditional way. The museum has a duty to everyone, not just the elite.