Millions of years ago, in a museum world free of iPhones, engagement meant pensive gazing into wonderful worlds unknown. It meant being able to stare deeply into the soul of an artwork, uninterrupted for eons at a time, after carefully reading a beautifully crafted wall label and learning something.
Today, in the ever-present Instagram driven multi-million dollar experience seeking reality museum engagement means something completely different. I have personally witnessed teens walk into a gallery phone in hand, Snapchat a panoramic shot of a room and without their gaze ever leaving the tiny screen on their hands move on to the next gallery. And of course, my personal favorite, "OMG, this artwork matches my outfit... can you take my pix please?"
Great, where did we go wrong?
Museum engagement means different things, for different Museums. Whereas the Broads of the planet require an active social media following, the ICAs of the world ask us to play with potatoes or make conchas. Whereas the ESMoAs ask us to date at a museum, the Fowlers invite us to practice Tai Chi, and whereas the Undergrounds make us dance, the CAAMs make us yoga. From this list alone, it seems like there's not much one can't achieve at a museum today aside from buying groceries, but Underground has us covered there too with a farmers market.
So... I can make/buy food, I can exercise, I can dance, and I can even meet my soulmate at a museum, and all of this while I am learning near art, perfect! But is this really what comes to mind when thinking "Oh, today I will head to a museum." Well no, not for me anyway. When I think of people at museums, the thought defaults back to the passive gazing scenario. But, why? What about all the people going to take selfies near art? are they engaging wrong?
Last week I visited Fowler museum and after my Tai Chi class, I decided to head to the galleries (they had just opened an exhibition I had yet to see). Now on this particular day unlike any other, I was feeling calm (it was probably due to the Tai Chi class), I took my time looking at the new art, I read some labels, I learned some cool stuff and then it happened... I saw something absolutely heartbreaking (image shown above).
I quickly realized that in a room filled with handmade scrolls dating back hundreds of years, every single person in the room was looking at tiny screens. Forget the art, it's not like this is an art museum or anything (kindly notice my sarcasm). Whereas I managed to get lost in the intricate embroidery of some of the works and for a moment dreamed about how I would feel wearing something so beautiful, here I had in front of me a handful of people not paying attention to any of what I was seeing. Was it the color? the theme of the exhibition? the lighting? the wall texts? Why people... why?
First I thought let's give them the benefit of doubt, after all the adults are looking at screens provided by the museum, so they must be learning about the artworks. Sadly that was not the case, they were talking about how this technology failed in speed compared to the latest models they had just purchased. Furthermore, the little girl was on youtube watching some kids show or other. Ok, so let's stay positive here, where's my nearest docent? maybe one of them can help... maybe they can inspire people to witness art. Like Jerry at Molaa who is always encouraging people to interact with the works one can play with, or Maria at LBMA who in between sweeping the museum floors manages to inform people everything she knows about the artist in residence. But none were on site... so there goes my brilliant idea; if I can even call it that. I left home feeling unsettled (again I think that Tai Chi opened my consciousness and allowed me to be more receptive), so there they were surrounded by wonderful works of art and failing to even see them. What's wrong with this picture? How do we fix it? Do we need to fix it? Is this modern museum engagement? Why does this bother me so much?
A few days later pictures emerged all over social media from CAAM's latest happening: "Radical Self Care," aka Yoga at CAAM. Images of what seemed like hundreds of individuals doing Yoga at CAAM filled my heart once more, here I had active engagement; nowhere near passive art gazing, I stumbled upon artful yoga. Surround yourself with your community, at your museum, and let's all engage together. Loving this, just like my Tai Chi class. So then is physical engagement the new museum engagement frontier? probably not, this isn't exhibition focused.
What else do people do at museums today? what do I do? If my professional life revolves around museums am I museum bias? or am I the ideal engagement candidate? How do I engage? Well, I bring my friends, so museums are social for me, maybe that is why Getty has Off the 405, and LACMA has Jazz nights. I eat at museums, explaining MOCA's Lemonade and Hammer's AMMO Cafe. I read. I question, I wonder, I research, I ask, I challenge, I explore, I shop, I witness, oh and I take pictures; not selfie's... don't judge me. No wait, sometimes they are selfies... sometimes I even take pictures of my friends taking pictures or we take pictures together, but is that really what museum engagement is turning into. Is museum engagement a ton of non-art-related activities? Well, that's not right either.
So then what is it? Should engagement be meaningful? educational? should the museum provide a service to its community? or should it just be trendy and fun? Can engagement stop at a selfie or do we need to dig way deeper?
This exploration continues...
But please, regardless of what type museum engagement you enjoy, kindly stay away from engaging like these loving people, who decided it was ok for an artwork to hold their belongings while they sorted out which was the best selfie to post on IG. My fav damn!