Can a fun museum be a good museum?
April 8, 1993
A complaint about trends in museology, using a big special exhibit mounted by the Illinois State Museum as Exhibit A. I include the piece with misgivings on grounds I was, if not unfair, at least ungenerous toward the museum. Museum directors, unlike columnists, must deal with the world as it is, not the one they hope it might be.
I have always been a happy advocate for the ISM’s scientific work (especially during the administration of yahoo Gov. Bruce Rauner), and as I note here, going to the museum itself was a crucial part of my boyhood.
I missed the sock hop at the museum last month. Just as well; at my age, the Stroll looks more like the Crawl. But lots of other people found reasons to go to the Illinois State Museum for an afternoon of music, games, food, and memorabilia staged in conjunction with—translate that as, "in promotion of"—the museum's current exhibit, "At Home in the Heartland."
The public was invited to "rock around the Museum" and thus "make cultural history come alive." The text for the day included chapters on Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, '57 Chevys, cherry cokes, and poodle skirts. Earlier this year the Home exhibit spawned a seminar at which scholarly papers were read. This event did not merit the 70 square inches of color photographs that the State Journal-Register devoted to the Fifties Follies; scholars are not photogenic by the standards of daily journalism, being the sort of people who write about poodle skirts rather than wear them.
I have no objection to family fun. I have no objection to '50s nostalgia. I have no objection to pop anthropology; in terms of artifacts, our grandparents' lives are as distant from ours as those of the ancient Cahokians, and can be usefully discussed in the same ways. I do object to calling these things cultural history. The museum's invitation did not mention Little Rock, McCarthyism, Korea, the Beats, or the Bomb. Those things, while sadly a more substantial part of the culture of that decade than Mickey Mouse, are not fun, and fun is what the up-to-date museum is all about these days.
Museum exhibits used to stink of mold. Today they are more likely to smell of the supermarket aisle. No one, I suspect, is less happy about this trend than the scientists of the Illinois State Museum. They labor in undeserved obscurity at what I regard as an essential state institution. The museum was the best part about being a kid in Springfield in the '50s—the real '50s—and helping to pay for it is one of the more satisfying parts of being a taxpayer.
The ISM has struggled with more integrity than most to accommodate today's mass audience. (In this as in so many awful trends in museology, Chicago's Science and Industry sets the pace; there children can enjoy a "Paint Your Feelings" exhibit and answer true or false when a machine states, "A total person can say, 'I like myself!'") An occasional sock hop should not discredit an otherwise worthy institution any more than the occasional gardening supplement ought to discredit an otherwise worthy newspaper. Such accommodations are forced upon both by the cruel exigencies of the market. Museums are obliged to cultivate a mass audience to justify public funding for work that is by its nature esoteric, difficult to grasp, and remote from popular preoccupations.
Research in short is not enough. Museums must not only acquire knowledge but disseminate it. Thus has the ISM been infected by viruses spread by the Educationalist. The old museum (housed in the Centennial building until the early '60s) was serenely indifferent to my education as a boy. The evidence of, say, geology were laid before me; making sense of it required knowledge I did not possess and that the designers of the museum's displays provided only grudgingly. (Minerals, I later learned, are like people: what they are is not as interesting as how they got that way.) Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History displayed fossilized apatosaurus bones with the skeletons of mastodons, sloths, and mammoths in its recently dismantled "dinosaur hall" since 1921 and thus confused whole generations of visitors.
A new era in museumology dawned in the '60s, and brought us the ISM's now-familiar large animal dioramas. There is a touch of the melodramatic about some of them, but they remain wonderful examples of exhibit-making. With dozens of plant and animals species shown in context and combination, they reward careful and repeated looking of the sort that is conducive to reflection; more subtly, they represent in physical form the intellectual lesson they aim to convey, which is that ecosystems are crowded and complex and (so artfully are the actors in these minidramas posed) dynamic.
Dioramas are thought stodgy these days, I am told. Interactive exhibits are the thing. Kids seem not to have the patience (or on school tours, the time) to look at anything carefully. I probably would not have been patient either, had I been sated by age eight with full-color nature documentaries on 27‑inch color screens at home.
There are several reasons to lament the change. Educationally correct fun and games perpetuate the arrogant notion that the world is interesting to the extent that it amuses us. For another, fun is trivial, and making anything fun tends to trivialize it. Inviting five-to-seven year-olds to make Japanese-style rice paper murals for Mothers Day—one of ISM's activities for May—no doubt leads many kids to conclude that flower murals are the Japanese equivalent of Hallmark cards. (Multiculturalism on a stick.) And since the techniques by which science is usually made "accessible" these days mimic TV, they (like TV and for that matter conventional teaching) make kids passive participants intellectually, no matter how many buttons they get to push or how many artifacts they get to vandalize.
In short, what is wrong with the educational museum is what is wrong with education in general. Rather than try to make learning interesting, educationalists opted to make it fun. This made teaching easier—it is far simpler to make the significant fun than to make fun significant, since the latter requires knowledge while the former needs only skill—but it made learning harder.
Looking back, I wonder whether what was good about the old museums is what was "wrong" with them. A museum can be too educational. By that I mean that it can teach too much, especially to the young. The life-sized dioramas of Indian life now on display on the third floor convey at a glance what dozens of musty cases in the old museum only hinted at. This information is obtained at the cost of imagination, which used to do for the visitor what the museum's painters and model-makers and animators now do for her.
But what makes learning fun—really fun—is what we don't know but want to. A museum ought to be a place to learn, not just another place (like school) to be taught, and discovery requires the irritation of ignorance as a prod to further inquiry. By explaining too much, the educational museum deprives a kid of the best part of the learning experience, which is finding things out for herself.
In the old days I left the state museum knowing I didn't know anything. That was the best lesson I could have taken away with me. ●
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