Lately I’ve been taking advantage of the comp museum admission perk through my employment with New-York Historical Society. I’ve saved a good deal of cash at New York’s premier cultural institutions with inflated admission prices ($25, MoMA; $20, Frick Collection; $22, Guggenheim), not to mention high-fived each person who shares the benefit of working in this city’s culture scene. If it were possible to kill time, stare at an El Greco, use a clean bathroom, and bump into no less than thirty tourists all in a 10-minute museum visit, I think my museum employee ID ensures it.
But every free walk-in reminds me how muddled are the economics and politics of museums (alternately “culture and arts,” but I’m a museophile). At a time of decreasing attendance and funding sources, museums are faced with increasing operational costs and challenges to their relevance. Plainly it’s a matter of numbers and letters, as these institutions, often not-for-profit and missioned to perform a public good, struggle to do more with less. The expectations to put on bigger exhibitions, host newer programming, and continue to captivate diverse audiences, are, frankly, met with profound difficulty.
I think this a reality well observed by James Durston in his CNNTravel piece “Why I hate museums.” I hesitate to agree with him on some points, for fear of biting the hand that feeds. But I don’t believe Durston is wrong when he admonishes the Smithsonian for recently exhibiting “an old brick, an old piece of rock, some hair and a napkin.” In my opinion, “Souvenir Nation” is a grave example of museums, as a collective, fighting the fight to provide entertainment and education yet failing on both fronts.
By framing the exhibit as a display of “personal objects that Americans have taken, made and saved as historical mementos from the Early Republic up to the present day,” the Smithsonian is making its best attempt at mass appeal. Whereas NMAH attracts visitors with layered exhibit space (American Wars and Politics; American Ideals; Transportation and Technology), “Souvenir Nation” as a small exhibit of NMAH seems to grasp for loose thematic threads. Likewise, there is not very much revealing about historical mementos from the better part of 250 years; to call them relics, keepsakes, and curios feigns an actual significance beyond the pocket of the man, woman, or child who plucked it from the ground. Indeed, the objects are diminutive in both size and significance, having collected dust in the Smithsonian vaults with relatively little attention or interest save for their acquisition. It is an oddly curated cross-section of Americana, so arcane and unspecific in scope, it’s display is found in the Smithsonian Castle adjacent to three exhibition halls recently shuttered as a result of the U.S. government sequester.
What about “Souvenir Nation” screams blockbuster must-see exhibit? Nothing. Where is the interactivity? Where is the depth of understanding? Where is the imagination?
I appreciate the exhibit’s ontology, that Americans have collected and cherished ordinary objects during historically important events and periods, imbuing such items with a sacredness and meaning far more powerful than their physical nature. However, I disagree with the approach and execution. Displays of wood chips and stones do not help shed museums’ reputation of being boring, old, dusty, and ivory-towered, nor do they speak to a museum’s accessibility, innovation, and future.
For museums, Collecting Culture is a rather high concept in the presentation of self. As museum educators, curators, and leaders (professionals bestowed the honor of composing narratives and designing inclusive exhibits), our goal should be a presentation of the How and Why versus the What and When.