Are museums getting too slick?

GG was in Yosemite recently and checked out some of the museums and got to thinking, how is the reinventing of museums working out?

Consider the old Happy Isles Nature Center.  It was for a long time the classic old building filled with stuffed critters with tags with the common name and Latin name and so on, and some bones and fur you could touch.  The materials had gotten ratty in places and it seemed somewhat dingy and old-fashioned. The park service decided some time ago that an update was in order and they transformed the space into an inviting large room with big pictures and a diorama.  Many visitors are pleased with the new experience. It feels much more modern, but is it better?

It kind of seemed like you could have taken all the text on the displays and it might have filled a four page pamphlet. Hmm, yes, bears destroy cars–check.  That’s a squirrel, that’s a mountain lion, ok, got it. Perfect for a five minute tour through the museum. Go through the main visitor center museum and the information feels even less dense.  To be fair, some of this is because GG is very familiar with a lot of this material, but really it just seems very big for the material being presented.

Museums used to be one of the places you would go to learn about a place or event or some class of things.  A lot of what museums used to offer is now available through the internet or mobile device apps. What is their role going forward? Why go in a museum?

One outstanding reason is to view the real deal.  So, for instance, the Yosemite Museum (next door to the visitor center’s displays) has a display right now on the creation of the Yosemite Grant that includes some of the original documents from the 1860s.  These are pretty interesting to see and many are so obscure you can’t find mention of them in books on the park.  The main permanent exhibit there includes Indian materials (some from the Ahwahneechee, many more from the Miwok who supplanted them) and some art work. Much of this is material you can’t really see elsewhere and pictures online aren’t equal to seeing them in person.

Another reason to visit a museum is to get oriented about a topic or place that you can witness yourself nearby.  This is the purpose of the Visitor Center displays (and, arguably, the Happy Isles Nature Center).  In a way, this is almost like getting a list for a scavenger hunt.  Can you find a glacial erratic?  A chipmunk? A black bear?  This is what they look like, now go out there and find them.  Maybe you don’t need the real deal in these environments because the real stuff is just outside the door.

It seems that the credo of the museum curator now is to create a narrative so that all the items on exhibit make sense together.  And, truthfully, these can be pretty gratifying when well done and well populated by legitimate materials. But this is a bit like reading a book: the curator has a story to tell and walks you through it.  Most exhibits these days have directional signs and distinct start and stop points.

So is there anything to recommend the old school museums that looked like a hoarder’s dream?  One museum that still (possibly–its been awhile since GG has visited) has a lot of that flavor is the Eastern California Museum in Independence, California. You can find Indian baskets near primitive dentures near a mammoth bone not far from a bunch of rusty railroad spikes across from pieces of mining machinery. It is dense with stuff that was found by folks living in the area. There is organization but there isn’t really a narrative.  Wander through these materials and the burden is on you, the visitor, to create a framework to understand all these fragments of history (both human and natural) placed before you. This is harder work, and it can take some time, but the reward is that you can come to your own understanding of what has happened in the area.  Want to trace how the Paiute have influenced the valley? Pieces are scattered about and not just in the Native American area.  Want to learn how industrialization affects a rural area over more than a century? Clues abound in the fragments that survive. Curious how all this stuff got collected? Look carefully and you will usually find the names of who picked stuff up and you can look for the same name scattered through the museum to see what they thought was interesting.  It is the difference between being an active viewer and a passive one: you can choose your point of view and see what evidence there is to inform it.

Museums have to attract visitors or they become warehouses (or, worse, landfills), so the drive to create open, airy and attractive displays has a clear motivation. Many of the newer narrative displays are great (especially when well stocked with real materials), but is there still room to simply show a collection and give the visitor the freedom to investigate on their own? Do we as museum visitors have the patience for this, or is that asking too much in the instant gratification age?

If you visit one of these older types of museums, challenge yourself to find your own story.  See how that compares to the experience of being walked through a modern exhibit.

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