When I was a little girl, I used to love visiting my Dad’s geology lab at the school where he taught earth sciences. I loved the musty, dustiness of it. I loved pulling open the thin, sliding drawers and exploring the tiny white cardboard specimen boxes filled with pink granite, green serpentine, glassy obsidian and other glistening, silvery, shiny, crystallised occupants. I was powerless against trilobites and ammonites.
My first museum.
Museums encompass the world, just there, waiting for you to explore. The possibilities of museums are endless. For me, there is a delightful anticipation for museums, like the beautifully wrapped gift under the Christmas tree, because the contents are unknown but surely will be good. Museums are as exciting as travelling to an unfamiliar country or a different age where there are new experiences to be had and things to discover. Museums are as inspiring as a poignant poem. They change us, if we let them. They challenge us, if we are open to it.
Museums amuse us, bring us joy, cause us to muse or ponder and they should encourage us to find our own muse or inspiration. Or at least, they should and to do all these things successfully is no small feat, I’m sure.
Most of the museums I visited in America were empty of other visitors. The Harvard Art Museum had a reasonable crowd, including groups of university students, the University of Pennsylvania Museum had a group of primary school children but few adult visitors; even the Freer Sackler Galleries at the Smithsonian were rather empty, though that might have been because I didn’t get there till late in the afternoon. You can imagine my shock, (though I really wasn’t surprised) when I got to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Hordes of people.
I wondered why.
The university museums are primarily used by students of archaeology, and professional researchers, I imagine. The Semitic (Harvard) and Kelsey museums (University of Michigan) have smaller than expected but nonetheless fascinating and important collections (I’m referring to the number of displayed objects and physical size of the museums), while the Oriental Institute (University of Chicago) and University of Pennsylvania Museums are somewhat larger but in all cases, one would have to deliberately seek these museums out, people like me with an interest in archaeology.
There appear to be, on the other hand, perhaps two major factors which might explain high visitor numbers at the Met and the Smithsonian Museums: they have massive collections of objects and they are ‘on the tourist map’. In other words, their existence as famous destinations attract visitors; they are one of many ‘touristy’ sights of New York and Washington respectively.
Other than the school children visiting the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthro (Get name right), given their relative obscurity or fairly limited interest to the general public, the visitors at the university museums could be identified as genuine visitors. By that I mean those people who have deliberately chosen to visit those museums because of their interest in the archaeology of the ancient Near East.
The Met and the Smithsonian, on the other hand, seem to attract both genuine museum-goers and those who visit because it is on their tour itinerary. My evidence for these two groups of visitors is based entirely on my observation of their behaviour in those museums.
‘Tourist’ visitors appear to move quickly through the galleries, rush up to display cabinets to photograph objects (often with their phones) and then immediate turn away or, alternatively, wander slowly and without any obvious interest in the exhibits at all. Perhaps they are overwhelmed and not sure where to begin. Sometimes they wander with mobile phones in hand, their eyes locked to the flickering screens rather than focussed on the wonders all around them. Neither group seemed either amused by, nor inspired to muse upon, the contents of the display cabinets.
There is one other group that I saw at both the ‘big’ museums and the university museums; young people with sketch pads who were seated before cabinets or exhibits, engaged in drawing the objects before them. I assume that they were either enrolled students of fine art, or perhaps simply indulging in their own creative pursuits. They were, indeed, finding their muse.
In contrast to the ‘tourist’ visitors at the Met and Smithsonian, the visitors at the University Museums tended to be individuals visiting alone, or in very small groups (two or three). I observed pairs of students at both the Semitic and Kelsey, one seemingly a student of archaeology ‘guiding’ the other around the displays. At the Kelsey I also observed the mother of two young girls enthusiastically engaging her daughters through questions about and exclamations over the displays. All in all, the visitors at the university museums of archaeology appeared to show an intention to engage and learn from the objects on display. The displays caused them to stop and muse. Whether that was due to the nature of the display or the intention of the visitor, is a topic for another post!
Without doubt such visitors also tread the halls of the Met and various Smithsonian museums, but the tourists I encountered suggested to me that there is a large number of visitors who are not engaged with the displays in the same intentional way I observed in visitors at the university museums. It seems that university museums could work on increasing the number of visitors, while the ‘big’ museums could work on engaging visitors!
In the next few posts I shall muse on why people visit museums and what they do when they get there. I shall post a few ideas on how museums might better engage their visitors and perhaps even some thoughts on why they may never be able to engage some visitors.
Please bear in mind that I am not a museum professional, I have not studied the ‘theory’ of museums.
I am just a grown-up little girl who spent hours in her Daddy’s geology lab and turned into a lover of museums.
Dr Victoria Clayton is author of Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar. If you are fascinated by life in the ancient past, let this very readable book take you on a journey back 2600 years to the bustling town of Kar Shalmaneser where Assyrian soldiers, businessmen, craftsmen and slaves lived together and learn who made the figurines and why. Meet their makers and learn their story. Click here for access now.