The Tumblr blog When You Work at a Museum posts wonderful, hilarious gifs every day. Having worked at a museum, and being someone who hopes to work at one again, I love these light-hearted pokes at museum life.
A recent post kind of irked me, though. It is titled “The public program has been over for 30 minutes, but the entire audience is still hanging around for some reason.“
I’ve worked at museums, and worked events, and I very much sympathize with and understand the desire to be done when you’re done, and to be able to close up and not be forced to linger on. Museum staffers work full days, 9-to-5, if not more, in addition to then staying late to prepare for, set up, and run these events. And for those in certain departments – e.g. Film, Performing Arts – they do this day after day, and of course they’re tired.
But, at the same time, whether as staff or as a visitor, I find that very often I want to talk to others about the experience, to maybe meet others who share my interests, and to otherwise participate as a member of a community. Going to an event and leaving immediately afterwards without talking to anyone is not a way to be or become a member of a community, or a “scene” (e.g. “the NY contemporary art scene,”). Now, I know that museums often cannot afford to provide food & drink (and the labor of setting it up & taking it down) for a reception after every single event, but, all I’m saying is that those events where I got to meet new people, reconnect with familiar faces, share my reactions or thoughts, share in my interests with others, maybe get to ask the staff/curator/performers questions. There’s nothing like a museum event to make you feel like you’re “in,” like you’re a part of something. And there’s nothing like getting kicked out of a museum event with no opportunity whatsoever to talk to anyone about it, to make you feel like you’re an absolute nobody, like you are not, and never will be, a member of any kind of inner circle with that institution.
Tumblr user librarykris responded “From my opinion as an audience member, the measure of how good something is is how long I want to hold on to the experience and stay in the space.” To which the OP responded with some comments I’ll address a bit below. But, there’s more to it than that. I think there is another side of this – it’s not just about wanting to savor the experience, or to have the experience itself last longer. It’s also about wanting to talk to others about it, sometimes especially wanting to talk to the staff, the speaker, the performers. It’s not just about engaging with the art, or the ideas, the presentation, but it is also about engaging with a community, feeling one is a member of the Museum of [insert name here] community, an active, engaged, included member of some circle, some group, some community. It’s about feeling that one is engaging with, or be(com)ing a part of, the art world.
The OP then also says “The above attitude is especially annoying when inconsiderate jabronis think that a museum is the same place as a bar, club, cafe, etc.” How is a museum /not/ a place for such things? Have you never been to an exhibit opening? A museum is precisely the place for such things. Think about the stereotypical art gallery opening. Think about the conversations you have at such an event. Think about how it feels to engage in such an event, to be enjoying art and mingling with others who also love art, to feel like you’re part of a community, an art community, part of the art world in whatever way.
People who love Edo period painting, or contemporary Chinese art, or whatever it may be, all together in a room together all at one time, drinking wine and eating cheese and crackers and talking to one another about the art? People who know me, who remember me, who actually want to talk to me about these topics? I want in. /That/ is the museum experience I’m looking for. The lecture/performance/screening is just the first half – I want to get to know these people; I want to hear what they have to say, their insights and impressions, their recommendations of other shows and artists and events. Think of all the people you’ve met as a museum professional, the wonderful interactions you’ve had, the intense conversations about art or theatre or travel or cultural politics, the recommendations and suggestions and introductions you get from your coworkers on a regular basis. Even just as an intern, I have gotten to see artworks up close, to meet big-name artists, to talk with curators, collectors, and others and have great, stimulating conversations – this is what we get to do behind the scenes at the museum, or in the halls of academia, but there are tons of others – collectors, fans, museumgoers – who want that experience too. And if we show them a lecture, or a show, and then just kick them out, we are only providing half of that.
So, yes, I know better than most just how long hours you work. I know you’re tired, and I know you have to do it all over again the next day (or the next week). And I do very much sympathize. But, running an event and getting to relax afterwards and enjoy the reception, talk to people, be a member of those circles, is the best part of the job (that is, so long as the high-roller donors aren’t obnoxious pricks). Unless, that is, you prefer paperwork and coordinating logistics for a fun event over the fun event itself?
Look, I know what kinds of conversations go on behind closed doors, and we do all need to let off a little steam sometimes. But, please don’t go ranting in public (on the Internet) about your patrons being inconsiderate ignoramuses. We are not just randoms. We are not merely patrons or visitors, filling seats. We are not the anonymous masses, to be simply ushered in and then ushered out. We are artists, students, scholars, collectors, aspiring museum professionals, or just avid museumgoers & lovers of culture – in short, many of us are precisely the same kind of people that you, as a museum professional, as a lover of culture yourself, should want to mingle with, relax with, chat with. You might be surprised at who you’ll meet, the connections you’ll make, the conversations you’ll have. After all, isn’t that what a museum is all about? A space for people to come together and be part of something special, to feel welcome in a space where we can share in our love of art & culture.