I find myself in the odd position of directing a museum that is closed to the public. I’m not alone. Just about every museum in the country is closed, and from what I’m hearing, museum staff are not taking this lightly. I find it heartening that museums are so concerned about their audiences and their desire for connection.
There was a time when museums would have thought it just fine to have empty galleries. The point of a museum, after all, was the collecting, preserving and researching of objects and works of art. A museum was a treasure box, and place for safekeeping the valuables of a culture. Whether it was dinosaur bones or Rembrandts, the museum was the place to gather them together, make them safe, and study them for future generations. The public, if there was any public, was expected to be people who already understood the objects, connoisseurs and scholars there to compare notes and share knowledge. Thus, on a good day, perhaps a half dozen people might enter the museum for quiet study and enjoyment.
But then people started to ask some hard questions. In the words of Stephen Weil, a noted museum professional, should a museum be “about something or for someone?” For whom were we collecting all those prints, or shells, or musical instruments, or Greek sculptures? If we didn’t know whom they were for or how we might make that connection, was there really any point to our storage vaults? Were we in the warehouse business or the museum business. With those questions, museums began to make a major turn in emphasis towards the publics we serve.
My career in museums has been enveloped by questions of audience as well as objects. Who comes through our doors? Who would we like to have come through our doors? How can we give them an excellent museum experience with the art on the walls, and with the quality of our labels, and our gallery talks, and our hands-on programs, and our tours? How can the museum become a place for people who’ve never been inside a museum but discover a great new place for their hearts and minds?
So it is very strange to step into the Grinnell College Museum of Art a couple of times a week to check to see that everything is well and be in an entirely quiet space. It feels so empty without people. We are literally in mid-installation, awaiting the moment when we can be back at our work.
In the meantime, we are finding ways to bring our exhibitions and collections online. In other words, the work continues beyond the physical space of the museum. Tilly Woodward, intern Molly Skouson, and others are building Facebook posts and YouTube videos. We may not be able to welcome you to our real space, but we are working on exciting virtual space where we can connect. We can’t wait to re-open our doors, but are delighted to be able to share artists’ voices, intriguing questions, and new ideas with audiences in the online world. We will always be about the art, as long as we are about the people as well.