Museums: Catering to the (uninformed) Visitor

So recently I have been doing the museum circuit in Detroit and Chicago. Upon visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), I had to check out the new interpretive vision instituted by their director Graham W. J. Beal. The DIA re-opened its doors this past November 2007 after renovating both the outside building and inside galleries. I have to say that having been to the DIA pre-renovation, I was quite impressed with the new galleries. The museum is absolutely gorgeous and gives me that feeling of reverence as I wander through the infamous artwork.  Amidst these newly renovated galleries the beautiful art is displayed in a revolutionary, user-friendly way. Beal seeking to “extinguish the deathly whiff of elitism” implemented a new interpretive plan for the artwork. There are now text panels, posted next to the paintings, on silver metal stands, nearly as big as some, white in color to provide information for the visitor.  These prominently placed panels have large type, a maximum of 150 words, and in simple terms, introduce the “broad idea” of the art works being displayed. I have to say originally I was all for this “new interpretive vision”. On the frontier in the museum profession is the idea of a user-friendly, community-driven, open door, anti-elitist, art-for-all-people museum. And, isn’t Beal trying to accomplish what museum professionals ascribing to the new, 21st century, re-imagining-the-museum thought process are all desperately seeking to achieve? 

Hmmmm….my jury is still out. The signs were a bit in-the-way, distracting when I was trying to meditate on the art and read the tombstone information about the piece. These white signs were almost like white neon signs screaming “READ ME!!!, READ ME!!!!!”  Although, I do think the information was helpful if you have never ever been to an art museum in your life, never picked up any literature on the subject and wanted to know more beyond the exhibit label. 


On another note, while visiting The Art Institute of Chicago, I noticed something. Something that caught me a bit off guard…In most of the prominent galleries throughout the museum were large white desks with Mac computers and a museum employee. All there to help you with anything that you may desire pertaining to the museum, to the artwork, the sky was the limit! And these persons were not just in the main entrance, they were in every major gallery! I was quite puzzled and shocked by this new change in the museum’s attempt to go above and beyond in its catering to the inquisitive museum visitor. 

Museums catering to the new, uninformed visitor, a new trend? I think so. Every museum seems to be jumping on the band wagon. It is yet to be determined if this new trend is here to stay. We, as museum professionals (or museum workers) will all have to wait and see. 🙂 


3 responses to “Museums: Catering to the (uninformed) Visitor

  1. Interesting observations- you’re right, I think making art more accessible to total novices is definitely a trend. This definitely jives with what I’ve been noticing in my museum job-searching: education openings (with very innovative duties) seem to be second only to development openings.

    I haven’t been to the Art Institute in a couple of years, so the gallery helpers are news to me. It will be interesting to see if people take advantage of all of these resources within the gallery, and which prove to be the most effective.

  2. Okay, now I really want to go to Chicago to see this. The AIC is one of my top favorite encyclopedic art museums and I’m not sure if this sounds awesome or strange. I’m always teetering on the fence between “museum as a cathedral” and “museum as fun universal educator.”

  3. You didn’t mention Pentagram’s dinner table in Detroit. Did you see it?

    Also, Cleveland (and many others) are making it their mission to push interpretation at first time visitors. The hardest part is to find a balance, so that you don’t annoy a frequent patron who simply wants to experience the art without help. We endeavor to have the information available, where every one can find it if they need it. We’ve been using typical tombstone labels, some interpretive labels, and gallery cards.

    We also have a treasure hunt, “Art to Find” specifically crafted for children and families who may have never been to a museum before. All of the objects on the hunt are items you could find in your own home with an overview discussion of what makes the particular item so special. The idea is that by featuring something a child could relate to–a chair, clock, fireplace– and by extension they may understand that its interesting to collect a fancy one. Link below is to the treasure hunt answers only.

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