Reality Check: Speaking up for Silence

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO

I am probably the only person in the Midwest that sees the coming of spring as the end of something precious. Daily, both strangers and friends chatter of the coming warmth and longer days, and I confess that I am touched with the slightest pang of regret as they cheer for the end of winter, that dreadful enemy of fun. Admittedly, I enjoy good health and a husband who links chivalry with shoveling snow, so winter is never a challenge for me to overcome. In fact, as soon as the first cool winds of October move in, I get ready to come alive: this is my time for a period of challenging spiritual growth and inward exploration.

For many others, winter is a punishment, a period to endure before life can begin again. It’s true that the short days, bitter weather, and the isolation brought about by winter can make us feel alienated from friends and community. We forget what sunshine feels like, and our eyes become too used to the color of dormant grass. I won’t claim to not be delighted by daffodils breaking free of the frozen earth, but the coming of spring, with its eager morning sun and jabbering birds, is like the interruption that breaks months of contemplation. It is this contemplation that gives winter its particular beauty. A whispering snow makes us listen harder, but then comes a bracing wind to drown everything out but our own thoughts. Sub-zero temperatures force us inside with our closest loves, but a sunny, 32 degree day pulls us into the woods to hear only our footsteps. Winter relieves our senses of the noise that come with warmer weather: motorcycles, neighborhood barbecues, August insects, thunderstorms, fireworks, and festivals.

Museums can offer this serenity of silence and this space for contemplation, though their roots might raise the eyebrows of a 21st century person living in the age of inclusion. Though not always for beneficent purposes, museums, evolved from imperial collections, have offered an experience quite unlike most other ways people pass time. From the beginning of collecting, kings and queens meant for their treasures to live in palaces apart from the world and its clatter, although sadly excluding the very people who could use a glimmer of gold in their eyes. In the 18th century, even when European museums were becoming public, the entrance fee remained a barrier to the working class, and well into the 19th century museum collections were at the service of experts and their scholarly study. The notions of “visitors” and “audience” to museums of this time were simply not ingredients in their identity nor success.[1] If you think museums today are on the hushy end of the spectrum, imagine yourself in a museum 200 years ago!

A father and son look at a glass piece on display at the museum together.
Spending time to interact with (but no touching!) the objects on display in a museum is an integral part of any visit. Photo by FWMoA.

It’s not that museums and their leaders didn’t have a conscience for their community—they did—but it was often indistinguishable from a patronizing concern for the “uneducated.” The peace and quiet of the unspoiled halls of objects, they believed, surely would inspire thoughts of higher things, providing a much needed respite from the daily clamor of work and sport. Though most of us would agree that human beings need times of quiet contemplation, and that beautiful things can point us to that realm, the idea that museums should fulfill this need, and how, has been argued for over a century, and the conversation shows no signs of slowing down. Not that it should, given the social upheavals of the 20th century, which thrust museums into the marketplace, and the challenges to authentic experience brought on by digital technology in the 21st.  

Unfortunately, museums are still haunted by the age-old accusation that they provide an experience only for the elite. In fact, they spent most of the 20th century trying to prove to the world that they were not elitist by melding with the culture and striving for “relevance.” If you sense a critical tone from me, it’s not because all of these moves are wrong or that museums shouldn’t be responsive, even radically so, to their communities. It’s because this decades-long project is predicated on the attitude that the objects themselves are not enough to justify a museum, or that enjoying objects is something that only special, privileged people do. To press it further, the relevance project is an outcome of the idea that uninhibited object contemplation is somehow an activity that really isn’t all that alluring to most people, and museums should therefore create a multisensory “experience” for their visitors rather than unobtrusively facilitate an encounter with an artifact or work of art. Examples of this experiential atmosphere include nightclub-themed events, yoga in the galleries, or movie nights. I’ll be the first to admit that I enjoy these types of events, but you can see how they have less to do with the art than the visitor and their interests.

“The peace and quiet of the unspoiled halls of objects, they believed, surely would inspire thoughts of higher things, providing a much needed respite from the daily clamor of work and sport.”

One of the most persistent voices of this frustration in 20th century museums is Philippe de Montebello, the longest serving director of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose tenure from 1977-2008 was marked by financial stability, comprehensive collecting, and a healthy distaste for the sensational. His legacy at the Met can be seen in direct contrast to his predecessor, Thomas Hoving, who, though a visionary in his own right, is known for his 1970 master plan that sought to rapidly expand audiences through a variety of marketing tactics and high-profile, international loans. In a way, Hoving’s influence on the Met shook American museums nationwide out of the supposedly stale object-first approach and into a more visitor-centric, democratic program. That many museums today are cultural centers with dynamic, socially relevant experiences is a result of Hoving’s belief that museums should be “full of fun and celebration.”[2] De Montebello, on the other hand, plants himself firmly in an unwavering confidence in the authentic object as the one thing that constitutes public trust in museums. As he explained in a 2004 essay for Whose Muse?, a collection of papers by a group of museum directors engaged on this topic:

This is why the museum must never fear competition from any quarter for its public’s attention, why…it must not create meretricious programs in an effort to compete directly with what is strictly an illusory threat, the entertainment industry. Such wrong thinking crops up with increasing frequency…a recent example was offered by the Guggenheim Museum’s director of corporate communications in what amounts to an astonishing lack of trust in the institution’s very reason for being, the work of art, the raison justificative of the museum.[3]

De Montebello sees curatorial authority, characterized by sound and trustworthy scholarship, as the key to true and unfettered enjoyment in a museum, not parties and performing tour guides. To be clear, he insists that museum leaders of the 19th century were wrongheaded in their belief that this is a moral authority, a weapon to be used against vice and entertainment in service of the nobleness of art.[4] In other words, de Montebello puts his money on the academically disciplined and self-critical curator who does the hard work of research and authentication not so the visitor can be delivered from ignorance, but so she may experience pure wonder.

A family looks at a grouping of Stanczak paintings at a previous exhibition on display at the museum.
You don’t need a guided tour to be able to enjoy the objects on displays in museums. Photo by FWMoA.

It seems to me, in this debate that has so many forms, that education and entertainment are the everlasting opponents, and many thinkers on this subject have declared their irreconcilable relationship.[5] But American museum directors simply cannot support their museums on scholarship alone, because in this country museums are an unusual blend of nonprofit charity and revenue-generating business. As educational institutions, most museums have impressive fundraising teams that stake their claim among other charitable organizations as meeting a critical societal need. But as places of public consumption, they are necessarily responsive to those public interests, fickle as they can be. Unlike European museums, which are primarily funded by the state, American museums are as much at the mercy of the market and politics as many of their for-profit counterparts. The rise and fall of the stock market, the politics of state and federal arts agencies, and diverse donor interests affect museums in more ways than most people know.

And so museum directors, at least since 1970, have responded to this tension with the types of museum programs that many of us describe as “innovative”, “engaging”, and “relevant.” Though these values are important, and my own museum perpetuates them unabashedly, they belong to the code of broad consumption which begets public approval and much-needed revenue. An example is what is known as the “blockbuster”, a large-scale loan exhibition of a broadly popular artist or well-known collection meant to draw huge crowds from around the world.[6] Scholars generally accept The Treasures of Tutankhamen as the first blockbuster, a 1972 exhibition launched by the British Museum and subsequently traveled around the world, including at the Met when Hoving was at the helm. Such exhibitions are designed to draw staggering crowds, generate revenue the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, and sometimes provoke sensational reactions in contrast to a more humble, instructive purpose.

“To press it further, the relevance project is an outcome of the idea that uninhibited object contemplation is somehow an activity that really isn’t all that alluring to most people, and museums should therefore create a multisensory “experience” for their visitors rather than unobtrusively facilitate an encounter with an artifact or work of art.”

Visitors to FWMoA might recall its two Chihuly exhibitions as our versions of the blockbuster, and I fondly remember my experiences, both in Chicago, with the recent Andy Warhol blockbuster at the Art Institute and the 2014-15 David Bowie exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Both were among the finest exhibitions I have ever seen, in terms of curatorial nuance and depth of story, but my memory will always be of the multi-sensory experience of crowds, strollers, cameras, and the sheer spectacle of ogling the treasures of popular appeal. For heaven’s sake, we even saw Bowie’s lipstick stained tissue, enshrined in the manner of Egyptian finery. Though I revel in the sheer absurdity of claiming Bowie’s trash as a relic, I pause when I consider the path that has led museum curators to that point.

This is hardly the stuff of what I think de Montebello is getting at. Having been personally accused of elitism, he embraced the charge by responding that elitism is not the intentional aristocratic filtering of the privileged from the average, it is rather an open invitation for all to leave the frenetic stimulus of the world for a while and step into the heavenly realm of beauty and wonder. Elitism, he says, is in fact a democratic concept: that everyone, simply by darkening the door of a museum, is an elitist in the sense that they are seeking the higher realm of contemplation that art and artifacts are so adept at helping us reach. That they choose the museum over the public square is elitist. He insists that everyone is capable of making this move and dipping their toe into the cool waters of contemplation. This is incongruent with Hoving’s idea that a museum should be like a theme park, and de Montebello finally asserts that a museum will fail if it tries to imitate all the other popular destinations vying for consumer dollars because they all do it so much better.[7]

The fruits of the struggle to heal this fault line are what many of us today know of American museums: we readily accept and even pursue the chaotic excitement of blockbuster exhibitions, and we also expect a high end café to sate us after the long journey through the crowds. As for me, I’ve happily consumed many croissants and Italian sodas after plodding through people trying to look at art. What I always feel, though, is a little embarrassed for trying to pause for a moment with a particularly beguiling work of art, flummoxed by strangers waiting for me to move so they can take a picture. Some museum theorists today will insist that this is the necessary state of museums, as bustling centers of edutainment, existing for the experience itself and above all promoting that moving target of engagement. They call for a blend of offerings, multisensory, interdisciplinary, and sometimes sensational, because, they say, that is actually what people want, and thank goodness we’ve finally escaped from our elitist past that didn’t truly care about people.

A mother with her young son looks at the Mexican masks on display at the museum. The child reaches out towards a devilish red mask with horns and a grimacing smile.
The average museum visitor will look at an object for less than 30 seconds. The next time you’re in a museum, see how long you can look! Photo by FWMoA.

I have to believe that there is something better, something that does not seek to validate education by making it entertaining, nor something that even pits the two against each other by associating one with work and one with play. We need both, but they don’t always have to go together to be valuable or pleasing. I’ll concede that 18th and 19th century museums deliberately and inadvertently excluded a lot of people, and I do not want to go back to that time. I want museums to want everyone to step inside. If this means free admission all the time and for everyone, then a great many administrative programs need to change and money should flow from perennial sources. I believe this simple move, along with careful attention to accessible and sensitive curation, could do much for eliminating the perception that museums are only for privileged, highly educated people.

What it does not mean is heaping more and more distractions atop the one thing that museums offer that no other arena of society does: an invitation to gaze upon, absorb, and delight in the wonders of human creation from every pocket of our civilization across all times. If this is what de Montebello is saying, then I agree with him that everyone, regardless of education and social status, has this ability as a feature of our human souls. The problem is that most of us are harassed daily with blaring messages and flashing images everywhere we turn–it’s no wonder the pace and atmosphere of a quiet museum can be jarring and therefore difficult for us to embrace. It also could explain why many measure a successful museum by its crowd. What’s needed, rather, is a cultural emphasis on the contemplative itself, on the reintroduction of silence as a welcome sound, not a thing to be avoided. We need not fear the airy spaces as desolate cells of isolation, and we should accept the gentle nudging of the museum for our hearts and minds to freely wander in the ways they were made to do.

“I want museums to want everyone to step inside.”


[1] Malcolm Foley and Gayle McPherson, “Museums as Leisure,” International Journal of Heritage Studies, Vol. 6, No.2, 2000, 161-174.

[2] “The Importance of Being Élitist,” The New Yorker, November 24, 1997. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/11/24/the-importance-of-being-elitist

[3] Philippe de Montebello and James Cuno (ed.), “Art Museums, Inspiring Public Trust,” Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey and Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2004, 154.

[4] De Montebello and Cuno, 155.

[5] Paul Greenhalgh, “Education, entertainment, and politics: lessons from great international exhibitions”, The new museology, Peter Vergo (ed.), London: Reaktion, 1993, pp. 74-98.

[6] Emma Barker, “Exhibiting the canon: the blockbuster show,” Contemporary Cultures of Display, Emma Barker (ed.), Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with The Open University, 1999, 128.

[7] “The Importance of Being Élitist,” The New Yorker, November 24, 1997. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1997/11/24/the-importance-of-being-elitist

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