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Are museums just 'graveyards for stuff'?

August 23, 2013

On this Start with Art Friday, I'm stopped by a story at CNN.com in which senior producer James Durston calls museums "tombs for inanimate things."

"They're like libraries," he writes, "without the party atmosphere" in a piece bluntly titled, "Why I Hate Museums."

Durston wants to know where the muse is in today's museums. He laments that the 200th glass case containing "an old bowl" wasn't interesting at Doha's Museum of Islamic Art. But perhaps that's because he looked at 200 instead of two. He says he wasn't titillated at the sex museum in Amsterdam. But there are other places to go if that's the outcome he wants. (And he should take plenty of singles.)

The piece brings up an essential truth: Some—perhaps many—people who go to museums are bored. But he puts the entire burden on the museums to become interesting. To become theater. And that's where Durston misses something essential.

Curators do make efforts to bring their collections and temporary exhibitions to life. But most museums, rightly, are contemplative places. When they focus primarily on entertaining, they tend to embarrass themselves and trivialize their treasures.

I do agree with him on one thing, though: The gift shop tacked onto the end of a special exhibition often acts as an esthetic cold shower. 

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