Book Review: Public Art, Thinking Museums Differently - Museums Association

Book Review: Public Art, Thinking Museums Differently

The vogue for museums focusing on experiences rather than objects need not be a disaster, writes Colin Hynson. Museums just need to learn from public art
Colin Hynson
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In 2000 Hilde Hein published a book called the Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective. In it she joined the debate about the transition of the museum from one that centred on objects to one that concentrated on experience and on the visitors that came through the doors.

This shift in emphasis meant that objects have moved from having a central role to acting only as instruments of experience. It also meant that museums found themselves in the same camp as other institutions that offered 'experiences' such as sports halls, cinemas or even shopping centres. In other words, museums were in danger of losing their uniqueness.

Hein's new book is meant to provide a theoretical framework for museums to find a new way to offer experiences and learning opportunities to visitors in a way that is clear and distinctive. For Hein, this means looking to another form of experience that, like museums, has a strong historical antecedence but has recently gone through a metamorphosis. This is the realm of public art.

To make sure that her readers are clear about what experience actually means, the book starts with an exploration of the notion of experience and how museums have reacted to this idea. Hein's definition of experience is a rather traditional one. She explores the work of US philosopher John Dewey who looked at the whole area of experience.

From there she looks at the rise of the 'experiential museum', particularly in the US. Visitor surveys in museums started in the 1960s and led to the development of museums that explicitly concentrated on experiences, particularly children's museums and science centres.

Hein then moves away from museums to look at the dividing line between the private and the public. This division has only really existed in the past couple of centuries. Of course, the reason why this division did not exist before was because of the lack of the concept of the private.

It seems to me that museums sit right in the middle of this line. Museums are public spaces, yet those who enter them experience the spaces in a very private way. Visitors do not experience museums collectively because they are surrounded by strangers.

The next couple of chapters look at the development of public and private art. Hein tries to find a demarcation between the two. This is a relatively new area of exploration and makes for very interesting reading. After all, what is public and private art and what divides them? One thing that museums have done is to move objects such as paintings (and even domestic items) from the private to the public sphere. But does that make these artworks public art?

This book shows just how far public art has changed over the years. Once it was solid, made a bold and authoritative statement, served to justify rather than question and simply saw the public as passive recipients. The carvings of the American presidents at Mount Rushmore can be seen as a symbol of the strength and permanence of the US political system.

Today's public art has changed: it is participatory, it celebrates groups of people who have traditionally been excluded from the mainstream art and encourages people to make up their own minds. How much of this sounds familiar to those in the museum world?

But according to Hein, although public art and museums share many commonalities and have made shifts in reaction to social, economic and political changes, there is one area where museums and public art have remained separate. As public art has become more experiential and more participatory something else has happened to it. Not only is public art far more ready to take risks and to stray into unknown territories it also celebrates ephemerality and impermanence.

Public art in the past was meant to be rock solid, sometimes literally. Now, perhaps as a reflection of our throwaway society, transient public art is celebrated.

The author uses the example of The Gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. This was a massive piece of public art that was installed in New York's Central Park in February 2005. More than 7,500 'gates' were covered with orange fabric and were placed at intervals throughout the park.

The work proved an outstanding success, with thousands of people coming to see a display that was only there for a few weeks. It generated a lot of debate about the nature of art and how people react to it. Once the gates had been removed, many people said they looked at Central Park in a new light.

Museums can also create transient experiences, but it only really happens when the museum space is changed in some way. It needs the blockbuster or large-scale temporary exhibition. It very rarely happens within the permanent displays of a museum.

For Hein, this is how museums can recapture that uniqueness that seems to have been lost in the change of emphasis away from object to experiences. Museums should learn some of the lessons that public art has taken on board. The museum should celebrate the ephemeral and the temporary.

Museums have already begun to travel down this particular path. The initial move away from object-centeredness has necessarily meant an acknowledgement of the ephemeral. Experiences are also, by their very nature, temporary and constantly shifting. Perhaps all museums needed was to see that this path has already been trodden and they can follow it with confidence.

Colin Hynson is a freelance museum education consultant

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