Museum Legs by Amy Whitaker
[note: this book was provided to me free from the publisher after I requested a copy for review].
Amy Whitaker’s “Museum Legs” is a refreshing, smart, and creative collection of essays regarding museums and visual art, with a focus on how museums and art could be more engaging and relevant to more people. As Whitaker herself says, the ever-growing library of published texts on museum studies is riddled with “Foucault-bombs.” However, Whitaker’s approach on the topic, while still grounded in art and museum theory, is highly readable and even at times humorous. And she presents her ideas in well-buttressed arguments that flow from one chapter to the next, interspersed with personal anecdotes and observations.
I’ll jump in with what I considered a weaknesses of her thesis so then I can finish with praise. Whitaker’s primary point is summed up in the introduction, “…this book is an invitation to participate in the arts, to consider museums as political institutions of which everyone is a citizen, and to believe that the base unit of this citizenship is to consider everyone an artist.” While this is a great idea, and certainly the author argues well for more opportunities for visitors to create art in museums, I’m not convinced that this will be a panacea for the disconnect that many people experience with art and museums. To me, it’s a bit like saying that if a symphony wants to flourish, they should consider everyone a musician. And frankly, a lot of people (myself included) have no interest in creating music or learning more about composing. I enjoy concerts as they are, as auditory experiences that are highly artificial (sitting still and quiet in a music hall, just like walking through an art gallery) while allowing my mind to drift along to the melody (or lack thereof). Same with dance, I enjoy watching performances but I don’t want to try out some steps myself. Of course, a better analogy along Whitaker’s lines would be to realize that when I’m drumming my fingers on my desk, I’m making music. Or that when I saunter down the street, I’m dancing. But that’s not going to make me more interested in either performing art.
As an educator and an artist herself, this idea of everyone is an artist resonates with Whitaker’s education and experience. And by all means it can enhance a person’s relationship with art and a museum. But I’m not sure if it would engage adults nearly as much as it would children.
The thing is, even though I’m not sold on Whitaker’s concept, I’m definitely going to keep it in mind as I organize future projects. That’s because her essays are so well written and supported that I would be a fool to disregard her ideas. She makes very astute observations and is critical of some museum education methodology, which I actually found to be refreshing as often museum education’s good intentions outweighs analysis in a big-picture sense.
Particularly strong are her chapters on public trust in museums and labels/exhibition text. These are two topics that have been dissected in numerous articles and books, yet Whitaker brings a fresh, jargon- free look at the issues. I especially enjoyed her mini-treatise on exhibition labels, in which she wrote, “If the curator creates a flawless show in which the work stands entirely on its own, the public can feel so engaged with what they see that they forget the flawless execution of the curator.” Over the past few years that’s been my personal goal in curating exhibitions, to become invisible. It can be tricky with thematic exhibitions but it’s not impossible, and I would never claim to perform flawlessly. But I do think that to I do my job well, I need to get out of the way of the visitor and the artwork.
I’ve read Beverly Serrell’s classic “Exhibit Labels” publication, but it’s still helpful to read such Whitaker-isms as the following: “I don’t expect the top curators to be in the gallery every day with the public, but I do expect the text that accompanies the work to be necessary, light, and elegant.”
Whitaker also connects museums to the rampant and increasingly complex visual literacy of the masses, helped in no small part by the media, especially the internet. And towards the end, she sums up the most concrete suggested improvements for museums as “more benches, longer hours, and cheaper tickets.” Finally, she offers a wonderful annotated list of suggested readings. I’ve already starred a number of them to add to my reading list. I recommend adding Museum Legs to yours.