Ever since reading The Museum, a Temple or the Forum by Duncan F. Cameron, most museum visits for me have a background noise of thinking which they are, a forum or a temple.
I visited the British Museum this week, for a lecture on the upcoming The American Dream exhibition. Opening on the 9th of March for three months, the exhibition will explore American culture, centred around American printmaking from the 1960s to the present. Curator Stephen Coppel discussed the pieces in their relation to gender and race issues that have been addressed in the prints, and have existed as social issues in America. As the lecture was delivered in the grand lecture theatre, above the Great Court space, the Temple or Forum debate sat in the back of my mind.
British Museum is perhaps the pinnacle of the ‘Temple’ stereotype. Often didactic interpretation, grand architecture, it literally looks like a Temple. It’s so easy to get lost in the British Museum, both psychically and intellectually. The globally and chronologically broad collection tells so many stories it’s easy to lose sight of individual objects and individual narratives.
I’ll admit my bias from the get-go, I prefer a smaller museum. Big crowds, tourists, and screaming children do little for me, no matter how great the collection is. So while I’m thinking about museums elitism, perhaps I should consider my own personal elitism as a visitor. The age old argument that interactives are ruining the experience of museums for some, like the one linked here, is never going away, and it’s one I struggle to balance while visiting a major museum. Intellectually, of course I know the value of interactives, and family engagement. Personally however? That’s perhaps a little different.
But, back to the Temple or the Forum debate, which ones museums are, and which they should be. There is something quintessential and nostalgic about the Temple template museum. Grandiose marble staircases and peering through glass to see a cabinet of labels and objects evokes that sense of what a stereotypical museum visit should be. Perhaps this should be enough. Surely the collection at the Science Museum is enough to engage, is Wonderlab necessary to maintain our depleting attention spans? Maybe it is.
Without delving too much into that controversial extreme caricature of what I don’t completely believe, to next consider the Forum template museum. The forum ideal is ultimately where my heart is. Yes, as an adult visitor, with a considerable interest in museums before walking in the door, and without children, perhaps the piece and quiet of the interactive museum would fit me best. But, unfortunately, the world doesn’t yet revolve around me. Ultimately, museums work best when they work for all. Without believing that it’s possible for museums to be perfect for the multitude of subjective opinions that walk in the door, there should of course at least be an attempt to address every visitors needs, and attempt the tricky balance to facilitate accordingly.
This slightly controversial, mainly satirical, blog post is written with the intention of weaving through my own complicated opinions on the matter. What do I want museums to be (as one day I might rule the museum world, of course), and what works best for both the current audience, and to engage audiences currently excluded. Ultimately, museums can never be wholly a Temple, or wholly a Forum. Even if they could, neither would quite work.