A few years ago, when visiting a major museum in the Mid-Atlantic area which shall remain unnamed, I was absolutely mortified when an employee — or perhaps it was a volunteer — handed me a device through which I was expected to listen to a narrative about the artwork I was about to view. I said to my mother who accompanied me at the time that it was like the scene in Amadeus when they perform the ballet without music. Art is meant to be personal and intimate; a group of people looking at the same piece but in their own little worlds listening to a streaming audio track in their headphones is practically sacrilegious.
Is this trend a feeble attempt to make art accessible to more people? A response to declining budgets and volunteer availability? A cruel social experiment intended to update what some people see as antiquated traditions with modern technology? Whatever it is, I refuse to take part in it. If the museum cannot or will not provide the service of a friendly and knowledgeable guide, I would rather engage with text than passively listen to some unknown, unseen, distant person speak. So hand me a pamphlet, or allow me to find the text that is typically installed as part of every exhibit on my own, and spare me the headphones. Or I shall do my own research instead.
My resistance to the integration of new technology at art museums is not in any way a hesitation to dismantle the old order. In fact, I was an early computer adopter, writing simple programs when my age was still in the single digits, and I value what technology brings to our lives. But when it creates a distraction, noise, and separation among people it is, in my opinion, no longer serving a useful purpose.
I may be a snob, but I am an inclusive snob. I believe that all people have the right to enjoy good and beautiful things by virtue of their human nature (of course some people vehemently deny and reject this right, and who am I to argue with them). If indeed the headphone thing is what needs to be done to engage people in the fine arts community…no, I can’t accept that as the best or only solution. There must be other ways to make the arts come alive for people, like small group discussions led by artists or complementary art forms like film. And what could possibly be more engaging than opportunities to create art right in, or adjacent to, a museum when visitors’ souls and imaginations have been stirred and stoked?
Yes, the way we preserve, view, and appreciate art can and should be modernized and made accessible to more people. But let’s do it in a creative and inspiring way.