Friday, October 14, 2005

Holocaust Museum Redux

John Avarosis, online journalist at Americablog visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. and reflected on his dissappointing visit in an item titled "My Holocaust Museum Let Down".

Evidently he was bombarded with criticism for his views and responded wtih another post, which I REALLY enjoyed . As a museum educator I get pretty geeked up when non-museum workers bother to think about their relationship with museums. After all, these places are expensive and are agents for the common good. As such, museums should, and sometimes do, strive to offer high quality public interaction with their collections.

Even though John is likely never to read this, I thought I would carry this conversation one step further by adding a (not "the") museum voice to the mix. Below is the text from his critics' comments post "Since So Many of You Were Rude You Get My Response" post. John quotes his critic's view and then adds his own response. I add to these my own thoughts in parentheses. I hope he will forgive me for tampering with his format.

Since so many of you felt the need to be gratuitously rude in response to me having simply critiqued a museum, I get to respond because, honestly, I'm not afraid of you people. I'm glad some of you think the Holocaust museum is a well-designed museum. But I don't. And last time I checked it was still okay in America to criticize the layout of a museum, even if the museum is about - heaven forbid - the Holocaust.

So without further ado, your comments, my responses:

1. "The print is small because they don't care if people really read it."

That's absurd. Then don't print anything at all on the walls of the exhibit, but don't tell me its intentional that they post print that's nearly illegible because the font is too small and the lights too low.

(The critic's comment is indeed absurd but not entirely untrue. In some museums explanatory text is often seen as a necessary evil that potentially distracts viewers from the primary object. Illegible text is indicative of the love/hate relationship museums have with written explanations. So why do they use it if they can't make it legible? 1. Text is cheap and easy to launch when compared to other perhaps more appropriate means of communication--technology based delivery systems for example. 2. Most museums don't bother to test whether or not people can use their galleries. In a museum's system of priorities, the visitor may indeed appear farther down the list than would seem logical to some people--like the visitor!)

2. "The museum is way too information heavy because the Holocaust is a big topic."

As a writer, and former student, I've heard that canard far too many times. I can't write a one-page briefing paper, Senator/professor, because the topic is too complicated, too important, etc. Yes, you can. And if you don't, you lose your audience, so why exist at all?

(John is right, and museums frequently lose their audiences-or fail to gain them-because of their lack of gallery editing skills. Museums could learn a lot from professional writers, specifically journalists. And because the Holocaust Memorial Museum is arranged in a narrative sequence the writing metaphor is even more apt. According to museum learning specialists Falk and Dierking in their book The Museum Experience, museum fatigue typically begins to set in after about 45 minutes of intense looking. After this point, many people tend to do what John did, which was skim the rest of what they are seeing. In a museum the size of the HMM, one would need to take this into account.)

3. "The museum is not about you and whether you had a good time."

Oh, that's a cute cheap shot. And yes, I have stopped beating my wife.
Well, in fact the museum is all about me. The museum is about its visitors. It's about spreading a message, about informing the masses, and the vehicle is it's visitors. If the information is literally illegible to many of its visitors, how does the museum spread its message? If the information is simply on overload, so people can't even read it all, how does that spread the message? It's cute to say "this is about more than you," but I come from a world where I actually care about my message getting out there. If this is all about making YOU feel good that you have a museum, even if it doesn't get its message across as well as it can, well, then who's the one who really has a problem and a narcissism complex?

(Right again John, and I couldn't have said it better myself. Museums are comprised of people who agree with you and others who are more focused on the preservation mission of the museum. And many museum professionals keep both purposes in mind, but still there are daily battles within museums between the purposes of preservation and message communication, with little effective conversation happening about how these can overlap productively. Traditionally, the preservation oriented museum positions have the balance of power.)

4. "Good Lord, John, more than 6,000,000 died at the hands of the Nazis in the the death camps, and YOU have the temerity to complain that you had a bad day?"

Good Lord, Mary, get that chip off your shoulder and drop the drama by about 50 decibels. A poorly written essay doesn't get an "A+" simply because the student chose to write about the Holocaust. Though I guess you could certainly put the deaths of 6 million Jews on the teacher who doesn't give you an A and see how they react.

(I agree with John's logic here.)

5. "You want fun, go to DisneyWorld."

First, who was talking about "fun"? Do you always criticize people for things they didn't even say? And again, same answer as to #4. You don't get an A simply because you chose to write about the Holocaust. And I'd throw it back in your face. If you're going to screw up and do create a work that doesn't deserve an A, you better not have the hubris and the temerity to choose the Holocaust as your subject, because then YOU, if anyone, do the dead a disservice.

(Discussing learning as a binary phenomenon-either fun/silly or serious/valuable-is a false but very common assumption trotted out by museum professionals who fear losing control of how content is delivered in museums. If I had a dime for every time I've heard that line quoted almost verbatum in exhibition staff meetings I could build my own Holocaust Memorial Museum. I can't decided if your commentor is someone who works in museums or someone who just believes one must suffer to be educated. Could be both.

For most visitors an "A" experience at the HMM doesn't connote fun, but thoughtful engagement that helps them make sense of the complex and emotional subject matter. )

6. "I don't think that the decimation of a people group, in any setting, is meant to be fun, exciting or any other opposite of boring."

Yes, I've stopped beating my wife. Who said the museum was supposed to be fun? Having said that, no museum should be boring. This reminds me of a woman who wrote a horrible poem in a poetry class in my college and the class thought the poem was great. Why? Because the poem was really boring and the topic she was writing about was her boredom, so she evoked the topic perfectly by writing a really boring poem. Uh huh...

(The statement in quotes is confusing. It seems to postulate that unless information regarding the holocaust is boring it is wrongly presented. I believe one can be solemn without being boring.)

7. "'Homosexual' is akin to 'colored' or 'oriental.' Would you grow up? A museum dedicated to events in the 1940s needs to be on the cutting edge of 21st century slang?"

Ah, so you think museums about WWII should call blacks "niggers," or is that "negroes"? And I'm not talking the official documents from the era, I'm talking the museum's own literature.

(It is sad how low people's expectations are for a 21st century museum in the U.S. capitol about an internationally devastating event.)

8. "Also, why the need to specify Africa to give an example of animistic beliefs?"

Ah, now we get into far-left PC reverse bigotry. Uh, how about because African tribes are the only people I've ever heard of who believe that a picture steals their souls. I had no idea referring to factual things about Africa was now bigoted. Thanks for that clarification.

(Not sure if I follow John's logic here (do African tribes really believe that a picture steals their souls?), but this PC nomenclature business is difficult. The danger here probably is speaking about African tribes as if they are all the same. Since Africa is a continent, like other continents it has a very diverse population with many different belief systems, some of which are animist. Oh, and not to be outlandishly pc, but last I heard, "people groups" was less of a colonial term than "tribes.")

9. "...and calling the Roma 'gypsies' is just as bad cuz to them it's an insult."

See answer to question 8. And, the Holocaust Museum itself uses Roma and "gypsies." And finally, I could have just called them "Roma" and left 98% of the people here in the dark as to what the hell I was even talking about. But at least you'd be happy. Because, the lesson I've learned from some of you today is that getting your message across isn't important at all, it's simply having an important message that matters - regardless of whether anyone hears it, or how good a job you do of explaining it. And we wonder why we don't win elections.

( I personally believe that many of us agree that we need to get our message across. What is frightening to me is the underlying and wrong assumption that we currently are doing all that is needed in order for people to understand our message. Some of us may believe this because we already understand the message. This is the classic museum error--"well, I get it, so of couse everyone else does. Therefore, I will expend minimal effort to communicate the message effectively."

Museums forget that visitors don't live and breathe their contents. Visitors come to museums with different needs, agendas, and questions, but with an equally valid right to access the collections if the museum is public (nowadays most are). Museums, like political progressives, are the losers if they don't take time to learn about and address visitor needs, agendas, and questions.)

Yeah, I think that just about does it. I'm glad many of you enjoyed the museum. I think it's not very well done. And since George Bush still hasn't accomplished everything he wants, I can still say that in America.

(Speak while you may!)


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