Arts” Coverage Isn’t Museum Coverage

(and it certainly isn’t exhibition coverage)

I had a conversation the other day during which something went “click,” and a whole series of vague questions and half-thoughts just fell into place.  I was on a phone call with an arts reporter at a nationally known newspaper.  I’d written an email thanking several reporters who had contributed to a special “Museums” section in the paper.  But my note also observed that the 14 page feature was devoted almost exclusively to articles about individual art museums or trends in art museums.  The feature’s list of local museums included a natural history museum, but the science and children’s museums in the area were nowhere to be found.  The same for zoos and botanical gardens.  I wrote that the International Council of Museums includes all of these types of institutions in its definition of “museum,” and I asked why a section on “Museums” did not really reflect the way our field sees itself. 

One of the reporters suggested that we talk, and during the exchange I experienced “the click.”  I’ve been thinking about this conversation ever since, and after looking at other news sites’ coverage of museums, I’d like to propose the following observations about museum and exhibition coverage in the press (this includes both print and digital).  Is this your experience too?

·      1.  Journalists seem to be assigned to stories about museums/ exhibitions primarily by content area, not by the genre “museum” or “exhibition.”  Thus the reason the reporter gave me for the exclusion of science museums or zoos in the list of local museums is that this special was developed by the arts reporters (in fact the full title of the feature was Museums: A Special Arts Section).  Science reporters cover science museums and the zoo; an article on children’s museums was in the works, but not included in this special. Thus it apparently had not occurred to editors to assign non-arts journalists to write in a special feature on museums.

·     2.  If you look at press coverage of most other forms of art, e.g. literature, dance, or theater, the journalists who write about these, often called “critics,” are not assigned by the content (politics, history, folklore, etc) of the art form but by their knowledge of and ability to comment on the art form itself.  Book critics know about writing, not just about economics or politics. The dance critic writes about the line, form, and musicality of the dancers; the quality of the total production; not so much about whether the ballet is about Hansel and Gretel or New York City. A drama critic certainly discusses the story line of the play but also the skill, the craft, the lighting, the set—all the elements that make up theater.  

·       3.  Since the press routinely conflates museums and art museums, most reviews of exhibitions are reviews of art exhibitions (i.e. the art IN the exhibition, not the quality of the exhibition format itself) and are written by journalists called “art critics.”  In fact, in my conversation with the arts reporter I discovered a kind of reverence when she spoke of “the critic” who had reviewed an exhibition in the feature.  She explained that arts or science reporters like herself simply report on the fact of an exhibition or an event in a museum (like a director who resigns, or the birth of a panda) but they don’t evaluate the work itself.  That is for “the critic.”

·     3.  Because science and history as content are outside the purview of the usual art critic on a paper,  exhibitions (even complex and multimillion dollar projects) by science and history museum are rarely if ever covered in the sections of the paper where exhibitions are reviewed – the Arts section.

·       There is in our national popular press almost no critical assessment of exhibitions (of any kind- art, history, science, natural science, etc.) as exhibitions: no critiques of the art and practice of exhibition development/design – the tremendous array of abilities and skills –in 3D design, graphic design, lighting, audio visual design, ergonomics, universal design,  interpretation – and now of course digital design – shaping the expert practice we know as “exhibition.” This is a creative format that deserves to be featured in the “Arts” section no matter whether its content is that of history, science, landscaping, or marine life. I think this is why I have always felt vaguely dissatisfied after reading most critiques of exhibitions in the popular press. Like not seeing the forest for the trees, they miss the exhibition form itself, the intentionality, the real skill in selecting, framing, and interpreting the content. 

·      4.  Moreover, really complex exhibition design—involving the integration of the multiple art, design, and communication forms mentioned above, not to mention the application of data from visitor research, prototyping, and other types of visitor engagement—happens more often these days in history, natural history, and science museums, as well as in institutions with living collections.  But exhibition expertise and best practice are almost entirely overlooked because museum criticism is most often applied to art museum exhibitions.

I think that this lack of appreciation for the skill and expertise involved in the creation of exhibitions is the problem at the center of Judith Dobrzynski’s widely criticized  New York Times article,  “High Culture Goes Hands-On”
Ms. Dobrzynski wrote about museums’ adoption of experiential and participatory forms of exhibition as if they were opportunistic efforts inspired only by recent economic trends and books like Pine and Gilmore’s The Experience Economy.  Her article evidenced no awareness of the decades-long body of experience, research, expertise, and dialogue among museum professionals from all disciplines regarding best practice in exhibition design and development.  Thus her shortsightedness in dismissing developments in the field as passing fads and popular trends.

What’s been your experience with the local and national press in the coverage of exhibitions at your institution?  Do any of them really “get”  what we do? And if not, how much responsibility does the field bear?  What can we do about it?

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