Thursday, February 4, 2010

Expectations and Museums

People go to museums with pre-conceived expectations. A museum-goer, before visiting the Louvre, knows what he/she expects to see, and carefully plans which parts of the museum he will for sure not miss and which parts can be skipped if time runs out. This is a carefully constructed journey through art and history, one which this particular museum-goer had a large part, not to mention stake, in completing.
One of the traditional manners in which museums are viewed is as a teacher of facts, a conveyer of lessons, a preacher of ideals. People go to museums with an idea of what they will get out of the visit, because they are following society's expectations of museums as providers of "crisp lessons." However, the NMAI doesn't follow traditional museum conventions and therefore is not a place one can go and already have an idea of what one will find. This museum functions as a different space; a place where the Native American can both claim sovereignty and to engage in a conversation with other Native American peoples and non-Native peoples. Many early visitors weren't prepared for this, and some felt the museum failed them; their expectations, informed by the traditional museum concept, weren't met.
It seems simple to believe we would be able to visit a museum with an open mind and no expectations, however, this doesn't seem to be the case. In an article about museums and identity, the point is made that visitors don't passively "receive museum experiences, but rather actively construct their own personal meanings." So, this should be good news for the NMAI, right? If people take an active role in engaging with their museum, then entering into a conversation with the museum shouldn't be a difficult concept, right? However, I believe that part of constructing personal meaning for oneself at the museum is a product of the traditional museum concept; it's the need to find personal meaning in the impersonal, the traditional. The NMAI isn't supposed to be impersonal or traditional. It's supposed to be a conversation, a spiritual immersion in the past, present and future of the Native American people. It is supposed to be experienced in a different manner from other museums, and so going to this space with pre-conceived notions of the experience will only serve to hinder the visitor and block them from experiencing all that is possible.

This is a link I found to an article about identity and museums, and visiting museums with starting goals for the experience:

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