Art Museums' Attitudes to the Public / by Jeannine Cook


I recently had occasion to go looking for the e-mail addresses for Curators or Directors of a number of museums scattered throughout the United States. It was quite an exercise, and it got me thinking about museums' attitudes.

In today's world, a presence on the Internet is a given, a vital tool for everyone from the local plumber to the most prestigious of museums.  But, as we have all recently observed in excruciating detail, websites are a vexed issue. Granted, an art museum certainly does not have the same demands made on it as the Government Health site.  Nonetheless, web design is a very clear indication of the general attitude and ethos of the museum - or any other entity.

Many of the museum websites to which I went to find details of how to contact staff members via the Internet were clearly laid out and very functional. But a surprising number were positively lurid in their technicolour and busy overkill of information on the opening page, whilst making it hard to find out where next to navigate to get to the staff details. The impression was that these museums were so desperate to get the public involved, and hopefully through their doors as financial supporters in some way, that they were in a frenzy to attract them, rather like some of the amazing courtship displays of some bird species. And perish the thought that they might actually name their curatorial staff!

New Guinea Male Bird of Paradise Courtship Display (Image courtesy of the BBC, London)

New Guinea Male Bird of Paradise Courtship Display (Image courtesy of the BBC, London)

More indicative of the museums' ethos was their opacity, at times, I decided. Some museums literally block one from knowing names of their personnel.  Others make it a complicated exercice to contact anyone working at the museum, obliging one to fill out forms and supply personal data. One even stated, in very small letters, that any e-mail address you supplied (the usual obligatory requirement) implied that from then on, they were free to send you publicity - i.e. spam!  What does that tell one about that museum's attitude to the public!

I have always believed that museums are keepers of our cultural heritage, in whatever form is appropriate to the mission of that museum. Consequently, to my way of thinking, a museum has an implicit obligation to make itself open and welcoming to the public which it is set up to serve. Transparency and ease of navigation would therefore seem to be basic tenets of a museum website.

If a museum makes itself so inaccessible to the public through its website, the message I receive is that that museum believes itself superior and not needing to have any truck" with the general public, only the chosen inner circle.  However, in today's world, elitism in museums seems to be a rather unfortunate attitude, to say the least.  As in any other  walk of life, you absolutely never know who might just turn up out of the blue and do something stunningly wonderful and constructive. If you make it so difficult to contact the requisite people through the website, you might miss out on an amazing opportunity. That applies particularly when geography comes into play and the museum you are trying to contact might be the other side of the country or of the world.  We all know that museums are full of very busy people and that there is usually a lack of funding and staff.  Nonetheless, the website design can still be welcoming, positive, elegant and clear and very much an open door to the physical museum.

I often wonder how many museums - or other businesses - go through the exercise of opening up their websites and checking out the ease of navigation, access of information and general appearance as if they were Mr. or Mrs. General Public.  Museums could do themselves a favour to do this – no one likes a message of superiority and elitism, nor of opaque functioning vis à vis the public.