While working at an art museum, I have had the chance to observe thousands of people walk through the doors.
During my brief foray into the museum studies program at Johns Hopkins, I took a course in Museum Education and read multiple studies in which social scientists tried to categorize the folks that go to museums. Some of them make distinctions based on demographics. John Falk has taken a different approach and determined that museum-goers can be grouped into different “identities” such as: explorer, facilitator, experience seeker, professional/hobbyist, and recharger. There is also the odd museum-goer, like me, who enjoys museums so much that she volunteers, blogs about art, takes a job at the desk, exhibits her own work, and considers herself a member of all five identity categories. But I’d like to consider a different way of looking at museum visitors; a way that eliminates social distinctions and gets to the heart of the matter.
Here is my conclusion after 3 years: I think there are two types of museum visitors and the distinction does not depend on demographics or visitor needs.
I believe the distinction rests upon how visitors view reality. In other words, it is primarily a philosophical issue. Whether or not the concepts of reality are on the minds of museum visitors (probably not) they may be the primary thing that determines why they come to the museum and what they want to see.
Let me share some observations. In the early part of the year, the museum I am involved with had two temporary exhibitions. One was a 13th century illustrated bible from the court of King Louis IX, and the other was an exhibit of contemporary art from the 1990s. As usual, there were information cards for both exhibits at the front desk. As I welcomed guests and gave them the schpeel about the two exhibits, I noticed a recurrent reaction. Visitor’s clearly presented a marked preference for one or the other. They were either excited about the bible exhibit or they were eager to find out where the 90s exhibit was located. Throughout the run of the shows, many visitors took both cards, however, they would express interest in one or the other verbally or by facial expression. This allowed me to observe a clear preference time and time again. Rarely, a visitor would express interest in both.
Why would the majority of visitors present such a clear preference for one exhibit or the other during the run of these two shows? I submit that it is because the exhibits presented antithetical worldviews, specifically theism and atheism. The visitors who had a strong preference for the bible exhibit likely had a transcendent view of reality. Given that the bible is considered a sacred book by many, I think it’s possible that those wanting to view the illustrated bible of Louis IX held to a some basic religious beliefs such as a belief in God and moral absolutes. Conversely, the Art of the 90s exhibit was primarily composed of contemporary art bereft of moral content; and it focused on subjective issues such as identity politics and alternative lifestyles. The exhibits presented mutually exclusive worldviews and the choice between them revealed the philosophical bent of the visitor.
Clearly, there was a worldview in the bible exhibit that acknowledged a universal standard for mankind; in fact, it illustrated a strong belief system in which there was a law given by a divine creator, a law to which mankind was subject. In the 90s exhibit, the galleries were full of art that, either directly or indirectly, denied traditional values and embraced progressive social change. These two exhibits could not have been more divergent.
Can it be proven that the philosophical views of museum visitors was at the heart of these observations? No. But watching the marked preference repeatedly has led me to believe that this simple distinction has been missing from current studies on museum visitors. I think it’s highly likely that a visitor’s view of reality determines what art they want to see, regardless of age, income, ethnicity, or gender.
Does God exist? Are moral restraints merely human constructs of the past?
Keep these questions in mind the next time you visit a museum. I’d love to hear if these philosophical questions contribute to the decisions you make in an art museum.