The Experiential Museum Makeover


A century ago, Marcel Duchamp signed a urinal “R. Mutt” and put it on exhibit. Not only did he invent the first “readymade” expression of conceptual art but he forever upset what we consider both art and what constitutes our experience of an exhibition. Outrage, naturally, ensued. Though perhaps not as provocative as putting indoor plumbing on a plinth, a cavalcade of new “museum” experiences likewise challenged conventional notions of what is worthy of curation — from San Francisco’s Museum of Ice Cream to the Museum of Selfies in Hollywood (let’s not forget the International Banana Museum — which is also in California for some reason).

The buzzword du jour is “experience.” According to a recent ArtNet News item, the trend results from a bit of jargon swapping (apparently, when marketers pilfered “curate” museums felt justified in knicking “experiences”). The result has been an emphasis on immersive experiences over the “grazing and gazing” of traditional museums.

“In Paris, a digital art museum called the Atelier des Lumières offers multi-sensory “experiences” (read: projections) of artworks, and its recent exhibition on Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele….” — ArtNet

Experiential Museum Trend Goes Dutch

Even established museums have embraced the experiential museum trend, including the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, which recently launched “Meet Vincent,” which it bills as an “impressive digital projections made with the most advanced technology available” and an “active multi-sensory exhibition that contributes to an unforgettable experience.”

Meanwhile, the Japanese experiential art collective teamLab is in the midst of conceiving a new, 55,000-square-foot “digital museum” in a Brooklyn warehouse. Such installations require heaps of money but the investments seem to pay off for their sponsors. The Atelier des Lumières’ Klimt and Schiele experience attracted some 1.2 million visitors in a mere nine months.

Analog Experiences

Not all museums are pushing “experiences” girded by cash and technology. Some are leaning on guides to help craft a memorable, if decidedly analog, experience by offering “un-highlights tours” that put “an alternative spin on the museum.” Boasting that their tour guides are adept at theater and performance art rather than art history, Museum Hack’s personnel deliver personality and storytelling to a bevy of institutions. Their guides can be found at the Smithsonian, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art among other museums.

Some groups are pursuing a different kind of immersive experience altogether. Slow Art Day called for people all over the world to “visit local museums and galleries to look at art slowly.” No digital projection needed.

The recommended dosage was to enjoy five works of art for 10 minutes each. Then (most astoundingly) meet with others and discuss the experience. 166 museums across the globe participated in the observance on April 6, 2019, as part of the 10th annual Slow Art Day. Patrons only needed to pay regular museum admission and attention. Did the effort result in record traffic and ticket sales? Who knows but the viewer was surely enriched. Moreover, the results were achieved without the museum’s exhibit budget having to be, as Duchamp might say, flush.

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