Why we need to dust off the drawing board: the tale of The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

It’s time for a little history. Museums have been around for almost as long as recorded history, used as historical resources for the educated elite, like the Musaeum of Alexandria (which included the famous Library) dating from around the 3rd century BCE. Art museums, however, have a significantly shorter history, art having been almost exclusively kept in private collections and archaeological museums until the 15th century. The Pope, of all people, ushered in the era of “public” art collection – primarily sculpture – during the Renaissance and was followed by an influx of public University art collections. The 18th century brought about the golden age of the familiar art museum in the form of a free-standing building with its own collection, Board, and funding. This era brought us the British Museum, the Uffizi Gallery, The Hermitage Museum, The Louvre, and even the Charleston Museum two years before the United States even an option. The early 20th century brought us The Prado and the National Gallery in London.

Pictured: Contemporary Audiences at the Louvre. [Four hours at the Salon (Annual closure of the painting Salon in the Grande Galérie du Louvre), Francois Auguste Baird, 1847; Source: La Musée d'Orsay]

Pictured: Contemporary Audiences at the Louvre.           [“Four hours at the Salon”, Francois Auguste Baird, 1847; Source: Musée d’Orsay]

What do all of these institutions have in common? For one thing, they are all located in large metropolitan centers. This makes a lot of sense; the bigger the population, the more people to view the collection. It also means that most visitors are going to have a higher income than the national average (given tourism and cost of living) and probably a higher education (supported by proximity of Universities in urban centers). Secondly, all of them follow the same basic structure: a variety of micro-collections represented in separate wings, almost entirely supported only by tombstone labels, a general theme text panel every few galleries (maybe), and basic highlights tours, grown out of the French salon precedent. The presentation of the artworks is based on the 18th century assumption that the audience is versed in their history, context, and value because the tradition comes from a time when that was generally true for the generally elite 18th century visitor. Thirdly, most of these institutions are still in the top 25 most visited museums in the world today.

I don’t know about you, but I think that our world has changed ever so slightly over the last 250 years and it might be time to start addressing that. This is why I’m highlighting a truly innovative, modern museum, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, opened in 2005. With free admission for all, open doors seven days per week, a vast plot of land with nature trails, and a library, this museum is the first major public art museum to open in the United States since the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 1974. It’s collection houses some of the United States’ most important cultural icons from Charles Willson Peale, to Norman Rockwell, to Andy Warhol, to Donald Judd. And it’s located in Bentonville, Arkansas, population 36,295.

Also, it looks like THE FUTURE! [Source]

Also, it looks like THE FUTURE! [Source]

You see, though its money comes from the Walmart fortune, its mission is as far from cold hard cash as you can get. This museum was a collection amassed for the express intention of giving it to the public; specifically a public that had virtually no easy access to top-quality art collections. A lecture given by the (recently former) Director of Curatorial, David Houston, explained that this museum did what exceptionally few modern museums have thought to do: throw out the rule-book and start over by looking at their audience and its needs. This means that a huge force guiding every aspect of this museum’s construction, presentation, and agenda is Education. Houston discussed how educators and curators are both equally involved in every exhibit as well as decisions regarding programming and practices. The goal is not only to teach a chronological history of American art, but also to teach guests how to visit a museum.

Houston noted some jarring and unexpected challenges that Crystal Bridges faced, for example guests who had never visited museums and were not aware that objects usually should not be touched. While this may or may not be an every day problem in more established museums in metropolitan areas, it taught an important lesson that I think all museum staff could learn from: if you don’t make assumptions about your visitor, you have the wonderful freedom to devise entire new ways of teaching.

My favorite example Mr. Houston cited was in reference to their audio guide. While most major museums would have a few interns write out the basic facts in vaguely colloquial language and turn it over to a voice actor, Crystal Bridges realised that the ‘basic facts’ would be a fairly unintelligible laundry-list to their average guest. So what did they do? They asked their audience! They set up interviews between curators and non-art historians (custodial staff, friends, local business owners), went up to a work of art with a tape recorder, and recorded the conversation the two had. The recordings were spliced to concise clips for the free audio-guide, but they answered the fundamental questions in a genuine, easy to digest manner with just as much ‘real’ content as conventional audio guides.

This out-of-the-box thinking has made way for truly imaginative elements beyond just the structural. Their exhibit “See the Light: The Luminist Tradition in American Art” (which unfortunately just closed) used objects to tell American Art history from the perspective of ‘how the artist used light.’ That means everything from John Singer Seargent’s Impressionist work to Dan Flavin’s sculptures in neon. I thought that was just WAY too cool!

I’ll admit, I have not yet been to Bentonville, AK to see this exciting museum in person, but even so, it’s existence is inspiring and gives me hope. As always, let us know about any ‘game-changing’ educational techniques your museum has developed!

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