I am delighted to present the first, of what we hope will be many guest contributions to The Attic from researchers working in the field of museum studies. Carrie Hertz (welcome to The Attic Carrie!), a postgraduate student of Jason Baird Jackson's (who writes for the Museum Anthropology blog) and based in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University, gives us her take on the Museum Madness weblog. I have to admit I haven't come across Museum Madness before. I'll be heading over there shortly to have a look.
Oh, and if you're a museum studies researcher and you are interested in contributing to The Attic as a guest blogger, please don't hesitate to get in touch (link to email address in right-hand column). It would be great to have you on board!
By Carrie Hertz, Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, Indiana University
Museum Madness, established in February 2006, operates as a personal blog that “offers some commentary on museums and their roles in our lives.” The moderator of the site, an unnamed man working from California, attempts to demonstrate his authority on museum-related issues by describing himself in the site profile as an individual who “has worked for several museums, often in tedious and rather unglamorous capacities.” This choice of identification implies, rather than cynicism toward the museum world, a frank and self-effacing perspective on a field in which the moderator has only begun to penetrate. Through occasionally personal posts about the stress of impending deadlines, a reader learns that the moderator is currently a graduate student working toward a degree presumably in museum and library sciences.
Primarily, the posts generated by Museum Madness combine online media coverage of museum-related events, news stories, and press releases into one site that frames the information with minimal critical commentary. Most posts alert the reader to current museum-related news articles by giving a quick synopsis of the subject and providing a link to the original source. Often these notices include sparse opinionated or historicizing commentary designed to appeal to an uninformed, museum-going public. For example, on December 27, 2006, the moderator posted on presidential libraries and museums focusing on basic explanations of classification and rationale for such institutions. He included a number of links to various news articles relating to presidential libraries and briefly framed current debates concerning the typical practice of establishing one. The moderator reveals his skepticism with college-operated presidential libraries because, in his opinion, the papers of such important public figures “should be housed in a public institution.”
In addition to simply providing the reader with his opinion, the moderator also commonly juxtaposes multiple voices present within the mass media in order to frame various debates especially through the implicit comparison of professional and lay perspectives. On February 28, 2006, the moderator quotes from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s website “Follow a Fossil” explaining that while the text is “basic,” he believes “that is what the American public is in dire need of right now. A basic explanation of things like evolution and fossilization [sic].” He provides a link to a Washington Post article concerning “biblically correct” museum tour providers stating, “Then again, don’t ask me, ask “Biblically Correct Bible Tours.” In this way, the moderator imparts his opinion but acknowledges multiple sides of a debate.
In addition to introducing current information circulating in the media, the moderator of Museum Madness also comments critically on both the controversies or debates that constitute the content of media coverage and on how information about museum issues are presented through media channels. The moderator clearly addresses what he considers inadequacies in some modes of news reporting on museum-related items. On December 10, 2006, he critiques a New York Times review of the then newly-renovated Yale Art Gallery for not addressing how the architectural space relates to the collections and the museum’s long term goals. Earlier on November 17, 2006, he again disapproves of a New York Times piece. While reporting on a renovated Haida canoe at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the article, according to the moderator, stressed the aesthetic beauty of the artifact but ignored the anthropological or cultural value of the canoe, the latter being more from a perspective attuned to the collecting goals of the AMNH. In both instances, the moderator advocates the promotion agendas of collecting institutions and thus positions himself as a professional in dialogue with the products of popular and news media.
The moderator’s critical commentary also tackles the larger contexts surrounding the content addressed in the media. During late July 2006 especially, one can see a brief trend of longer, strongly-opinionated posts about issues like the very definition of a museum (July 27, 2006), political posturing over timetables for completing provenance research on potentially looted Holocaust art (July 28, 2206), and a landmark case in which a U.S. citizen is demanding compensation from another country via the sale of its loaned artifacts in an American museum (July 18). In most cases, this style of post again advocates the perspective of a museum professional by sympathizing with the mandates determined by museum mission statements or non-profit status. On November 19, 2006, the moderator clarifies that his blog should not be viewed as academically-driven but rather informed by his formal education, his professional work behind the scenes, and his “own experience as an informed museum patron.” Thus he claims to speak from three major viewpoints. While the moderator shifts between these viewpoints, he tends to position himself in the role of educator for a lay public. Again on November 19, 2006, he delivers a post from a pedantic perspective offering tips for being a “good visitor” by employing personal anecdotes to support his opinions. The featured tips more often favor advice on how patrons can avoid looking foolish to museum professionals than how visitors can improve their own experiences. For example, the moderator spends a significant time disparaging museum patrons for asking museum employees questions easily answered by exhibit labels or for visiting museums without first accessing the institution’s website for general information (without considering how many individuals actually have regular internet access).
While Museum Madness assumes a professional and critical stance on museum-related issues, the blog is more appropriate for a non-professional audience. Much of the original information, while informed, is presented in an uncomplicated, didactic manner better suited to a museum enthusiast than a practicing professional or academic. Despite this orientation, museum professionals and academics could productively utilize Museum Madness as a resource for tracking current items of interest featured in various media channels. Unfortunately, since the site does not seem to generate much debate -- posts almost never produce comments from readers -- Museum Madness fails to contribute to our sense of lay community discourse. Furthermore, because of the reliance on major media channels for posting inspiration, representation comprises big budget, high profile, metropolitan museums despite the multidisciplinary emphasis and presence. Rarely are the issues of pivotal interest to smaller museums addressed through this method.
The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.