Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Making Meaning

I noticed a piece by Alain de Botton the other day on the failings of museums. His opening statement is "Museums should help us to live better lives". Alain de Botton is very keen on us living better lives. He's written books on philosophy, travel, architecture and status in order to try and help us. I've read them, and I enjoy his well structured, precise prose and thoughtful arguments.

But should that be the purpose of cultural institutions?

Well I believe it's possible for these institutions to help us live better lives in all sorts of respects. From the simple but profound appreciation of beauty (take a trip to the V&A) to the unravelling of the past that illuminates our present (past performance normally being an indicator of future behaviour), these places can enrich us in ways that our work and home lives cannot.

But so often I see museum and gallery visitors straining to find meaning in their experiences. Hunched over tiny labels, taking a close look at the brushwork of a painting, then stepping back to take in the whole canvas. Or sleep-walking through the endless galleries of the British Museum, dazed by the riches.

And here's the problem. We can show off artefacts (well those that aren't in storage), and we can can give some interpretation, but we don't seem to be able to give meaning to these objects. They are just not relevant to the visitor. The quasi-religious presentation of the objects declares their importance, but the visitor's response doesn't correlate to this declared value.

So Alain de Botton frames it like this "curators should co-opt works of art to the direct task of helping us to live".

Surely it's possible for us to contextualise objects for visitors, make meaning and therefore value? As with some of the humanities, museum professionals seem to take for granted that everyone will understand the value of what they do, and they are poor at articulating this value. But politicians and the public clearly need persuading.

David Cameron is championing a number of initiatives such as Big Society and the new measure of national well-being.

Surely now is a great time for the cultural sector to cry out "We can help with this!" But we need to add meaning, not just information.

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