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I Want to Talk in Museums

By Tara Allen Flanagan

Last week I went to a museum for the first time in a long time. For someone who loves art, I don’t visit a lot of exhibits.

Did you catch the Chagall exhibit at the MMFA? I bet you loved it.

No, I didn’t go, but I thought about it.

Oh, what about the Lautrec?

Nope, even though I love him and his work.

Seriously? When was the last time you saw an exhibit?

Two weeks ago! I wrote an article on it.

And the last time you went for non-academic, work, or journalistic purposes?

March of this year. I would like to stop answering my own questions, please.

I wish I had a decent excuse for being a recluse when it comes to exhibits. I have memberships to multiple museums in Montreal, either due to volunteer hours or student deals, but I rarely make it to more than a few exhibits a year. To challenge my hesitance to visit art exhibits, I am going to explore the reasons why I avoid art exhibits. Perhaps this exercise may help shed some light on the eternal question: why young people don’t go to museums?

“Does wearing high heels grant you access to this mysterious art world I hear so much about? Perhaps the answers lie in this exhibit guide, which contains no words and is laughing at me.”

1.     The dress code

Museums often have a reputation for being like libraries where people dress well. If you must talk, do so at a low tone. If you must explain a concept to someone else, do it loud enough to annoy those around you and make them aware that you know more than them. Going to an art museum can feel like going to a gala you weren’t invited to and didn’t dress for.

I love looking at art and I love talking about it. I am passionate about the idea that art should be democratic and accessible to everyone. When I walk into an exhibit in a large city museum, I often feel like I don’t belong there. The crowds are usually filled with women over 50, and the security guards at each doorway stare me down as if waiting for me to speak above a whisper.

“I love you, but if you say a single word about how funny the painted dog looks in earshot of that fancy old couple the shame will taint the blood of our family for generations.”

2.     The vow of silence

Going to a museum alone feels daunting, and going with a friend feels like a taboo activity. Art is provocative and meant to be talked about, but the hushed atmosphere in art museums and galleries is not conducive to speech. I like making jokes, and I like making wacky theories about art with my peers.

I don’t want to scream and shriek like a kid on a school trip, but a nice coffee shop level of conversation would be comforting in an exhibit. Perhaps this is why I tend to stick to opening nights and special events at galleries and museums, though you typically have to dress the part, conversation is welcome and a little laughter here and there won’t get you escorted into the kid’s section.

“This sculpture pairs beautifully with my three PhDs and French wine whose name I will mispronounce.”

3.     The gate keeping

I study art history, and I have a fondness for abstract expressionist and modern art. I like those big Rothkos and Pollocks that cause people to think hey, I could do that too. While last year Cat proved that no, you probably couldn’t, art galleries and museums aren’t the most helpful when it comes to looking at abstract art. Knowing more about the history of painting doesn’t mean you innately understand minimalism, nor does it mean that art should be presented in a way that is catered to you. One of my favourite pastimes is walking around museums in foreign cities with my mother, whose colorful comments about modern art would make Clement Greenberg collapse in tears.

Museums and art galleries present works of art as pinnacles of human creation and the result of social and cultural changes throughout history, but they usually don’t tell the viewer why. Sure, if you have a bachelor’s degree in art history you might know what the Wikipedia page on a work says, but often viewers are left to look at art without any context. Cultural context and narrative is often left out of art exhibits, leaving viewers with more questions than answers.

One trend in the field of museum studies that I am all for is the emphasis on education and interactivity. This doesn’t just mean school programs for preschoolers, but programs that invite members of the public into the museum space for workshops, open discussions, and activities revolving around art.

I want to talk at museums, I want to be inspired to question by own opinions on art and culture, I want to be informed without being patronized, and I want to feel like I am entering a space of discussion rather than silent contemplation. When I visit art exhibits, I talk and I laugh and I try to invite my family to share their opinions with me. I already know what I think about art, and what art historians think about art. I want to know what everyone else thinks. 

For the time being, you can find me in the kids’ sections of museums, where there are questions on the wall inspiring people to think critically about the works on display and you are applauded for saying “that’s ugly” to a painting while dressed in period clothing.

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