I am just back from the annual meeting of the American Association of Museums (AAM) and full of good ideas and practical advice for how to make museums more central and more effective. But I’m also, as always, troubled by a nagging doubt: do we, as museum professionals take ourselves and our mandate too seriously? In our struggle to make our faltering institutions viable do we overstate the case for museums’ importance? And do the expectations that we set up when we are advocating and fundraising, that museums will solve society’s ills, ultimately come back to haunt us when the smaller and less important of us find it hard to spout those impressive economic impact figures garnered by our larger sister institutions?
As a museum educator I have always found silliness, irreverence and play to be important tools in engaging people with art. As a passionate participant in museums I have always found pleasure to be the guiding principle for evaluating a quality museum experience: the kind of pleasure that makes your heart race when you see relationships you find hard to name, or learn something new, or make meaningful contact and conversation with someone or something as a result of being in a setting apart from everyday life. I cherish the pleasure that I felt in going through the brilliant Cézanne and Beyond exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the pleasure of discovery and surprise.
Why do we find it hard to talk about this kind of pleasure as the core museum experience? It is indeed the kind of pleasure that connects people to people and to their own deeply human creative selves. It is not the cheap -thrills-pleasure of mass market entertainment. I think we all know it, and I think it is what keeps us working in this profession. But we have not quite figured out how to put it out there in a credible way in a society that has forgotten that learning is fun and that creative, inquisitive, irreverent human beings can nudge us out of the rigidities that cause conflict and distress. And perhaps the reason that we have not quite figured that out is that we, ourselves, as museum professionals, forget to—or perhaps are afraid to—use the pleasure principle to guide us in our work.