Quiet contemplation hard to come by in art museums

Silence is hard to come by these days. A trip to the theater is often about hearing more of your chatty, “interactive” fellow theater-goers’ conversations than the dialogue on stage. Movie theaters are now places where audience members feel entitled to talk on the cellphone or dissect character motivation at full volume, as if they’d never left their living room.

One place you might still hope to find solitude and the mental room for contemplation is the museum or art gallery, places that seem to demand a different kind of behavior than in a restaurant or a mall or other bustling public space.

But like so many other places, museums have fallen under the sway of our harried, talkative, cellphone-centric, go-go-go world.

Several recent visits to the High Museum have proven that museums are no longer considered places for quiet reflection. On a trip to see the drawing show “Sprawl!” a small child played a solo game of leap frog, bounding with two feet locked together, through a High gallery, letting out a resounding thud each time he touched down. His mother walked ahead, oblivious to the effect her child was having. A couple sat in the gallery speaking as if they were in a crowded city park, sharing cell phone photos and engaging in animated conversation on a bench once intended for rest or extended contemplation of the artwork. A family shouted to each other from across the gallery, telegraphing their thoughts and plans for a room full of people to hear. Gone were the discrete whispers and acknowledgement of other people’s presence.

Granted, this behavior doesn’t seem unique to museums: Citizens of the modern world know that a refusal to acknowledge the presence of other human beings (hello Atlanta highways) and adjust behavior accordingly is rampant.

But there’s something seriously wrong when we have become so terminally distracted and unable to settle down long enough to experience the fundamental pleasures the museum or gallery offers: of looking and thinking deeply about the artwork before our eyes.

This has meant a not necessarily happy state of affairs for the gallery owners, artists, art enthusiasts, critics and even security guards who depend upon an art world founded on certain unspoken rules. Those rules? Take cellphone and other disruptive conversations outside the gallery; show respect for other visitors’ presence; hands-off the artwork; keep children under control; mind your selfie stick, or better still, leave it at home.

Maybe, like the slow food movement — which relishes the pleasures of the table and taking the time to appreciate real, carefully prepared food — it’s time for a slow art movement, and a shift in how we experience museums and galleries.

There are undoubtedly some positives about the rising din of Atlanta’s museums, as more and more people make art part of their lives. The American Alliance of Museums reports that most museums it surveyed showed increases in attendance year over year since 2009. The High’s attendance has fluctuated between 350,000 and 430,000 per year since the completion of its Renzo Piano addition in 2005, when the yearly average was 295,000.

“This is a good thing,” says Louise Shaw, curator of Atlanta’s David J. Spencer CDC Museum.

“However, museums are attracting more and more people who are less experienced in museum-going. Hence, they don’t have long-term knowledge about boundaries of behavior. For instance, I heard a story about a young couple with a baby pulling out some drawers containing collections sealed with Plexiglas, and changing their child’s diaper on the drawer!” says Shaw.

Museums are partially to blame for giving mixed messages, she says.

Shaw points to museums targeting children that encourage interactivity with the exhibits (think children’s museums or science museums, which can be quite noisy and active).

“When the same family goes to an art museum, both the children and the parents don’t necessarily know to modify their behavior.”

The same goes for college night events, used to attract younger art patrons by creating a party vibe with cocktails, loud music and entertainment.

Annette Cone-Skelton, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, bemoans the related decline in the opportunity for reflection in the museum and gallery space over time.

“In this digital Internet era, images are fast-moving … it is so fast paced that the audience does not slow down long enough for contemplative thought. Audiences can’t even sit still without using their smart phones to entertain them. In fact, museum visitors seem to want to be entertained and have a more interactive experience with the art and with each other.”

Among the common annoyances she’s encountered are “children running in the galleries, oversized bags, students taking notes with ink pens. Children and adults talking loudly even when there are other visitors in the same room. Visitors using the galleries as a place to carry on long cellphone conversations or hold a business meeting.”

Most museums have guards in place to keep such behavior in check.

Stanley Gray, director of security at the High, says his staff will intervene with “any behavior that puts the safety of another person or the artwork in jeopardy or could have a detrimental effect on another patron’s experience at the museum.”

But smaller galleries and museums have to rely on other visitors or the gallery staff to police bad behavior.

Even Julia Forbes, who as head of museum interpretation and digital engagement for the High promotes the institution’s online presence, has a social media pet peeve: the selfie stick.

“Visitors get so excited to get a great photo that they stick them across stanchions and over top of works of art,” she says. “If the camera fell off, or they dropped the stick, damage could come to the work of art. So for that reason, we remain very cautious and prohibit them in the galleries.”

While there are many reasons to lament how different the museum-going experience has become, changes in behavior aren’t necessarily always bad. In some cases, they show how fundamentally these cultural institutions have worked themselves into people’s lives.

“Visitors seem to be more comfortable in the museum environment and see the galleries as a gathering place to meet friends and socialize,” offers Annette Cone-Skelton.

For her part, Forbes welcomes how social media has in many ways enlarged the museum experience.

“A change that I think is very exciting is a shift to more interaction and ‘sharing’ in the galleries. Smartphones have opened up great new avenues of engagement. Instead of buying postcards, visitors are taking photographs of works of art they love and sharing them on social media,” she says.

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