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"The age of museums is not to be confused with the age of art or the age of art appreciation." Judith H. Dobrzynski
Several years ago, when I was new to London, I met friends, and friends of friends, to see an art exhibition. Our host was an affable and inviting entrepreneur with a surprising long suit in art history. With every introduction he seemed, more and more, to have assembled a classic group of chronic overachieversexuberant learners who had never met a test that didn't like them or a grandmother they couldn't charm. Everyone was full of boundless enthusiasm, professed art admirers if not aficionados.
Two hours and twenty dollars later, we left dejected and very little the wiser, one person complaining of "museum legs" and seeming more exhausted than after a harrowing soccer match. It was almost as if we had been pelted by art world intelligentsia wielding tiny knee hammers. Although I was a museum worker at the time, I too felt that gnawing tiredness and helpless pull downward on my heels. The physical sensation recalled an unending Suzuki violin Fiddle-a-Thon at the Hickory Springs Mall at the age of eight. But here, gravity was accompanied by gravitas, as it were, in the form of post-art confusion and general psychic deflation. The whole experience made us wonder: Were we uncultured losers with no stamina, or was this something beyond us?
It was early 2001 and museums were experiencing staggering successbuilding expansions, ambitious programs, and record numbers of visitors. But I wondered if our weariness pointed to a schism between museums' outward success and their individual impact. In short, how was it possible that museums weredoing so well as a field when I kept meeting people who seemed to feel skeptical, uninvolved, or just plain bored?
At that juncture I truly thought of museums as public institutions; I loved their potential almost as much as that of the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. But it was impossible, seeing friends sacked out, looking existentially confused, not to see creeping trust issues. Maybe boredom, especially with regard to modern art, reflected skepticism toward the judgment of the museum, the critic, or the artist behind the work. The problem wasn't as simple as a knee-jerk aversion to contemporary art, but a more general and maddeningly vague sense that something was a little broken with the mechanism of trust.
From the perspective of a generalist visitor, boredom can be tricky to explore because that can be, well, boring. The phenomenon of "museum legs" seemed to speak to a power dynamic between museums and their visitors, between the arts and the general public, or between art as a rarefied discipline and as a universal language of expression. How was it possible we lived in one of the most overwhelmingly visual ages of all time, and the very institutions that could ground us were causing otherwise curious people to glaze over in mental stupor?