Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Seven seconds in a museum

The night before, I'd told the kids on the trip that when we'd be at the St. Francis museum they should be sure to see the ghost shirt on display because ghost shirts and dresses were part of the apparel of the dancers assembled at Wounded Knee, where we'd be visiting later that day. "Ghost shirts are simple, not extravagant," I said, "and they often feature birds taking wing." The whole Ghost Dance idea was that the people, hungry and afraid, would take off, experience a whole new world reassembled with buffalo and ancestors--and no white men.

The next morning, the ghost shirt at St. Francis Museum was nowhere to be seen. I was heart-broken. The director, I was told, chose not to show it in the design the museum was now taking, the guide told me. Without crying. I could have. 

Seemed strange to me to pack away something as special as the ghost shirt, but the guide said the director had begun a policy of revamping the whole museum every three years. Things get moved in; things get moved out. The museum gets a face lift every three years. 

When I stopped shedding tears, I told myself such a pain-ridden idea held a kind of wisdom so profound you could kick yourself for not coming up with it yourself. Things must change.

I like museums. Okay, I admit it--I like 'em a heckuva lot. I visit them with a passion some might consider alarming. A couple weeks ago, I stumbled on a goofy one that still has me breathless, a "personal" museum created by a irascible gent named Jim with a lifelong penchant for old guns, old uniforms, old hunting trophies, old stuff, old anything, literally tons of it. If I were on the autism spectrum, that place's sensory shock would have driven me out the door in a minute.

Researchers have determined that, on average, visitors spend just seven seconds in front of any individual painting hung in a gallery or museum. Some not so, of course. Rembrandt's Night Watch has long been endowed its own room, the Nachtwachtzaal, "the Night Watch room" in the Rijksmuseum. If you visit the Louvre, you stand in line to see the Mona Lisa, right? Go early, I'm told. If you go in the afternoon, the place is a zoo.

But on average seven seconds. It takes longer to upload pictures. Seven seconds. Small town museums can ever so quickly start to look like some hoarder's attic if the amount of stuff on display isn't monitored. Most directors, like me, are on some level of actual hoarding. I can't imagine taking down that ghost shirt, but the director determined it was the right thing to do. I get the theory--things have to change. 

Seven seconds. If that's true--and I have no reason to think it isn't--doesn't that argue for fewer displays? Put it this way, if a museum (art or not art) has, say, 60 thousand artifacts, doesn't that seven-second thing suggest museum visitors will actually think less than if the museum has arranged six hundreds things? If a museum is just community attic--interesting stuff, of course--isn't the whole thing simply going to be a blurr? A junk drawer doesn't really tell a story, does it?

All of that is smart. All true. But yesterday I called the Jim whose "personal museum" I stumbled through a couple weeks ago, asked him if he'd be around next Friday. He said he will be. I told him I'd be there, early afternoon. Gotta see it again.

So I'm going back. The place is a mess. You wouldn't believe the stuff. You just wouldn't believe it.

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