Quiet or busy, a dilemma for museums

Visiting a gallery is now rarely a contemplative art experience given the number of visitors

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2012, 4:22am

When I was a little boy, a wooden box called the radio fascinated me. I was convinced that little people were living inside the box. As soon as we gave them the signal by turning the button, these little people would talk, sing and play music. Listening to the radio while imagining what was going on inside the box was magical.

Today, the ritual of focused listening has become an exclusive activity inside a music hall. In the information age, our senses are overloaded and our ability to concentrate is diminishing. There is little room for a focused sensual experience except at a space specially set up for the purpose.

At a dinner with Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I complained about a recent visit to his museum.

It was early in the morning on a weekday, but a long line of visitors was already waiting to get in. Inside, the galleries were packed. One had to swim through a sea of people in order to view favourite works.

I told Glenn how much I missed the days when I could sit quietly in front of a Matisse and indulge in his rhythmic lines and lush colours, or get overwhelmed, undisturbed, by Picasso's Guernica.

In a way, it is a difficult complaint for a museum director to handle. It is precisely because of the success of the museum that so many visitors are attracted to it, although I am sure Glenn understands how the experience of viewing can be distracted by a big crowd.

Such a dichotomy is in fact the inherent schizophrenic nature of museums, which is best characterised by the establishment of the two major public museums in Europe in the 18th century - the British Museum and the Louvre.

While the former was esoterically exclusive for the learned, the latter was a conscious effort to make art accessible to every French citizen. For a long time, museums tended to retain that elitist persona.

With competition from the other fields for the audience's attention, and expectations of good returns from public funding, museums are under pressure to attract visitors.

On the one hand, a museum takes on the role of a leisure attraction; on the other there is still a strong desire to continue the tradition of a space for the learned, a resort for "disinterested contemplation".

Some might point out that popularity does not necessarily mean compromising on quality, and it is a crime not to recognise the cultural needs of the masses.

Within the cultural profession, critique against the white cube of museum that alienates art from everyday reality remains a common topic. However, there are works that demand a quiet space.

The lack of contemplative space is one of the biggest problems of contemporary urban living, especially in cities such as Hong Kong.

The other day I visited the Hong Kong Museum of Art in Tsim Sha Tsui. There was hardly anyone in the galleries. Wandering around the artworks with no one nearby was a delightful luxury. The question remains: if a museum continues to be a contemplative space, is it a failure or a success?

Oscar Ho is director of Chinese University's cultural management programme