[Photo: Antioch mosaic at the Worcester Art Museum with clown by Honoré Daumier]
I was visiting the Worcester Art Museum for the first time—a robust hill of cut stone harboring an impressive collection. My artistic antennae were bristling and I was feeling fully receptive as I jauntily sprung indoors. The museum radiates into troves of worldly treasure from a central skylit courtyard, hemmed by a renaissance colonnade. Cordoned off in the middle of this courtyard is a lavish Antioch mosaic, and on the day I was present, a black scaffold of sound equipment was being erected suspiciously to the flank of this ancient masterpiece.
I ventured into a gallery of beatific Buddhas and had several minutes of transportive mystery before the western world tapped rudely on my shoulder in the form of Starbucks pop-folk. The sound breached the heavy doors and made it impossible to concentrate on the timeless grace of far-Eastern relics, instead drawing my eyes towards some loathsome musical duo, trussed in plaid and bobbing their bearded heads.
I fled the intrusive concert to the second floor European Art galleries, to the safety of Courbet and Corinth. No sooner had I found my pleasure again than a pirate accosted me. This was in fact a security guard speaking incipient directions with eye-rolling ARRGHS tacked on. I backed away from this saddening employee and darted to another room where an artist at easel was setting up to do a masters copy. This would have been a phenomenon I’d typically attribute to the health of a museum—seeing artists make use of the collection, sharpening their skills in communion with the great works of art. But here the artist had a sign dangling from her easel that designated her as an interactive feature bringing the artwork to life. She gave me a hungry smile and I immediately turned course.
This was not a holiday, this was early March, a Sunday. I could not pin any discernable reason for all this celebratory nonsense. As I was racking my brain for meaning, a docent posing as a scarecrow cornered me and began to consult me about the religiosity of an adjacent Zurburon, though I’d given him no conscious intimation to do so.
His little speech was interrupted by the mic-tapping sound check of a bangled songstress. She was posed so cleverly beneath the painting of a renaissance lute player. I skidaddled once more, realizing I’d find no peace in this museum on such a day.
My escape was cinematic while funhouse antics bombarded me at every turn. There may have even been cotton candy being vended. I made it back to the lobby but not before nearly being trampled by a tour guide on stilts.
This was one of the rare occasions when I’ve asked for a refund, stating that I had come with expectation of seeing art, and that alone. The ticket taker’s makeup went from happy to sad clown as I was issued back my money.
Why should a grand repository of art that sports the largest Antioch mosaic feel inadequate and need to ornament its calendar with sideshows? No doubt, rising costs and a decline in ticket sales as cultural tastes drift towards superhero movies have created this nervous scramble to beg for attention. The struggle to maintain a sense of relevance and evolve as a collection alongside a changing audience must be massive. But this race to appease the most demographics and appeal to the least likely visitor seems to burn the house in hopes of saving it. Like the pushup bra or spiked hair, instead of impressing, such institutions convey an image of apology that says, “I can change, I’m not as boring as you think I am, I’m whatever you want me to be.”
This cultural neutering is not endemic to the Worchester Art Museum, but is visible across the board. Check just about any museum website and you will invariably be greeted with notices of upcoming shows, workshops, and special calendar events well before any mention of their permanent collections. There is an inherent understanding of the value in a permanent collection but we’ve learned to only trumpet what is hot, new and now. There is no place like a good permanent museum collection to step clear out of the linear currents of time and float above the ages.
Perhaps it is altogether too crabby and purist to want my museums uncompromised by audio tours and gift shops and multimedia juxtapositions, but I believe the most valuable experience comes simply between art and eyes alone. It is hard to look at art, if you want to make a real connection and derive real meaning—and it should be difficult as muscles grow by flexion. All extraneous activity and ephemera is only a detractor to forming that rare experience. Would that our museums trust in unparalleled joys of quiet wonder.