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How Not to Review a Museum

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If the Times really wants to alienate everyone who doesn’t identify as an east coast sophisticate, Edward Rothstein provides a good starting point:

An East Coast visitor’s first reaction, provincially enough, has to be skepticism: does Colorado even have that much history?

Enough history to justify a $110 million museum — the History Colorado Center — which is opening on Saturday, with plans for 40,000 square feet of exhibitions costing an additional $33 million, state-of-the-art technological displays, a research center and archival storage for over 15 million items, including more than 750,000 photographs and 200,000 artifacts?

The state is under 140 years old, and even if you include the ancient cliff dwellings preserved in Mesa Verde National Park, there is little documented history before the incursion of outsiders in the 18th century.

Yet this building, designed by the Colorado architect David Tryba of Tryba Architects, is meant to be as monumental as the museum’s ambition.

And then ends:

But in the meantime, put aside provincialism. Colorado clearly has enough history to justify such a center. And enough history to make a visitor wish that the exploration were more complete and less ready to offer revision without real reinterpretation.

Well, thank you Mr. East Coast Elite for giving your seal of approval that a state like Colorado has History! As a native of Oregon, will you please fly out to Portland and tell us whether we have enough history so I can know whether to write my book or not?

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  • I really don’t know how to respond to that, other than “Christ, what an asshole.”

    What do you bet he spent the whole interview talking twice as loud as normal and using really small words? “I AM FROM BIG CI-TY. I WENT TO I-VY LEAGUE SCHOOL. WHERE IS YOUR HEAP BIG CHIEF?”

    • c u n d gulag

      He in Anaheim with the rest of the Indians.

  • Uncle Kvetch

    An East Coast visitor’s first reaction, provincially enough, has to be skepticism: does Colorado even have that much history?

    He’s clearly a GOP mole…the mirror image of the guy who was blogging on Wonkette about his work in the bowels of Fox News. His mission is to confirm every stupid-ass right-wing stereotype about “the elites.” And he’s awfully good at it.

  • Dave

    From where I’m sitting, in a country where you can hardly go a couple of miles without hitting a building that pre-dates Columbus by a few centuries, I’d say this was a two-bald-men-and-a-comb situation.

    But one of the bald men is definitely an asshole.

  • 2 points: rothstein generally does a better job reviewing interpretive museum exhibits than any other daily paper reviewer i’ve seen (indeed, kudos to the times for having an exhibition reviewer).

    and the second point: i’m fond of saying that no donor in museum history has ever given money for custodial work. whether he phrased it elegantly or not, i think there’s a legitimate point here: is it a good idea to build a museum as large as this on a topic (history) that doesn’t have the broadest of appeals?

    erik is a fan of museums, as am i, and i’m sure he’s had the same experience i’ve had of waling through very large state history museums with excellent content used by no one and facing a budget crisis.

    • I am actually very close friends with several of the people putting this museum together. The goal here is in fact to put together a museum based upon the broadest of appeals. They went all in on visitor surveys and other metrics about what people want to see. Whether that works or not in the end, who knows. But that’s the explicit goal. The extent to which Rothstein really understood that, I don’t know.

      • erik, fwiw, part of my professional work involves new museum and exhibit development, so let me wax on for a few moments about some of the issues here.

        first off, i love history, but i love baseball too, and that doesn’t mean that i can credibly claim that baseball is more popular than football. art museums and science museums far outdraw history museums, and that is likely to be the case forever, despite the good intentions of whoever may be putting the museum together.

        second, my joke about custodial services and donors gets to a critical point that many museum organizers prefer not to think about: museums are expensive to operate. they are labor-intensive and they tend to be big buildings with expensive energy requirements (as you undoubtedly realize, historic artifacts require very tightly bounded hvac systems, and historic documents have very specific limitations in terms of lighting and what is acceptable).

        third, there is something of an arms race, which is the flip side of your original point: someone sits around in one of these planning meetings and says “well, the north dakota state history museum is 100000 square feet, and our story is so much richer than theirs, so how can we not be 100000 square feet or more?”

        so my general point is that state history museums should be physically smaller, which will be more sustainable; insofar as they are interested in the broadest outreach, the place to go is cyberspace, through online archives, podcasts, and interpretive apps (as a side note, the marin county history museum has just introduced an app that looks extremely promising:

        http://www.marinij.com/sanrafael/ci_20392954/marin-history-museum-launch-mobile-app-featuring-marin).

        so, i wish your friends the best of luck and i hope the museum works out, but my guess is that 5-10 years from now, they will be facing cutbacks and muttering that the place is too big and expensive to operate.

        • When I think about the Ohio history museum, I think about how much they suffer from a monstrosity of a building that they just can’t fill. So I don’t know. I haven’t seen it yet so I can’t say. But I can see where that’s an issue.

          • and you lead me to think about one more issue: once you spend big bucks on an architectural gesture, you end up having to spend big bucks on exhibits, the upshot of which is that either the museum doesn’t get filled or exhibits stay in place forever (despite changes in interpretive perspective) because it’s just too damn expensive to redo them completely.

            don’t get me wrong: the value add of a history museum is the exposure to the real, and there is no substituting for that, but realistic planning about the long term is, i’m afraid, in short supply when new state history museums start getting planned!

        • Dana

          I didn’t realize the size-of-housing problem was so widespread (but I’m not a museum guy). The Historical Society of DC moved into a large, historic building to accommodate the Society and a new DC city history museum under one roof, but when the projected 100,000 annual visitors turned out to be 15,000 actual visitors, the museum shut down and the Historical Society was stuck with an $11,000 monthly utility bill for a building 5x larger than it actually needed. The recession put an end to city funding and the historical society’s been closed for more than a year. One of many cautionary tales, I guess.

          • dana, exactly! that happens to be an extreme version, but yes, that’s a real problem.

            typically, by the way, the attendance estimate isn’t 100,000; if you see the report, it will say something like “if the museum is programmed and promoted properly with an appropriate quality experience for visitors and refreshment of exhibit content on a regular basis, then on a regularized basis the likely attendance will range from 60,000 – 100,000,” and then someone seizes on the 100,000 and ignores all the caveats about programming and promotion (both of which cost serious operating dollars) and the next thing you know…

            you’ve got what you described.

  • chip

    Wow the NYT actually admitting for once that its coverage of everything outside of Manhattan is extremely provincial!!

    Though I suspect he’s saying that tongue in cheek…

    • Joseph Slater

      I’m 50-50 on whether that was an attempt to be toungue-in-cheek/self-deprecating that didn’t come out right, or genuine elitist provincialism.

  • DocAmazing

    The state is under 140 years old, and even if you include the ancient cliff dwellings preserved in Mesa Verde National Park, there is little documented history before the incursion of outsiders in the 18th century.

    Archaeology and anthropology–discarded in one sentence! This guy’s good. I mean like Jonah good.

    • docamazing, you have no reason to realize this, but in the world of state history museums, very few think archaeology and anthropology are their beat. older state history museums, in particular, think that state history began when white people showed up.

      • Even the brand new New Mexico state history museum moves past the pre-Columbian period shockingly fast.

        • firefall

          Pre-columbian is an unfortunate term, it makes it sound like Precambrian.

  • Slocum

    Its not just the insult to Colorado or other “small places,” but the misunderstanding that a museum has to be about the monumental and famous.

    Here are a couple cool, obscure museums around me:
    http://www.thebestinheritage.com/presentations/search/museum-of-textile-and-clothing-industry-(budapest),114.html

    http://www.charleshotel.hu/budapestinfo/budapest-museum-of-gas.en.html

    http://www.museum.hu/museum/index_en.php?ID=66

    Things like this deserve respect, even if we laugh at the phrase “Budapest Museum of Gas” (which, of course, one can’t help but doing).

  • ploeg

    That’s it. Tear down the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum!

  • Aaron Baker

    When I was graduate school (in New England), one of my fellow-students had grown up in Rhode Island and had nothing but patronizing contempt for the Midwest. Then he visited Chicago (my home city). “A great town!” he exclaimed, “A fabulous town! But you’ve got to admit . . . the rest of the Midwest is a pit!”

    From which I concluded that the East Coast bias is so deep-seated that even disconfirming evidence gets accommodated or shoehorned somehow.

    • ploeg

      If age counted for anything, there’s scores of towns in the Midwest that are far older than Chicago (for example, Detroit or St. Louis or even Green Bay ferchrissake).

    • Gus

      Native New Yorkers are among the most provincial people I’ve ever met.

  • firefall

    America is old enough to have history museums?

  • TravelerOnline

    Check out the Marin History Museum App Howard mentions above, great example of taking advantage of cyber-world for more exhibition space.

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