Open Museums

In the most recent issue of [Make][make] magazine, Cory Doctorow finds himself face to face with the central contradiction of many contemporary museums: charged with spreading/sharing art and knowledge, most museums simultaneously prohibit unauthorized replications of the works in their collections. In the case of fragile artifacts, this makes sense, Doctorow notes, but in this particular instance he finds himself in a science museum. What sense then? A flash of light will do brass and stainless steel no harm.

The answer comes from a curator: the museum makes money on sales of postcards and books. Doctorow asserts that this is no answer, no respectable answer for such institutions. Two readers [take him to task][task], pointing out that the world is a bit more complex than the scene he describes. First, intellectual property is a mine field to navigate — with more mines being added every day. (If only it were more “minds.”) The second reader points out that the financial underpinnings of most museums are not so sure and the sale of such baubles and books are a necessary part of any institution’s revenue. In short, keep those post cards coming because they keep the doors open.

I think both readers make a good point, but they miss the larger point, and perhaps the bit of irony with which Doctorow writes: that’s not the way things should be. Instead, wouldn’t it be more interesting to imagine an *open museum*. I’m not entirely sure what it would look like, or even that it would succeed, and I’m pretty sure that many of the denizens of today’s museums probably won’t like what my vision looks like, but let me try it on for size.

Funnily enough, I’m going to start with an actual museum and with an actual event that happened this past weekend. UL-Lafayette, thanks to some generous local patrons, now has a state of the art [museum][muse], which has three gallery spaces, two on the first floor and one on the second. In addition to these galleries, there is a capacious, if also somewhat broken up, lobby and a second floor bookshop space which has additional display space as well as a terrific view of the [older museum][old] building designed by noted local architect, A. Hays Town.

The older museum is everything the newer one is not: it is a plantation structure with small galleries. The newer facility is spacious, for the most part. Tragically, Gallery 2 is a cave. It is cramped and because of its cramped nature it always feels like all the light being poured out of its many fixtures is simply trying to overcome a darkness that constantly threatens the visitor from every corner. It is also the gallery which they chose to house the annual senior art show, packing in both fine and graphical art exhibits of over a dozen young artists into a space that measures on a good day something like 20 by 40 feet.

This past Saturday was the opening for the show, and it was, not to be too redundant, *packed*. Despite the highly efficient HVAC unit of a modern museum and an overcast day that kept Louisiana’s subtropical sun at bay, visitors to Gallery 2 on Saturday afternoon had to move quickly through the exhibits both because the press of people was so great and because it was one way to keep air moving. Why were all those people in there? For purely parochial reasons, of course. Most of us there, I would bet, were there to see the work of either our students or our children.