MOMA lobby, New York

The over-population and over-use of the museum space is an issue that needs addressing. In James Cuno’s 2004 publication Whose Muse?, a group of (mostly American) museum directors pleaded for the museum as a place of contemplation. Arguably, their approach is primarily valid today in metropolitan terms in museums such as the Frick Collection, appealing to an older public interested in older art. For some modern art collections, particularly those in major tourist cities, the public wishing to score a fashionable site has become so large that any quiet personal experience is effectively unachievable. It is not just the number of visitors that makes an impact: in an age when neo-liberal values influence our conduct, the notion that we might be governed by any polite restriction on our behaviour in a public space is undermined.

What is more, the predominance and ready availability in our society of visual images can mean that apart from the (sometimes over-exposed) icon, works in a gallery risk becoming another form of rapidly-absorbed consumer fodder. Ironically, the relationship with other forms of the arts has been reversed. Eighteenth-century opera-goers talked through performances, only concentrating on famous arias: visitors at many contemporary art museums now often behave similarly, pausing only to take pictures of celebrity works, whereas opera and music performances command reverent silence.

Does this matter? Is there any need to suggest to visitors, not that they should behave in an inhibited “museum” way and resort to whispers, but that visiting a museum is a social shared experience, in which consideration for strangers (and communication, perhaps) is appropriate? Is there any reason for people to postpone incessant mobile communication? Is the viewer’s experience of a visual work diminished if their sense of hearing is constantly assailed, or their vision interrupted by unbearably high light levels?

I think the answer is yes, in each case. Not because museums should be reserved for the few, or made inaccessible or forbidding. But because, as Neil MacGregor [director of the British Museum] has emphasised, looking at art is a difficult experience, one that has to be learnt and that requires concentration. Little art was created specifically for the museum or gallery, at least until recently, and the museum is not necessarily the best place to appreciate it. If the museum experience becomes one in which the visitor is regularly concerned with negotiating a way through the crowds and avoiding noise, the status of the museum as a vehicle for displaying art becomes highly questionable.

Giles Waterfield
The Art Newspaper