Museums everywhere are striving to reinvent themselves for the modern world.
They have long come to the conclusion that a museum must be more than just a set of quiet rooms filled with stuffed animals, suits of armor and ancient tablets. To compete with all the other attractions out there, from major league sports to video games, you have to add a little wow. The former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thomas Hoving, released the title of his memoir Make the mummy dance.
Some museums hire famous architects – “star architects” – to design new wings or construct new buildings. Others are updating their exhibits to include educational videos, activities for children, interactive screens and QR codes with internet links. Many do both.
Sometimes, it works great. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris, located at the Beaux Arts railway station, has been attracting crowds of visitors for decades now. One of Spain’s main tourist attractions, the Frank Gehry Dramatic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao brings thousands of visitors to the Basque Country and motivates other museums to strive for the “Bilbao Effect”.
Other times, it’s very disastrous. Take, for example, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. It officially opened in 2014, becoming the first major national museum outside of Ottawa. I managed to visit for the first time this summer. The museum is in a prime location right next to The Forks, a charming waterside spot at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Its creators ran a major architectural competition and chose a design by Antoine Preddock of New Mexico. Ultimately turning his vision into reality will cost about $350 million, a large portion of it from government coffers.
Wrapped in reflective glass, offset by a sand-colored stone, the structure rises from the ground like some sci-fi castle. A tower, the Israeli Asper Tower of Hope, named after the media magnate who championed the project, protrudes from the top, giving visitors a panoramic view of the city. Mr. Preddock explained the concept to the Toronto Star in 2009. “Often, oppressed people are tied to the land. Earth is the possibility of our anchoring. From there, you ascend to heaven.”
Whether the massive structure graces the Winnipeg skyline is a matter of opinion. But the real disappointment comes when you enter the doors, which approach a trench-like forbidden passage.
Visitors travel through a series of galleries linked by long, sloping lanes, flanked by translucent alabaster. The exhibits are scattered. This is a museum of concepts, not artifacts. The Meditation Garden, with its dark basalt rock, is unattractive. It’s hard to spot the lanes. Navigating this vast space is a challenge, the rangers admit. The function follows the form here, not the other way around.
There are touch screens, frequent videos, and backlit photos, but they are of little value in terms of information. What must be a poignant journey through the long struggle for human dignity is instead a swift treatment of a deep subject. It’s a huge missed opportunity, and it shows how far some museums have deviated from their goal on the road to Bilbao.
Museum-goers are not children. Even in our distracted world, they are patient enough to accept a complex story, as told so vividly. The best museums guide them through it confidently and rationally, respecting their intelligence even while impressing them.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in Drumheller, Alta, “the dinosaur capital of the world,” does it brilliantly, taking visitors through eons and filling the journey with facts about everything from the great extinctions to how a buried skeleton was made. Kids love it, but there’s enough meat on the bone for everyone.
The building itself is non-descript, a low structure that merges with the landscape of the surrounding badlands. No one cares. People don’t come to admire the genius of some architectural upstart. They come to learn and have fun – and this museum shows that you can do both.
Likewise, the recently expanded Winnipeg Art Gallery does a great job of displaying its excellent collection of Inuit art. Visitors navigate through a series of bright, well-lit and well-organized galleries. A towering case of Inuit carvings greets them at the entrance, with a touch screen display for those who wish to explore them more closely.
Yes, museums have outgrown documents worn in glass cabinets and marble busts on pedestals, but they still have to challenge and inform us, not care. Let’s hope they don’t forget that in their quest to be contemporary.
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