Museums, Memory & Change

So I have a story to tell about a lesson learned.  Here goes . . .

In last Friday’s Commercial Appeal I saw that the Memphis Symphony Orchestra was going to perform Modest Mussorgsky‘s Pictures at an Exhibition.  This piece of music holds a deep fascination for me.  At the age of 14, Pictures at an Exhibition was the first classical music I ever heard.  Since then, I have listened to the half hour score a couple hundred times, either as the original piano piece or as orchestrated by Ravel.  Pictures at an Exhibition is the most powerful piece of music I have ever heard.   Here is the story of all that.

So when I read about the upcoming performance, my wife Emma and I decided to go.  I had not heard the piece played live by a full symphony in about 30 years.  I was excited about the upcoming performance.  I thought the experience might even supersede the incredible Bob Dylan concert from earlier this summer.

This past Saturday was the Symphony performance.  The show began with several movements from Michael Gandolifi’s The Garden of Cosmic Speculations – a pleasant and surreal experience.  Then there was 25 minutes of violin and orchestra concertos that were relaxing and perfectly executed.  Next was the intermission and then there was Pictures at an Exhibition.

Before beginning the piece, Conductor Mei-Ann Chen introduced Jose Francisco Salgado from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.  Salgado talked about the iMaxesque visual performance that was going to play along with the performance that evening.  The visual was going to contain lots of images of the cosmos, galaxies, and other such things.  I listened in complete disconnect.  What did these celestial images have to do with the piece written in the 1800s by Mussorgsky to commemorate the death of a painter friend?  Or my history with the piece that included traipsing through art museums over the years, from my first experience at Cincinnati Art Museum, or the Art Institute of Chicago where I saw my first Van Gogh, to the my favorite, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis?  or how Pictures at an Exhibition played in my head when walking through the cityscapes of my life travels?   None of my history with the piece were remotely related to cosmic imagery.

The musicality of the live performance on Saturday surpassed my iPod experiences with the piece while mountain biking, or now as I write this, or any other sound system Mussorgsky has played on over the past years.  I kept my eyes closed during the concert, trying to get in touch with my expectations for the piece.  I was distracted by the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the audience fixated on the celestial images that broke the reverence I held for the piece.

I talked with Emma about the experience as we left the concert hall.  She thoroughly enjoyed the visual experience and was not buying my point of view.  She raved about how the visual was linked to pace of the music – how it all flowed together.  But the processing of my reaction hit me over the head like a ton of bricks.  I had my history with the piece.  I now experienced what all the folks who come to museums and want to see what they saw as a kid, or thirty years ago.  My response to the concert was no different from the folks who come to the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa where I am the Director and want to see the staged Native American performance in the reconstructed village they remember from the 1970s.  I thought about a video from The Pinky Show – “We Love Museums . . . Do Museums Love Us Back?”   The cartoon mockumentary of sorts notes that the museum’s job is “To treat each object in the collection like it is frozen in time.  Nothing is allowed to get old and fall apart, which of course is impossible and goes against the laws of nature.”

To quote Pogo “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  I have a new perspective on linking past performance to the present and into the future.  I noted to Emma that had I known in advance about the visual show during the concert performance, I could have reconciled myself to the reality, and even enjoyed the fresh approach.  I think of the occasional letter I get from a disgruntled visitor to our museum whose expectations weren’t met based on their visit from 20 years ago.  Though I can respond about our new exhibits, the hands-on lab, arboretum, herb garden and more, that does not address their expectations not being met.  I understand that place better now.

How do you prepare visitors for change?

  3 comments for “Museums, Memory & Change

  1. Bill Kolb
    September 19, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Thanks for your candor. I want nothing but nineteenth century composers and no extra visuals, gimmicks to grab the youth etc. But Sunday at GPAC I kept my eyes open and got blown away. The cosmic images were wonder-full. My interest in astronomy went from a 2 to a 9. The images enhanced the music. My wife can’t believe that I was at all open to something so new. I can definitely identify with you! Thanks for you article.

    Bill Kolb

  2. September 20, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks for your comment. On reflecting a bit more on this, and playing with an iPad app by Bjork with sounds and visions, I realize how much I compartmentalize my expectations on such experiences. In many ways this seems akin to walking into a sushi restaurant to be told that we only serve pasta. It seems irrelevant even whether I like pasta cause I came here for sushi. & vice versa. A teachable moment for me on being cognizant of such very real visitor issues and how to deal with them.

  3. Frank Bodkin
    October 3, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    The public loves to see old photos of the way things really were, I know I am drawn to old photographs of just about anything because of their time capsule quality of catching a single moment in time. With just that thought in mind I created a picture poster with text on the back explaing some of the history of the Wickliffe Mounds, almost entirely of things at the site that can no longer be seen. This is a free download able pdf poster on the Wickliffe Mounds web (their web site is being upgraded this month and currently not available but will be back up soon with the historic poster). Encourage todays museum vistors to share their photos of past visits to the site and it might even generate enough material to create a poster or a neat photo exhibit or exhibition at the Museum. A rotating photo gallery of visitor images (crediting the people who took the photos naturally) could be a very cool and relatively cheap exhibit to create and maintain physcially or as an electronic version on the web. Now with the large size and quality of video eletronic photo frames that can loop with narration and sound an interesting traveling Museum is even possible. Electronic picture frames takes up a lot less space than a whole photo gallery and more easily updated. I have been wanting to get an Eagle Scout to take on a project to build a portable panel display (with small artifact in cases) creating a very modular and portable museum display and mutiple electronic video frames for narration including video and pictures. A mini Ken Burns type of presentation in a highly portable and updatable format, a truely modern traveling museum exhibit that looks good wheter in the museum or on the road.

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