Monday, November 24, 2014

How to Visit a Museum as a Tourist

First, arrive early.  This won't help avoid the crowds, but at least you'll be out in time for happy hour.  I arrived at the British Museum about twenty minutes before the majority of its exhibits opened, declined buying a £5 map, a £3 bottle of water, a £12 Rosetta stone tea cozy, and the London Bridge and made my way towards the entrance to the Egyptian Treasures exhibit.  Just in time to join the ranks of an elementary school class and a tour group of elderly Frenchmen, along with the myriad others like myself.  And at last the docents withdrew, the doors swung wide, and we swept through the threshold and into a gallery of human achievement.  Before me, encased in a glass cube, stood the black mass of the Rosetta stone.  The Rosetta Stone.  That artifact which opened the dark crypt of Egyptian mystery, that cipher to all the sphinx's riddles, that great translator of the ancients...   
I stood in awe... and directly in front of someone's camera.  

This was a trend I became increasingly aware of throughout the day.  Crossing any open space meant dodging a grid of invisible line-of-sights, ducking and weaving from one hall to the another.  But this isn't going to be a screed against incessant amateur photography.  While preventing this behavior may seem like a good idea, it would be more trouble than it's worth. (Although attempts have been made by putting all paintings behind a thin sheet of glass, thus, no matter where you stand, some part of the picture will be in glare.)  Rather, we must ask why people are taking these photos.  The answer, obviously, is to share them, and prove to others that they were there.  Yet it won't be too long before they catch on and realize that nearly every item in the museum has been extensively photographed by professional photographers (books of these photographs available for £15 at the gift shop).  It is only a matter of time before the discerning museum goer will realize the futility of the picture-taking.  This is not good news, because for many people, this will eliminate the need to visit the museum at all!   

So what is the modern museum director to do?  How does one make a museum endlessly photogenic?  The answer lies in the question.  Make the museum itself worth photographing.  One could start by arranging the items not by region or epoch, but by complementary or shocking juxtapositions.  The Rosetta Stone next to an Enigma machine.  A sarcophagus in a room decorated by Warhol paintings.  The permutations are endless, and, with frequent changes in layout, would inspire repeat visits, and plenty of snapshots.

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