museums, reddit, and vernacular criticism.
A quick blog post, but a fun one. Last week, Mia Ridge suggested ways to search for your museum (or personal) website’s mentions on various corners of the internet. For example, to search for your museum on Reddit, you simple plug in your URL in after /domain/:
I thought this was a neat strategy to see what folks around the world are saying and sharing about museums. I decided to compare the listings for three New York museums: the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.
— Desi Gonzalez (@desigonz)August 12, 2014
A glance at the Reddit results reveals that most of the posts are reactions to collection objects. People share images they find powerful, mesmerizing, and creepy. They inquire about how an artist made a work or whether they should attend a show. Others debate developments in the museum world, chiming in with opinions on new graphic identities and what a museum should (or shouldn’t) collect.
I think this is a fantastic way to find out what people are saying about your cultural institution (are #musesocial folks already on this?), and it’s something that museum staff beyond PR and marketing teams could profit from. Reddit, along with other platforms like Wikipedia, Google Webmaster Tools, Pinterest, and Twitter, are a record of the discourse around a museum and its collection. Education folks can witness how engagement with art continues outside of the galleries; curatorial staff can take note about what riles up their audiences. Not that I don’t have plenty of research projects on my plate, but I think it would be fascinating to do a virtual ethnography of online discussions about art museums, exploring what pique participants’ interest, intellect, and ire.
The Reddit search results also reminds me of a recent, excellent piece by Brian Droitcour, who moonlights as an Elite Yelper focusing specifically on galleries and museums. Two years of penning these short reviews has opened Droitcour’s eyes to the power of what he calls vernacular* art criticism:
Yelp does a lot of things, including a number things that make people hate it. But one thing it does is provide a platform for vernacular art criticism, a different kind of writing about art and the public spaces where it is seen. Vernacular criticism can reject the guidelines set by cultivated artistic tastes, or it can guilelessly speak in ignorance of them, or in its naive fascination with them can inadvertently expose their falseness. Vernacular criticism is an expression of taste that has not been fully calibrated to the tastes cultivated in and by museums. Vernacular criticism inscribes bodies in public spaces that would otherwise erase them.
In Droitcour’s point of view (and mine), laymen have the potential to be incredibly insightful critics of the museum. His writing hints that it might behoove museums to start looking at these vernacular web platforms, because they reveal quite a lot about a visitor’s experience at the museum, even (or especially) when the account hardly mentions art:
Even reviews that don’t detail responses to art offer frank facts about the bodily experience of being in a museum that professional criticism tends to omit.
“Exhibits are hidden in rooms and there are no signs to direct visitors. I was informed that signs are aesthetically ugly and I should write a letter to express my opinion,” writes Iris S. in a three-star review of MoMA. “One final observation. Women’s bathrooms don’t have tampon machines. I was told that it’s because it looks ugly!”
Yelp reviews like these are a reminder that museums tend to subjugate concerns of the viewer’s body to things like sight lines, the production of meaning through juxtaposition, the interaction among isolated works of art. To museums and their curators, the social space produced by the people’s encounter with artworks, or the needs of a body in between its encounters with art, are secondary.
*My guess is that the “vernacular criticism” here stems from McLaughlin’s concept of vernacular theory. It’s worth reading the intro if you can get your hands on it.