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Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic: Special Edition – Why I Don’t Hate James Durston

by columnist Madeline Karp

You may have read this week that CNN Travel’s senior producer James Durston hates museums.

If, like me, you work in a museum, Durston’s opinion piece may have really grilled your cheese. I’ll be the first to admit, I had steam coming out of my ears. But before you sharpen your pitchforks and light up the torches to chase him out of town, I encourage you to stop, take a breath, and consider this:

Durston’s article is the Miley Cyrus VMA performance of museum criticism – it is so over the top and so clearly baiting us to react that it deserves to be met with the most minimal reaction possible.

So rather than a ranting response, I suggest we take a calm and critical look at Durston’s complaints. Let’s start a conversation about how we can fix the legitimate problems he brings up, and clear up the misconceptions he’s trying to perpetuate.

1. Durston seems to believe that only children can have fun in museums. 

Kids do seem to have a good time when pushing buttons, pulling levers and magnetizing soap bubbles (right up until they stop having a great time and turn into wailing bundles of hair and tears only a little more bored than the parents). But where’s the equivalent for adults?

There is no rule that adults aren’t allowed to push buttons, pull levers and magnetize soap bubbles, so I’m not sure where this misconception comes from. In fact, most museums I’ve been to encourage adult participation. The hang-up here seems to be less about the museum refusing to offer interactive and engaging experiences, as it is Durston (and other adults) refusing to participate alongside children.

Perhaps if we offered “adults only” programming – where the same programs for children are run for adults – visitors like Durston wouldn’t feel so alienated. As adults we are often afraid to be thought less of for playing. By creating a safe space for adults to play, we can eliminate that stigma.

2. Durston finds the collections content uninteresting.

After the 200th glass case containing an old bowl — or was it a plate, or perhaps it was some more cutlery, who knows, who cares — I decided the photo opportunity across the sea was the best thing about the place.

This is a totally fair opinion. People don’t like stuff sometimes. But I get the sense here that Durston is doing things he doesn’t like because it is the thing to do. What is a trip to Paris without the Louvre? What is a trip to Philadelphia without Independence Hall?

I think we as stewards of culture should be working to break down this misconception. You can have an amazing, educational and relaxing vacation without hitting The Sites. I went to Arizona and somehow missed the Grand Canyon. I feel fine about it. I lived in Washington DC for four years. I’ve never been inside the White House or the Capitol Building, but I feel extremely fulfilled in my experience there.

That said, I think there is something to doing what you want to do. If you prefer creepy, gory history to art, go to the Catacombs instead of the Louvre. And as museum professionals, I think it’s on us to be smart enough to make these kinds of recommendations, even if it means sending someone to another institution.

3. Durston on the Smithsonian’s new exhibit Souvenir Nation:  

So this icon of world museums is now proudly displaying an old brick, an old piece of rock, some hair and a napkin.

This seems to be a problem with interpretation, and not the collections pieces on display. Durston should be thinking critically about these items, but he’s not being prompted to do so. It could be an issue with the labels, the writing, or something else. Regardless, we need to make sure we always ask meaningful questions: Who chose to save that napkin? Why? What did it mean to him/her? Did he buy it? Steal it? Was it a gift? And what items do you, the visitor, have that you save randomly? Movie tickets? Holiday Inn towels you’ve stolen from various countries?

We should always be thinking of how we can make our exhibits dynamic and ways to keep our interpretation fresh. While Durston’s dismissal in maddening, it’s also a useful reminder to constantly check for ways to improve.

4. Durston thinks museums are a status-oriented institution.

Worst of all, there’s a climate of snobbery surrounding this whole industry.

This is perhaps the most common misconception of all. It’s just another version of “I don’t belong in a museum. It’s high-brow, and I’m not.”

The important thing here is to lead by example. Saying, “no, of course we’re not snobs” sounds like a denial. Instead, we need to act. Museums need to continue to let visitors in for free, to give back to the community, and to share culture, art, history and scientific discovery with everyone. Keep up the egalitarian idea than anyone – regardless of creed, race, sexual orientation, politics, or even location – can become a member. If we continue to act generously and with the community in mind, a statement like Durston’s will stand out for what it really is – a ludicrous generalization. A misconception.

It seems clear to me that Durston hasn’t had the kind of “sticky” experience with a museum that most museum advocates have. That’s really unfortunate, and I’m sorry he’ll never know what that experience is like.

But rather than making me upset, Durston has convinced me that the work museums do really is important. Rather than react with anger, let’s react with love. Haters gonna hate, but let’s not let it stop us from doing what we do.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

1 Comment

  1. Amanda

    I feel reasonably sure that the interpretation around Souvenir Nation was good but that Durston is using the old bait of the ahistorical: it’s just stuff! it’s just a brick! It’s that fine line, right? On one level: yep, just a brick, chemically and physically identical to any other brick from that time period. So who cares? On the other hand: George Washington slept here! I went to a museum last week that was able to boast that George Washington had had tea in the front parlor – never mind that not a single stick of furniture from that parlor was still in the house, or that he only did it once. He Was There. Durston probably gets the point, he’s just, as you said, baiting the hook. He’s not wrong, he’s just carefully avoiding the point.

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