Friday, May 30, 2008

What's new in DC

Armed with a spring resolution to post more frequently to Artiflection, I'll begin with a review of my Memorial Day weekend trip to DC, the land so etched-over with symbolism that there's almost nowhere to travel without being forced to consider or ignore someone else's infusion of meaning...

First, because I think it is always a factor in a person's enjoyment of museums and public spaces, the weather was absolutely splendid. We began our DC weekend with an excursion to the National Zoo. Feeling lately that I never go to the places where children go, I was immediately impressed by the flood of families. The museum grounds are essentially linear but the limited signs made the meander confusing. We were never certain that we were heading in the direction of the big cats or the elephants. The place is also under construction with a huge new outdoor elephant space slated for completion in 2011. This didn't stop the crowds to the elephant house. The orangatan highway (O-Line) was new since my last visit and I thought the Think Tank
was great. Simple exhibits with engaging content. All in all a good place to think about how much other people contribute or detract from a visitor's experience to a public place.

Sadly little time to really explore the Newseum as we arrived close to 4pm on Sunday, but enough to fully explore the few exhibits we were able to view. Why? Because the exhibits are cursory and quick-delivering, deftly following the news media's contemporary love affair with the sound-bite. We paid close attention to the Berlin Wall and September 11th Exhibits. September 11th had a fabulous installation of the very top of the antenna from the North Tower, but no prominent label explaining what we were looking at... The public was very moved by the interpretive film. The wall display of 9/12 front-pages fell flat on impact. The Berlin Wall exhibit also had impressive artifacts-- a large and colorful section of the wall and an original watch tower from the East Berlin side-- but not enough primary documents comparing news from the west (open, truthful?) with news from the east.

My conclusion: museums sometimes misinterpret young museum-goers' desires for simplicity and choice, providing brief exhibit text but little opportunity to go deeper. The result in the case of the Newseum was a flashy and technologically up-to-date environment where little real learning about the questions faced by journalists in a world controlled by market-share takes place. We came away knowing that journalists have strict codes of ethics because we were told that they do. I believe that it is important for museum's never to underestimate the power of examples. That is why people come to museums and not just movies or performances. There should be room for deep exploration-- not just broad introduction.

One last memorial note-- the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue was a small gem in a city glittering with flashier jewels. Well integrated into the city scape-- used by children learning to walk and family members having their pictures taken with the larger-than-life sailor standing alone looking out over the map of the world on the plaza. Nothing avant-garde or too abstract, but a peaceful spot surrounded by wave-like cascades in a circular fountain. While other memorials in the city invite subversive musing about the kinds of science fiction monsters they might become in a dystopic b-movie, the Navy Memorial remains remarkably benign.

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