Thought on the modern museum.

To live in the nation’s capitol is to steep oneself in museum and monument culture. That means I get to experience, almost daily, the flagrant commercialization associated with it.

The inciting incident of this reflection is a recent excursion out to Mount Vernon. And following what was my second visit to this hallowed national ground, I found myself conflicted as ever. What would George Washington say, I wonder?

Maybe I am a snob (I am) but I can’t help but think that there are two things that have absolutely emasculated the integrity of the modern museum: video projection, and (the biggie) gift shops.

We all know the routine. You buy your ticket, and you are herded into a movie theater or exhibit so that you can be bombarded with media. God forbid we read anything anymore. The excitement and interaction of the modern museum exhibit makes the place feel anything but an exhibit. It’s more a theme park, but the stimulation is absolutely necessary to bring in the bucks.

At Mount Vernon, this video introduction stars Pat Sajak, as if to forgo even the slightest pretense that the place hasn’t succumbed to the same impulses as its peers. It was at least honest.

We don’t care because even those of us (like me) that see through this transparent ruse still derive enjoyment. When I am in a theater watching George Washington fight the battle of Trenton and am actually getting snowed on, I can’t help but love it. Yet I know that the added dimension of snow and rumbling seats is yet another development in the escalating arms race of selling an experience of history rather than selling the artifacts themselves.

I am led to an inconvenient truth: these places aren’t good enough for most people on their own merits. They have to sell an experience. It’s catered to the lowest common denominator, and it dilutes the importance of the place. But no one cares.

The obvious counter-argument is that we should do whatever it takes to educate visitors and inculcate appreciation. If you think I am amenable to saying that the ends justify the means, then you are missing my point. Americans are shameless consumers. And that ain’t bad, per se. But to me it’s a fight worth picking to insist that museums should, on principle, exist on a plane above the hedonism that dominates our culture.

And I think Washington would agree. I imagine he would be perplexed, if not irate, that on his estate now exists a (curiously) modernist museum full of moving parts, flashing lights, interactive exhibits, a food court that sells pizza and burgers. And of course the finale: being dumped, overstimulated and tired, into a gift shop that sells an array of products of astoundingly loose association with Mount Vernon.

It’s sad in a way — that people would escape their daily lives bombarded with interactive media, only to sit in a theater and experience more of it. This is an actual addiction. We crave it. And any dosage less than the usual is not enough for a fix.

And yet, sitting on the back porch of Mount Vernon, staring at the vast expanse of the Potomac, I felt content. More importantly, I felt I was actually feeling the place for the first time. Everyone appreciates George Washington. Appreciating the artifact itself, his home, requires an interaction you can’t get from watching movies or animated exhibits.

There was a time when the best artifacts in the world were privately owned, but enjoyed mostly by wealthy aesthetes. The modern museum was a reaction to what was seen as a hoarding by the elites — a way to ensure that history could be appreciated by the masses. If integrity is the tradeoff, I am hesitant to say which arrangement is better.

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