Museums’ push to modernize should challenge and inform us, not patronize

Guests gather at the grand opening of the Canadian Museum For Human Rights in Winnipeg on Sept. 17, 2014.JOHN WOODS/The Canadian Press

Museums everywhere have been striving to reinvent themselves to suit the modern world.

They long ago came to the conclusion that a museum must be much more than a collection of hushed rooms filled with stuffed animals, suits of armour and ancient tablets. To compete with all other attractions out there, from big league sports to video games, they must add a little razzle dazzle. The former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thomas Hoving, titled his memoir Making the Mummies Dance.

Some museums hire big-name architects – “starchitects” – to design new wings or create new buildings. Others update their exhibits to include educational videos, activities for children, interactive displays and QR codes with Internet links. Many do both.

Sometimes, it works splendidly. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris, housed in a Beaux Arts railway station, has been attracting throngs of visitors for decades now. Frank Gehry’s dramatic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is one of Spain’s main tourist attractions, bringing thousands of visitors to the Basque Country and spurring other museums to strive for the “Bilbao effect.”

Other times, it is quite disastrous. Consider the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. It had its official opening in 2014, becoming the first major national museum outside of Ottawa. I managed to visit for the first time this summer. The museum stands on a prime site just next to The Forks, the charming waterside spot at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Its creators held a big architectural competition and chose a design by New Mexico’s Antoine Predock. Transforming his vision into reality would eventually cost around $350-million, a good chunk of it from government coffers.

Wrapped in reflecting glass, offset by sand-coloured stone, the structure rises from the ground like some science fiction castle. A spire, the Israel Asper Tower of Hope, named for the media magnate who championed the project, juts from the top, giving visitors a panoramic view of the city. Mr. Predock explained the concept to the Toronto Star in 2009. “So often, oppressed people are earth-connected. The Earth is our anchoring possibility. From there, you go up into the sky.”

Whether the hulking structure beautifies the Winnipeg skyline is a matter of opinion. But the real disappointment comes when you go through the doors, which are approached by a forbidding, trench-like walkway.

Visitors proceed through a series of galleries linked by long sloping walkways, which are flanked by translucent alabaster. The exhibits are sparse; This is a museum of concepts, not artifacts. The Garden of Contemplation, with its dark basalt rock, is uninviting. The walkways are hard to locate. Navigating this vast space is a challenge, as the guards admit. Function is following form here, rather than the other way around.

There are touch screens and repeating videos and backlit photographs, but precious little in the way of information. What should be a moving journey through the long struggle for human dignity is instead a glancing treatment of a profound subject. It’s a huge wasted opportunity, and it shows how far some museums have strayed from their purpose on the road to Bilbao.

Museumgoers are not infants. Even in our distracted world, they are patient enough to take in a complex story, clearly told. The best museums guide them through it confidently and rationally, respecting their intelligence even while wowing them.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Alta., “the dinosaur capital of the world,” does it brilliantly, taking visitors through the eons and packing the journey with facts on everything from the great extinctions to how a mold of a buried skeleton is made. Kids love it, but there is enough meat on the bones for everyone.

The building itself is non-descript, a low-lying structure that blends into the landscape of the surrounding badlands. No one cares. People don’t come to admire the genius of some architectural egomaniac. They come to learn and to have fun – and this museum shows you can do both.

Similarly, the recently expanded Winnipeg Art Gallery does a superb job of displaying its excellent collection of Inuit art. Visitors move through a series of bright galleries, well lit and well organized. A towering case of Inuit sculptures greets them at the entrance, with a touch screen for those who want to explore them more closely.

Yes, museums have moved beyond musty documents in glass cabinets and marble busts on plinths, but they should still challenge and inform us, not patronize. Let’s hope that they don’t forget that in their quest to be modern.

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