The Local Museum Scene

Philip Kennicott, Blake Gopnik and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Style Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 7, 2009; 12:00 PM

Join Style staff writers Blake Gopnik, Philip Kennicott and Jacqueline Trescott on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at Noon ET to discuss this year's special museums section. The reporters will answer questions about their stories -- about the architect behind the next big Washington museum, the effect of the economy on art exhibitions and how the Hirshhorn's outreach program measures up to other museums -- and any other museum-related queries.

A transcript follows.


Blake Gopnik: Washington is one of the great museum cities in the world, with things to see for every taste. That doesn't mean nothing could be better, or nothing could be changed. What do you think, readers, about what needs to be done? Or is it all fine and dandy?


Bowie, Md.: How does it affect private museums that we have such top-notch public ones? The Newseum charges $18 while the National Gallery is literally across the street and free.

Philip Kennicott: That's a great question, and it raises another equally important concern: How do the for-pay museums (can we agree to call them "attractions" instead?) affect the free museums? I think the successful pay museums (The Newseum and the Spy Museum) have to target their offerings more carefully, adhere to the family friendly orthodoxy more religiously, and advertise, advertise, advertise. They also tend to chase the dubious new interactive museum technologies more aggressively. My concern is the impact this has on museums such as the National Gallery of Art (so far, minimal). One hopes they never feel pressure to go down these routes. As for the $18 fee, I'm always amazed that people pay it, but then, they get a much more entertainment saturated experience for the cost.


Washington, DC: Where can we see images of all of the art the Obamas picked for the White House? The Washington Post Gallery only includes a very limited selection of the 47 reported to have been selected. Obamas' Choice of Works On Loan to White House Reflects a Discerning Eye (Post, Oct. 7)

Gallery: Art at the White House

Jacqueline Trescott: Trescott: As the images become available, the Post will add them to the online gallery. Publishing images of fine art is very complicated, since there are often 3rd party and copyright issues. But I think our design department made a great start today.


Washington, D.C.: Most, if not all of the museums in D.C. are free. How can they afford to maintain these wonderful museums?

Blake Gopnik: I believe really strongly than in a truly healthy society all museums worth having are worth having free. Charging for museum admission introduces huge distortions in what gets shown, who decides it and who sees it -- all issues that should be addressed in absolutely non-monetary terms. How to make the necessary funding appear? Uhhhh ... next question, please.

Jacqueline Trescott: Trescott: And don't forget the national museums received a big hunk of money from Congress, so we taxpayers have already paid our admission. And that taxpayers' money pays for repairs and upkeep and maintenance. You are keeping them safe and pretty.


Annandale Va.: I enjoyed the special museums section, but I was disappointed at the number of area museums that were left out, especially out of the "museum walks". How about something for those of us who enjoy local history and traditional art?

The National Gallery of Art for history? What about some of the smaller history museums and historic sites around town?

Dumbarton House currently has an exhibition about dining in Federal Washington -- The DAR Museum has an exhibition covering 250 years of Wedgwood design and production. The Society of the Cincinnati just opened an exhibition on Virginia in the American Revolution. The DAR Museum and Anderson House (Cincinnati) are both free.

By focusing on the larger museums and the Mall, you miss the opportunity to let readers know about the more intimate sites that offer in-depth studies of their collections.

Blake Gopnik: We do LOVE the smaller museums in Washington, including the non-art ones. The challenge is to cover the whole range, when there isn't always space to do so. I believe the three "Tours" we suggested of Washington museums had quite a number of unusual ones included -- the Textile Museum, Museum of Women in the Arts etc.


Arlington, Va.: The museums section noted that museums are relying more on special exhibitions drawn from their own collections. Any collection-based exhibitions you would love to see here in DC?

Blake Gopnik: I tend to feel that we have to get away from the idea of the "collection-based exhibition," and move instead back to the idea of just visiting un-exhibitionized permanent collections. We've lost the joys of simply browsing a collection -- one of the great joys in art.

Jacqueline Trescott: Almost every museum has brought out clusters of their best and the permanent galleries have great showcases. Watch the National Museum of American History special cases where they bring up specific collections. Their musical instruments are a good topic.


Washington, DC: To call the "Spy Museum" a museum is a stretch. It is a for profit family entertainment venue. It can charge because its competition is the Verizon Center and Dave and Busters, not the national Gallery or the Smithsonian. It doesn't collect objects based on their historical or cultural importance, only their ability to draw fee payers. I'm not saying that places like the Spy Museum are bad, just different from museums.

Philip Kennicott: I agree with the thrust of your observation, though I'm sure the Spy Museum would dispute the idea that the objects they have don't have cultural or historic importance. The distinction that matters is whether they have objects that are important and useful to scholars. Abraham Lincoln's top hat, for instance, is an important cultural and historical object. But I'd be very surprised if anyone has learned anything important through close, scientific, scholarly observation of the object itself.

Jacqueline Trescott: Yes. The Spy Museum is different but it has hit some chord with the public. Witness the lines out there every day.


Washington, DC: What do you think of President and First Lady Obama's selection of patent models in terms of the intersection of art, science and technology? Do you think it speaks of the President's upcoming approach to innovation and the USPTO?

The USPTO is in dire straits due to the previous administration's doing. It is now suffering a 200 million dollar shortfall, and has seen patent grants fall to below the 50 % mark for the first time in 40 years. A successful, well functioning USPTo is essential to innovation, economic prosperity, to America and the world.

Blake Gopnik: I imagine that, in choosing patent models -- some of my favorite objects in the world -- for the White House, Obama is sending a strong signal that he believes in the importance of innovation and creativity in all fields, in the arts and beyond. How that works out in terms of USPTO funding or policy is a WAY different issue.

Your question also raises the complicated question of when "historical" artifacts are there to be looked at, for "visual" pleasure, and when they need to be made more strictly "educational," through explanatory materials etc.


New York, N.Y.: This may be a difficult question to answer, but for someone coming in from out of town, how large or small are the National Museum of Crime and Punishment and the National Museum of American History? I am planning to see them in future visits and I am wondering how much time one can expect to be at these places? If this helps, I found the Newseum was much larger than I expected and the National Aquarium much smaller than I expected?

Jacqueline Trescott: I would save 90 minutes for the Crime and Punishment museum because there is a lot of reading. For American History you have to decide what your priorities are. If it's the First Ladies Gowns or the Star Spangled Banner, there might be a line, so save some time. If you are a presidential history buff, do that hall first, and then go to Julia Child's kitchen. Several hours at least.


Washington DC: I disagree with your comment about the national museums, at least with respect to the Smithsonian museums. You said "And don't forget the national museums received a big hunk of money from Congress, so we taxpayers have already paid our admission."

Congress does not pay for exhibitions or their costs. So taxpayers have paid for empty galleries with leaky roofs, since the Congressional bucks don't even cover needed facilities maintenance. The exhibitions are paid for by private donors and membership fees. The opportunity to see anything hanging on the wall is due to donors not Congress.

Blake Gopnik: I'm not sure that's QUITE right. My strong impression is that the permanent collections -- the heart of any great museum -- could and would be maintained through congressional funding. I believe that donors mostly help to pay for temporary special exhibitions, and for new acquisitions.

That said, I'd be VERY happy if we taxpayers decided to take that burden off the backs of private donors -- as happens in many much smaller, poorer countries.


Washington, DC: I'd like to hear from all of you what you would like to see in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture?

Philip Kennicott: The most important archive of African-American writing in the world.

Jacqueline Trescott: A music hall that doesn't just showcase the Top Ten of all time but gives lots of context to the music business, the competition among the artists, and how the singers and musicians survived, or didn't, in a rough industry.


Blake Gopnik: Thanks for your questions about art and museums in Washington. The only problem in writing about museums is that every minute you're at your computer is a minute not spent IN a museum. There's no better place to spend time.


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