Museums Want to Entertain You (and That's Not a Bad Thing)

A new exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City uses technology without going too far.

Bob Greenspan

Once, art museums were like fortresses. They were built of stone atop forbidding mountains of stairs. Today, museums might be nestled under glass pyramids, or sheathed in undulating ripples of stainless steel, or built to look like boats and the hood of a sports car. A city in China has plans for a comic book museum that's shaped like a speech bubble.

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Just as the buildings have changed, so have the exhibits inside them. Today museums must compete with a host of entertainment options that didn't exist a generation ago. Customers who could be down the street seeing Titanic: An IMAX 3D Experience instead are unlikely to be satisfied with the old school, cattle-like shuffle past painting after painting, just as patrons with smartphones in their pockets don't want to read names and dates off of little white cards. Even the Louvre has gone high-tech. The venerable institution has partnered with Nintendo to put gallery maps, high-resolution imagery, and a dozen languages of audio commentary in every visitor's palm.

Patrons who expect multimedia bang for their buck get it at "Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs 1851-1939," a new exhibit at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The ambitious show, which opened on Saturday and runs through August 19, explores how World's Fairs did—and still do—offer a means for nations to assert themselves on the international stage. World's Fairs also became the first platform for introducing new styles, manufacturing techniques, and consumer goods on a global stage. Popular products first presented at a World's Fair, for instance, range from mayonnaise and Cracker Jacks to the sewing machine and telephone. The bejeweled Cartier clock is eye-popping. The prototype Herman Miller plexiglass chair will make any design-lover swoon.

Fittingly, "Inventing the Modern World," also boasts plenty of new technological accoutrement. A movie screen welcomes visitors with looping archival footage. There's an "augmented reality station" where visitors can examine virtual 3D models of objects on display. At a mock dressing table, a set of mirrors imprinted with images lets people see how they would look wearing some of the exhibition's spectacular jewelry. Outside, squatting incongruously at the north edge of the Nelson's manicured grounds, is the temporary Sun Pavilion—a half-elegant, half-ramshackle structure built from reclaimed shipping containers and powered by a canopy of solar panels. The Nelson's cafe is serving a World's Fair-themed menu, and, of course, one must exit through the gift shop.

None of it feels overwhelming. Given the nature of this exhibit, in fact, it would have been almost impossible for the museum to go overboard. If anything, with "Inventing the Modern World" the Nelson erred on the side of caution. Or, at least, on the side of restraint.

In doing so, the Nelson's curator of decorative arts Catherine Futter, and co-curator Jason Busch from Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art have illustrated something vital about the evolution of museums, and especially about the limits of new, showplace settings and multimedia add-ons.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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