Ram in a Thicket. Photo courtesy Penn Museum, Image #150033
Ram in a Thicket. Photo courtesy Penn Museum, Image #150033

Climb the steps past the waterfall and the pine tree inside Peterborough’s Canadian Canoe Museum and you will find yourself standing in front of this map for a long time. Nine by fourteen feet, in earth tones and chalk blue, devoid of labels, it shows only the lakes and rivers of a vast, empty North America.

“This is the only uninterpreted artifact here,” says curator Jeremy Ward, a Trent graduate. Maybe because Jeremy writes interpretive labels as part of his job, he relishes its wordlessness. “It’s the most eloquent text panel in the museum.”

I return to this map over and over for its evocative power, but also to postpone the inevitable — the phenomenon universally known as museum fatigue, the feeling of unexpected depletion that arrives at any museum, especially the best, usually within a half-hour.

The question Why do museums make us so tired? worries museum curators and exhibit designers, who try to fix the problem through gallery planning and research into the cognitive demands that arise from crowding many old and interesting things into a small, well-lit space.

They know there is more at play here than hard floors, low blood-sugar, and feeble attention spans, and like to talk about ‘information overload,’ but that white-light phrase calls out for a prism to spread its constituent colours.

The Great Overload

The existential plight of information overload has been with us since the Pleistocene, when brains learned to model reality internally and, with increasing vacation time, warehouse our memorabilia. Museums do overload us, but not so much with ‘information’.

By their nature and ambitions they start conversations they cannot finish, inducing a weariness that has more to do with depressive denial—a healthy defence against fascinating but unresolvable conflicts generated by the space and the objects themselves.

Some visitors experience the weariness as boredom but, as Neil Stephenson says, “Boredom is a mask frustration wears”.  This rapid siphoning off of our energy has abundant causes for its effects. It is, in fact, hugely overdetermined—a term I had hoped to get through life without using.

In spite of its Apollonian orderliness and path-marking, the museum exhibit is a disorientating world, a platform of horizontal vertigo where the first sensation is the competition among objects.

A Luminol scan would reveal blood on the floor from the museum version of the fight for retail shelf space. These artifacts exert a hard-won gravitational pull, and each makes us burn fuel to reach escape velocity before we figure out where to go next.

We enter willing to be led, then find there is no one to lead us. Psychology experiments are revealing the extent to which over-choice and decision-making tax the brain’s executive function, a function we might have preferred to leave at home.

Bidding War

The pure pleasure of irreplaceable artifacts can only lead to thoughts about the concept of value itself. At last year’s Royal Ontario Museum exhibit, “Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World,” a throwaway lump of clay incised with cuneiform notes on a Sumerian wheat harvest sits inside a display case with glass panes the thickness of an Airbus cockpit windshield. Nearby, a copy of the Hammurabi law code stele raises a side-question of commercial jurisprudence: How much less is this copy worth than the original in the Louvre? Should I recalibrate my excitement?

Questions of object value lead to questions of ownership, with their open-ended invitation to post-colonial guilt. Ownership is the abortion debate of the museum world; no museum is completely free of the legacy of Napoleon in Egypt, Lord Elgin on the Acropolis, the Nazis across Europe, or our own trek onto aboriginal burial grounds.

Objects speak to us through the glass as orphans kept away from their biological parents and the terse artifact label that reads, “On loan,”  is grateful to escape elaboration.

Ram in a Thicket

These unexpected conversations about value and ownership play a part in museum fatigue, but they are minor compared to the background radiation of deeper issues linked to the question, Where does our energy go?

Art versus pedagogy is one of these, emerging from the conflicting goals that are usually obscured by the refined rhetoric of posted mission statements.  Museum exhibits, so often drenched in beauty, are also required to teach us about the past. In any display that combines artworks with the utilitarian, this pedagogical task can set off a kind of bicameral brain distress.

Teaching aids tend to be linear, time-bound, verbal, rational, ethical and disciplined. The aesthetic experience, distanced from the ends of teaching, is another modality entirely—holistic, time-stopped, non-rational, amoral. The appreciation of art is fundamentally a swoon, a daydream, a complex emotion inaccessible to words.

A gold, copper, and lapis lazuli goat reaches for the tastiest branches on a bush. Here, in front of me, is the 4,500-year-old Ram in a Thicket from Ur in southern Iraq (see photo). I melt when I see it, in a way I rarely melt during an archeology lecture. The refined craft object, on the other hand, combining beauty and practical design, adds its own undertones to this basic split between art and utility. Moving between these modalities takes energy we would prefer to spend on the objects themselves.

“I don’t read text panels when I visit other museums,” says Jeremy Ward. “I’m torn between this desire to look at the object and soak it up, and the desire to find the information that helps me understand it.”

Nostalgic Haze

Museums don’t just set up a conflict between art and non-art. By freezing and framing, and through sheer institutional power, the process of display itself changes our perceptions. Exhibitions aestheticize and romanticize the humblest object. A Babylonian paperweight on a pedestal is a thing of unusual beauty, as is a canoe paddle, first settler Adam Scott’s adze, or an archival photo of men pouring concrete for the Lift Lock.

Our instinctive effort to capture any one of these artifacts moves from initial strangeness, through a series of psychic filters, to a final state that would be unrecognizable to the first perception. We spend large amounts of energy drawing the object through our own unique sensibility—abstracting it out of nostalgia, making it real, then taking it away in a form that preserves its pleasurable thrum.

Logarithmic Time

During the whole process, we are furnishing our personal historical imagination, which lives in the mind as a bustling diorama where no tale is lost and the entire past is perpetually alive. The display label for a 4,000-year-old cosmetics dish tells multiple stories: the historical period of the piece, facts about use, its discovery, provenance, and loan status.

Curators weep over the lack of space to tell these stories—often their life’s work—in detail. To convey both the stretch and the nearness of this romance, museums have to communicate impossible timelines to brains that are adapted for the hunter-gatherer’s short-term sense of time: Did we see that lion at the watering hole yesterday? Will he appear today? What we cannot easily do is conceptualize geological or historical time.

Yet museums must do this, often resorting to logarithmic scales. The main display at the Peterborough Museum moves us through 12,000 years in six footsteps, then takes us through the last two hundred years, to our doorstep, in fifty paces—all on a logarithmic path.

Grasping these timelines, where equal distances on the same scale represent increasingly large or small quantities—like the decibel or Richter scale—is a form of work that we resist when we can do it at all.

Death by Water

The conversations for which we came to the museum are often not the ones we end up having. Tensions over value, ownership, the aesthetic experience, the consumption of the artifact, and ungraspable timelines, all contribute to our overdetermined experience, but there is one other, in its literal way the coup de grâce. Museums pull us back and forth between a sentimental view of history—the nostalgia of framing—and a recognition of hard social realities, including the randomness of pain and fate.

Death stalks the museum, a fact that exhibit designers treat with glee. One snowy day in February of 1838, Adam Scott “was walking home when he fell through the ice in a pond and subsequently froze to death.” Subsequently? We may want to push the ache of this hypothermic adverb to the margin during our Sunday divertissement at the Peterborough Museum.

Death, meanwhile, being no respecter of temperature, also has a fondness for gunpowder. The field surgeon’s amputation kit shows up with distressing frequency in military museums around the world. Frozen ponds will always be cold, but there was a time before anaesthetics.

For many, fatigue is the self-protecting anaesthetic of choice. Jeremy Ward prefers a more life-affirming analogy. “Perhaps exhausting you, Tom, is the best thing I can do, because then it has actually worked! Museum fatigue is a sign of success, just like the body’s fatigue after a workout. But hopefully you’re flooded with endorphins too.”
Those endorphins do arrive, and I keep going back to this national treasure for more, but the chemical rush may be delayed.

Professor Yves Thomas, Acting Head of Trent’s Cultural Studies Department, has spent a lifetime visiting museums around the world. I asked him whether he could recall a personal episode of museum fatigue. He thought for a moment, then described his reaction to a recent Art Gallery of Ontario show which brought together selected masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection in New York.

“Although I knew these artists, there was so much—such a degree of saturation, including the way the rooms were organized, that I felt completely bewildered. It was like a state of zombie-ism. I tried to focus on certain paintings, but it had a zonking effect on me. I know what you’re talking about, and that was it.”

This AGO exhibit displayed only paintings and sculpture, from a brief, 28-year period. How might a more unprepared visitor respond to the ROM’s Mesopotamia blockbuster, covering 2,500 years of a civilization which, while going about its daily business, was also, absentmindedly, “Inventing Our World”?

Museums don’t need ear-bud audio tours. Museums need trauma counsellors.