Saturday, February 28, 2009

Colbert, Humor, and American Museums

Last winter there was a large-format digital print hanging temporarily at the National Portrait Gallery. Yes, the one on the way to the second-floor bathrooms. Yes, Stephen Colbert’s portrait.

Originally the Gallery had planned to keep it on view for six weeks. It garnered so much public attention that the Gallery extended its stay four more weeks until ~ April Fool’s Day.

There were lines down the hall on Saturdays. Strangers took pictures for each other as they posed with the portrait. Teenagers and young men -- not the Gallery’s usual demographic -- came in droves. Compared to the same months last year, attendance jumped 20% in January with only two weeks of Colbert exposure. It jumped 33% in February, and then 57% in March as the public got in its last month of portrait-viewing.

The run was good for Colbert; it could be great for museums.

Museums and their staff value humor much more than the stereotype implies or our performance illustrates. Clearly the public values any humor we museum-folk might dare to share. Still, some museum-types (people and institutions) are uncomfortable with what might be considered a media ‘stunt’ to attract attention. They worry that it might lead to dilution: of mission, message, importance, quality…all very valuable associations for museums.

The Colbert Episode shows that humor (and the media) can lead to discussions, engagement, excitement, new opportunities…all very valuable associations for museums.

The Gallery’s foray into public humor, and so into public discourse, was a masterful example of sharp minds at work: that of Colbert, his staff and the Gallery staff.

And it’s a sorely-needed example of public playfulness in a museum. May we see more of it and may the public help museums practice it and relish it.

~ SB

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