To the editors:
Regarding "Specimens From the New World," January 29.
Was it art or was it natural history? Visitors coming to the Field Museum on January 16 or 17 who had not read about Guillermo Gomez-Pena and Coco Fusco's installation performance ahead of time, or who missed the museum's handout, or who did not see the explanatory labels in front of the cage were at a disadvantage to understanding the piece and likely to "not get it." This was hardly their fault or an indication of their racism or ignorance. It was a misjudgment on the part of the museum which did a poor job of presenting a powerful work of art that had a lot to offer.
Visitors come to the museum trusting the authority of curators who select and interpret objects and artifacts. The museum spends a large part of its budget training staff to present various educational programs for visitors who prefer to learn about the exhibits through contact with a docent rather than reading a flier or a label. But here, the interpreters (hired and trained by the artists) were part of the "joke" being played on visitors.
The Field Museum has spent years trying to build a reputation of credibility, and more recently, developing an image as an institution that cares about and respects its visitors--all of them, not just the white middle class, North Shore, or suburbanites. The museum shot itself in the foot by not properly preparing their visitors for Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit Chicago. Actually, they made the same mistake that they've made in the past in presenting many exhibits: the message is too subtle for the majority of the visitors, and the interpretive devices are unappealing (e.g., long-winded labels).
What could have been done differently? The museum could have chosen a more secluded spot to put the cage and located it where introductory messages (large, clear, short, not easy to miss) would communicate effectively. Visitors to a natural history museum expect to see natural history exhibits, not art, not theater. If the museum is going to pull something different on them, visitors deserve the best possible chance to go along with it. To treat them otherwise is to perpetuate the same elitism that this performance supposedly disdains.