'The museum's a nice place, but it will always be there'

Given a spare hour, do you automatically head for a good museum, or decide that a visit next year will do just as well?

It's ultimately a put-offable experience, insists Harold Skramstad, president of the Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. ''Museums are considered such enduring institutions. While a world's fair has a time limit, (museums are) always going to be there.''

For some, the association of learning with work is part of the reluctance. ''It's been difficult to convince people they can have a quality learning experience and still have fun,'' says Lawrence Reger, director of the American Association of Museums (AAM).

In an energetic effort to shake off any lingering musty images and jack up attendance, many museums have gone in for what directors call ''blockbuster'' exhibits. Often these are traveling shows, such as Egypt's King Tut exhibit. Sometimes they are permanent shows. But the packaging is always new.

Grants are often more readily available for such special exhibits than for daily operating costs. And the museum world appears thoroughly convinced that new exhibits bring more visitors. At least part of the 8 percent hike in attendance this year at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, for instance, is attributed to its special ''Treasures of Tiffany'' exhibit.

''More and more of us are recognizing the importance of new exhibits,'' says Paul Joslin, assistant director of Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, which opened its new ''Tropic World'' exhibit last spring amid a large splash of publicity. ''You can't build something to last now and forever and expect the public to keep coming back to see it. You've got to recreate the excitement.''

But as the money for new exhibits grows tighter and many visitors complain they see more of the backs of necks than of objets d'art, some museum officials are questioning whether they have created a monster. Many people now assume that without some new, well-heralded attraction, a museum is not worth a visit, say many museum directors.

That issue, as well as the eternal debate over whether museum offerings should cater more to the masses or to the elite, was the focus of considerable discussion here recently at the annual open forum of AAM's Commission on Museums for a New Century.

Louis Pomerantz, a professional restorer of old paintings, pleaded with museum officials at the gathering to look more inward than outward. He says he recently drove six hours to Toledo, Ohio, to see a traveling exhibit of El Greco's works on one of its few US stops. He had a ticket that assigned him a precise date and hour. Though the exhibit was beautifully organized, he says, being herded and hurried was ''more frustrating than enlightening.''

''I'm not saying there should be no special exhibits, but constant shipping (of art objects) results in deterioration,'' he says. ''Newness is for Madison Avenue. The numbers game is not that important. It can get you more tax money, but you can forget why you're there. Museums should give their own objects the same importance they give to borrowed objects and put a higher priority on preservation, good housekeeping, and security.''

Many museums do in fact have more in storage than on exhibit. And even rearranging resources in their permanent collections can lead to a ''new'' effect. Richard Oldenburg, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, notes that one of that museum's most successful exhibits, which has since traveled abroad, was a collection of 20th-century masters gathered from the second and third floors and arranged as a unit on the first floor.

''I sometimes wonder whether we try to show too much,'' he says. ''Isn't one of the appeals of an exhibition that it has a certain concentration or focus?''

AAM Director Lawrence Reger predicts in the future museums will strike more of balance between traveling exhibits and their own permanent collections.

''We'll be using our own collections more - we've all got to find ways to use our objects better,'' he says. ''But I also think there'll be more local and regional sharing of collections and more joint exhibits on one broad theme.''

Mr. Reger suggests that the best way to resolve the elite vs. masses controversy is for each institution to think through its particular purpose and identity.

Victor Banks, a designer of museum exhibitions, says he will never forget seeing a group of youngsters at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History with noses pressed against the glass around a diorama focusing on the Neanderthal man.

''They were locked into that experience - transported to another world,'' he recalls. ''Museums must not just present objects in clean, beautifully designed cases, but get into cultural story telling and aim for that kind of intensity of excitement.''

''There's no simple answer on how best to communicate with the public,'' concedes Brookfield's Paul Joslin. ''We have to constantly scratch our heads and come up with novel approaches.''

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