May 1998: After a year of thinking about producing a cultural TV series about museums, Marc and I were finally in a position to actually do it. Before we initiated the field production, we attended the American Association of Museums’ annual meeting in Los Angeles. We just signed up, paid the registration fee, and went. It was the perfect place to learn about the museum business. We got a sense of who these “museum people” were and what motivated them. We got a glimpse into their hearts and souls.
It was a really fun conference. Educational sessions and exhibitors dominated the day, but there were really fabulous parties at fabulous museum venues at night! The new Getty Center had just opened in Los Angeles. What a glorious setting for a celebration of the museum world under the stars.
As you might imagine, museum people represent a group of highly educated professionals. Dare I say experts in their fields? No surprise there! But it was surprising to realize that in the U.S. alone there are over 15,000 museums. At the AAM conference, every possible topic in the universe is represented by someone in attendance.
Want to know more about photography? The George Eastman House had a booth. And it wasn’t just staffed with interns. The pros were there. Interested in dinosaurs? Try the American Museum of Natural History (New York) or the Carnegie folks from Pittsburgh. Or, the Museum of the Rockies, based in Montana. Curious about contemporary art? The people from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis really explained it in a way that helped me “get it.” Interested in cars? There’s the Petersen Museum. Chinese culture? Try the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco. Do you like water sports or fishing? Maritime museums, whale museums, surf museums I could go on and on and on and on ..and we have done just that through our series, GREAT MUSEUMS.
It’s not that I’m an expert in museums or art or history or science or cars or surfing! What I am is the average television viewer. I like to watch Law & Order and The Closer (strong female leads and a good “who done it”). I also like “fact-based programming” – the kind we see on public television! My all-time public TV faves: Ken Burn’s Civil War; Henry Louis Gates’ Africans in America; David McCullough’s John Adams (and the book it was based on).
Well, back to that first AAM conference in May of 1998. I will never forget sitting anonymously in the back row of a session on Museums and Media and cringing. Apparently, more than a few museum people have been involved in unfortunate media experiences. It was a real eye-opener. That’s when we decided that the stars of GREAT MUSEUMS had to be the museum experts themselves: the people who had devoted their professional lives to “getting it right.” We learned that too often, the media delves into the resources of museums for images and information, only to get it wrong. One example given at the seminar: a photograph of nomadic Native Americans living in teepees in the West should not be used ubiquitously to illustrate Cherokee Indians in the East!
We believe that what you see on the screen in a televison documentary should not be “wallpaper” for a radio script. The visual story is just as important as the narrated story, especially when your topic is “the museum.” The heart of the museum is its collection. The pieces in the collection stand for real people, real times, real history, real life. That’s why we insist that the REAL EXPERTS be the stars of GREAT MUSEUMS. It’s their passion and their lifetime of devotion to true history and real life that we aim to share with you, our viewers.
– Chesney Doyle, Executive Producer/Writer, GREAT MUSEUMS