Yelp Hates on Museums

“This place is ridiculous. Who is the guy who thinks this shit is art? I’d like to meet him, shake his hand and then punch him in the face.”

That’s part of a Yelp review of MOCA. I don’t think it’s a comment on Jeffrey Deitch or anything pertaining to the recent agita. It’s more likely about Rothko or Nauman or Mehretu, a gripe from an average citizen who just doesn’t like contemporary art as museums understand it. That’s because Yelp, the crowd-sourced rating network, invites anyone and everyone to rate restaurants, small businesses—and museums—on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.

Critics have always been narcissists. Yelp takes this concept to a whole new level. The Yelper is above all writing about himself and his subjectivity. It is left to the mathematical average of Yelp reviews to supply context.

"Most of it just confused us. We had a good time making inappropriate jokes."

A while back I did a post on Yelp complaints about the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It turns out that mainstream, easier-to-understand museums draw reviews almost as withering.

What a waste of money!  This place was boorrriinnnnggg. [LACMA, 1 star]

You can just skip this place. [Getty Center, 2 stars]

NO STAR at all for this place. Worst experience ever! [The Huntington, 1 star]

It all just seemed so amateurish.  Sparse gardens, a hodgepodge of underdeveloped ethnic themes, and dry ponds and dead plants everywhere!… for $10, you can come to MY house and look at the dead plants… [The Huntington, 2 stars]

"In my opinion, the artwork is boring, pretentiously presented, and unengaging"

Lest anyone think this is just a Los Angeles issue, I submit these reviews of the Frick Collection (left, via RevelinNewYork):

It sucks. [1 star]

I felt that it was a waste of time & money. [1 star]

The art collection was not impressive. I could tell how really old this place has been, because the floor carpeting SMELLED like it needed a lot of cleaning. [2 stars]

I hasten to add that all these museums get plenty of 5-star raves. That’s what makes Yelp so provocative. In the old model of criticism, professional critics were assigned the impossible task of being objective. A critic who thought the Frick Collection “sucked” would not have a job. Yelp’s reviews are infinitely more democratic, written by anyone who cares to write them. That includes not a few masochists who hate museums and go anyway.

There might be something to that. If a certain percentage of Yelpers find LACMA or the Frick boorrriinnnnggg, it might be worth knowing—to others who are thinking of going and worry they might be bored stiff. Serious critics almost never address that audience or that concern.

For Yelp the bottom line is the average of user reviews, its pure distillation of the crowd’s wisdom. Unfortunately, the averages are not that informative, at least not for museums. Most museums big enough to get a few dozen reviews, from the Armory Center for the Arts (in Pasadena) to the Louvre (in Paris) average 4-1/2 stars. They’re rounded to the nearest half star. The Norman Rockwell Museum? 4-1/2 stars, natch. If you’re looking to Yelp to prioritize your museum going, good luck with that.

"Plain and simple terms: This 'museum' is a ZOO."

I’ll close with three Yelp reviews of the Louvre.

The #1 overrated thing in all of Europe. [2 stars]

So, like, we were so excited to go to this museum because it was on so many websites.  Well, we were absolutely disgusted and felt so ripped off. [1 star]

Worst Museum I’ve Ever Been To [2 stars]

Today’s museums go out of their way to downplay their authority as guardians of culture. Perhaps the message of Yelp is, they needn’t have bothered.

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