It’s not about adaptation, it’s about revolution

ljkay_flickrAs museum professionals, we discuss, plan, and implement programs, exhibitions, and events that we believe will best engage our public; more often than not we’re tentatively feeling our way around when it comes to transforming our museums into community hubs of activity. The public forum atmosphere that is so coveted and sets the museum up (however temporarily) as a place where people feel welcome, involved, and engaged, is generally achieved as a result of attractive programming or fancy exhibitions. Unfortunately, these short-term solutions are notoriously unreliable ways of retaining constituency loyalty or sustaining public involvement, not to mention they often carrying hefty dollar signs. What, then, can we do to transform our traditional art museums into modern-day public forums, places that can be entertaining and educational, places that encourage active engagement and not simply passive experiences?

The first question that comes to my mind is 101-level stuff: why do we visit an art museum? To see the art! Exhibitions are a big deal and can be a huge draw. The first step towards moving away from merely adapting our programming for temporary appeal and towards revolution and longer term solutions is to dissolve the traditional exhibition structure. I’m not picking on exhibit designers or curators. What I’m hoping to do is challenge our every-day way of thinking about exhibitions, drawing us away from settings that resemble for-profit galleries and towards those that act as collaborative environments that encourage learning, conversation, contribution, and innovation. What would this look like at your museum?

Museum as Hub is a partnership of five international arts organizations, and is offering a new model for curatorial practice and institutional collaboration in order to enhance our understanding of contemporary art (Source: Museum as Hub). Its focus is primarily on ideas of place, and it facilitates collaborations between museums and artists, who then create original pieces based on the areas they are representing. It has a local focus. The Museum as Hub space is being planned to “envelope” next year’s exhibitions, and is described as “a flexible, playful, yet functional space that is an active zone for viewing, discussion, and activity.” When was the last time you visited an art museum and they described a gallery space or exhibition in this way?Museum_as_Hub

Personally, my thinking on this topic revolves around a museum creating an online forum for the community where individuals can either suggest new exhibition themes or comment on ways the museum can use upcoming events to engage and involve the public. I’m also wondering how we could work with visitor-generated content in order for exhibitions to be partly community driven and partly curator/museum driven.

In a recent email about community-curated exhibitions and social networking for the creation of exhibitions, Janet Marstine asked if these methods are helping us be “more socially responsible and helping to create a more relevant and democratic museum?” Or are they simply ploys to gain attention from the community for a short time, but the majority of programming and exhibit planning would continue to rest with the administration and board?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and your brainstorming on the many ways we can transform and revolutionize our art museums into contemporary public forums.

(Images courtesy of ljkay via Flickr and MuseumLab)

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4 responses to “It’s not about adaptation, it’s about revolution

  1. Great post! I’m thrilled that museums are moving toward more integrative and community-based practices. Museum as Hub looks very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing the link, and your knowledge of the collaboration!

    Perhaps there’s something that art museums can pick up from the popular and ever-growing science cafes that are popping up in connection to several science museums: http://www.sciencecafes.org/ These cafes connect the public with the museum and current science research by bringing the research and scientists themselves into casual environments (such as a pub or cafe). The monthly cafes have quite a following and provide the feeling of the kind of place where “everybody knows your name.” Many of these science cafes act a connectors for the curious public and the museum; a meet-in-the-middle. It makes learning active and fun, and creates roots within and between members of the community. Ultimately, the cafes create feelings of personal connection with the museum.

    I’m not sure what kind of similar, practical type of solution exists for art museums (that doesn’t demand too many resources and is easy to implement while collaborations like Museum as Hub perfect their model), but I think this is a great area for brainstorming, as you suggest.

    I like your idea about museums creating online forums for discussion. I hope we see them in the near future!

  2. You talk about user input, which is great, but this is very much an active involvement and one perhaps whihc is hard to process. Having worked at last.fm as a social network and means by which to track taste and behavior, I think it is equally import to passively track metrics and define intent for future activities and exhibits based on current visitor trends.

    Being able to seamlessly track individuals within the art space and track the length of time spent by groups or individuals in front of an artwork, artist or style of artwork, as one metric alone, could easily help inform museum professionals in the way they.

    From my escapades on the web over at ted.com and else it is clear there are practical solutions for improving the offering to museum visitors through such metrics and which will make the rest of the equation from marketing to keeping visitors constantly interested and engaged much easier.

    Having said all that I do agree that museums need to become hubs and that the disconnect between the physical and virtual needs to be reduced as much as possible to help engage as wide a participatory audience as possible.

  3. I was interested in your “First question that comes to mind is 101 level stuff.” Drop it down to level 100 stuff and ask yourself, When was the first time I went to a museum , and why did I go there???

    As I remember, you were quite young (maybe 6-7) and your grandmother probably took you. And as I remember she continued to take you back when you were in your teens. Why did you keep going back? During the times that your mother accompanied you; that would be three generations enjoying girls time out at an art museum. Apparently the environment and atmosphere was pleasing enough to bring you back again and again. And by the way, where was your father? Did the displays and exhibitions not provide enough of a draw to attract his attention?

    My point is draw on your strengths, which in this case is your early, developmental childhood years. And family recreational time that spanned multiple generations. Perhaps explore the 100 level questions like: does the local museum attract the “child-like” imagination and creative hunger of children and grandparents alike; and does it traverse the gender gap between thoughtful little girls and rambunctious little boys. And what about Dad’s math/science/ auto mechanic mentality?

    Take note of what motivates “soccer moms and little league coach dad’s. ” It’s family time; it’s child development time; it’s a fun place to meet and socialize with your neighbors. It’s a local community doing grass-roots, 100 level stuff.

  4. Pingback: Identifying with Falk’s new book, plus a fellow museo talks museums, community, and low-resource ways to connect! «

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