As 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?
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.