The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

July 20, 2012

Mini-post: What we should be talking about when we talk about the Trenton City Museum

My colleagues tease me that I never write a short blog post when a 1200-word essay will do. To prove them wrong, here’s a quick thought about the struggling Trenton City Museum — or rather, a recent diagnosis of it in the NY Times.

The Times piece lays out the dismal saga: city cuts budget, lays off museum director (along with a third of the Trenton police force), puts intern in the directors’ office. Donors panicked and angry, Brooklyn Museum retracts offer to loan a vase for upcoming exhibition, exhibition cancelled. Search for new director yields 10 resumes, most unqualified.

Why such a sorry state? Budget woes, according to the article.

But there, alongside the article, is a photo that makes a very different argument about what the problem might be:

Photo: Tim Larsen for the New York Times

Shouldn’t we really be talking about what a museum is supposed to do and what kinds of experiences it should try to make possible? About the relationship between the past and the present, and about how ‘culture’ looks and works today? About innovation in the cultural sector and how organizations of all sizes are renegotiating their relationships with their communities?

I suppose that in some situations the macroeconomics are so bad that no amount of reinvention would save the day. But until cultural organizations try it, they'll never know. Look at what Nina Simon is doing in Santa Cruz. My guess is that the budget problems we talk about so much in the arts are the water that seeps in when the foundations begin to erode.

"The City Museum still hopes to mount an exhibition of the vases,” we’re told. I hope they also take the opportunity to ask some new questions about why and how.

I’ll try a few other mini-posts in the next few weeks; let me know if they’re valuable.

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Categories: History museums, Innovation, Museums, Visitor experience, Visual art
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December 11, 2011

Art you enter, art you act — Carsten Höller show breaks records at the New Museum

Those people sliding down the tubes and lying naked in the flotation tank didn’t need a degree in art history or deep familiarity with contemporary art to enjoy the hell out of this show. They were the show, physically and socially. But the next time they visit a museum, how will they feel about, looking at art?

Visitor floating in Carsten Höller's "Psycho Tank" at the New Museum. Photo Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Blogging last year about participatory or “social practice” art, I wondered if a divide might arise between audiences for that sort of art experience and audiences for the more traditional, look-but-don’t-touch kind.  The success of the Höller show — averaging 1,700 visitors per day, a 30% lift over the New Museum’s previous exhibition record of 1,300 per day — underlines the possibility that artists working in this mode are altering museumgoers’ notions of what an art exhibition should do for them and what their role in it should be.

What happens when they bring those expectations to the museum on their next visit? Does non-participatory art, or a museum that isn’t premised on active, socially-constructed engagement, suddenly begin to look stodgy and stale?

Above: Waiting for the three-story corkscrew slide. Photo Benjamin Sutton
Below: Taking the plunge. Photo Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

That would be a problem, of course. I’d hate to see the act of beholding something extraordinary fall to the cultural wayside. But as an alternative to the inwardness and preciousness — the self-contained, even smug feeling — that too many people encoutner in too many contemporary art settings, Höller’s vision of the museum experience is bracing and overdue.

Instead of “referring to” or “evoking” or “embodying” (as the wall panels at a modern or contemporary art museum might put it) basic human states and activities like play, fear, eros, bewilderment, and giddiness, Höller has us be and do those things. Talk about “Art as Experience,” the title of John Dewey’s 1934 contrarian take on aesthetics, which now looks way ahead of its time. (Or maybe Höller and all this immersive and participatory action look like the literalization of Dewey.) ...

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Categories: Innovation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Subjectivity, Visitor experience, Visual art
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May 30, 2011

The participatory revolution is all around us

Okay, maybe “revolution” is a little dramatic. But preparing for my talk last week at the American Association of Museums meeting in Houston, I found no shortage of evidence that our culture is being reshaped by the work of many hands. Authority ain’t what it used to be.

I was chairing a panel on which three great people from STEM museums (Shari Werb from Smithsonian Natural History, Tom Owen from an exhibits firm working on the Kennedy Space Center visitor center for NASA, and Meg Lowman, a pioneering rainforest canopy biologist who directs the new Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) talked about how citizen science — or more to the point, visitor science — will play out in new facilities they’re building.

My job was to frame the topic, and I did so pretty broadly. This isn’t just about museums, I told the museum professionals in the room, or even about the culture sector more broadly. It’s about new roles that people like you and me are playing in all kinds of domains.

Those roles are described by various buzzwords, from crowdsourcing and user-generated content to maker culture, citizen journalism, citizen science, and so on. They’ve occasioned a slew of books, some celebratory (like Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, or We Are Smarter than Me) and some critical (Andrew Keen’s The Cult of The Amateur).

What’s it all about? Among other things, a changing sense of what authority and expertise are supposed to look like. (Not coincidentally, authority and expertise have been the foundation of museums’ value systems. No wonder they’re anxious.) At the root of “authority” is the word “author,” and I suggested that what’s changing is who gets to tell the story, who gets to be the expert. The answer, increasingly often, is you.

You’re not just a voter; you’re a civic problem-solver, at least if you live in one of the four cities where Give a Minute is operating. You’re not just a consumer or an armchair inventor, you’re an Innocentive problem solver (“We need your brain power to help solve some of the world’s toughest problems”).

You’re not just a buyer of stuff, a la Amazon. You’re a maker of the stuff in the first place, thanks to online communities like Etsy. And community isn’t just a metaphor here; Etsy also happens in real places where you can make things with others (like the Brooklyn Etsy Labs below).

In music, you’re not just an audience member. You’re a “rusty musician” playing onstage at the Baltimore Symphony alongside the pros (a program I blogged about last year). ...

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Categories: Citizen science, Museums, Natural history, Science museums, Visitor experience
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April 04, 2011

Idiosyncrasy in museum design, an endangered species?

Finally, a NY Times museum article that even a progressive can love. Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff sees the Barnes Foundation’s move to a new building on Philadelphia’s museum mile as the last nail in the coffin of eccentricity in the American art museum. To which I would add: it ain’t just the art museums.

It makes sense that the piece wasn’t written by one of the Times’s art critics or by is everything-but-art museums reviewer Ed Rothstein. As I’ve complained before here, they’re a traditionalist lot. They tend to see exhibitions as a kind of illustrated scholarly argument — a catalog essay with the objects in 3D.

Albert Barnes, whose patent-medicine company went big and who became a voracious collector of Reniors, Picassos, and the like, was no scholar. But he did think deeply (and eccentrically) about aesthetics and developed a pedagogy for looking at art that’s still being taught at the Barnes Foundation. (Barnes died in a car crash in 1951.)

A Cezanne-centric gallery at the Barnes Foundation, as Albert Barnes installed it. Photo: Barnes Foundation.

As Ouroussoff notes, Barnes saw himself as an outsider to, and a critic of, elite Philadelphia society, especially the art collectors and benefactors. Like J. Paul Getty and Isabella Stewart Gardner, he created a museum that bucked convention and showed visitors alternatives to the mainstream, increasingly professionalized and institutionalized art museum culture. The Barnes Foundation, the Getty Villa in Malibu, and the Gardner Museum in Boston were ways for the founders “to thumb their noses at cultural insiders — Barnes at Philadelphia’s insular community of art patrons, Getty at what he called the ‘doctrinaire and elitist views’ of the art world.”

In all three cases, writes Ouroussoff, the result was

a museum experience that felt deeply private. Walking into one of these galleries could seem like poking around in someone’s bedroom. The winking references, the quirky combinations of acknowledged masterpieces and minor oddities, the mix of personal and public missions — these served to narrow the gap between art and viewer. Instead of feeling lectured to from above, you felt as if you had been invited to share in a private joy.

But now the Gardner and the Barnes are both being modernized, as the Getty Villa was in the early 2000s, transforming (says Ouroussoff) once-magical experiences into “pedantic” statements of cultural consensus, “gorgeously crafted” but now “polite and well behaved” in ways that betray their founding spirit. ...

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Categories: Institutional personality, Museums, Subjectivity, Visitor experience, Visual art
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March 21, 2011

Nastygram from the NY Times on visitor research

Maybe the Times arts critics have it in for the Brooklyn Museum. Or maybe they just don’t believe museum curators should get to know the audiences they’re creating exhibitions for. Then again, some museums don’t believe that either, which is why “front end” evaluation is often a botched job.

So I tried not to get defensive when I read this paragraph in art critic Ken Johnson’s review of Brooklyn’s new show on Plains Indian tipis.

Beyond some basic historical context, the exhibition offers no revelatory perspective on its contents. That might be partly because, as the organizers, Nancy B. Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller (both Brooklyn Museum curators) point out in their catalog preface, part of the planning process involved focus groups and visitor surveys “to determine the level of visitor interest in and knowledge of the tepee and Plains culture.” They also invited a team of American Indian scholars, artists and tribal members to vet their plans. The result is an exhibition that speaks down to its audience, assuming a low level of sophistication, and that does as little as possible to offend or stir controversy.

On one level, this is the familiar highbrow take on visitor studies: If you ask the public what they want from an arts or culture experience, you’re doomed from the get-go. Focus groups yield lowest-common-denominator thinking, which should have no place in planning encounters with the great or challenging or profound. The museum should exercise its cultural authority and decide what visitors need to see and learn, without getting sidetracked by what they want.

But when you gather museum-goers in a focus group or ask them questions on a survey, do they really tell you, “I want this exhibition to talk down to me. I want the interpretation of objects to be bland and inoffensive”?

Of course not. The real issue here is what kinds of questions the museum asks and how it understands — and makes use of — the answers. I hasten to add that I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, and I may not agree with Johnson’s that it is condescending or bland. (From what I’ve been able to see online, it looks promising.) ...

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Categories: Accountability, History museums, Museums, Research issues, Visitor experience, Visual art
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December 30, 2010

Guest blogger: Jaime Kopke on the “Enchanted Palace” in London

For our parting post of 2010, I’m delighted to have Jaime Kopke as our guest blogger. Jaime founded the Denver Community Museum, a one-year pop-up experiment in community curation. She then spent a year in London earning a Master’s in curating contemporary design. Which gave her keen eyes for the new installation at Princess Di’s house...

Browsing through the comment book at the “Enchanted Palace,” an exhibit currently on show at Kensington Palace, I noticed two main sentiments: love and extreme dislike. I was in the former category, an enthusiastic fan.

“Enchanted Palace” is the Historic Royal Palaces’ answer to the challenges of a £12 million building renovation, one which has forced the closure of a large portion of the site. The exhibition will run through early 2012, when the rebuilding is complete.

Kensington Palace was the home to many of Britain’s famous princesses, including Queen Victoria and Diana, Princess of Wales. This exhibition tells the tales of seven of these royal inhabitants. Under the direction of the Cornwall-based theater company Wildworks, the building has been transformed into a magical, eerie, thoroughly fascinating space. Instead of following a linear timeline of the princesses’ lives, visitors encounter dramatic installations inspired by their stories. In each of the princesses’ rooms, historic artifacts are intertwined with contemporary artwork, handmade props, dramatic lighting and strange soundscapes. Drifting among the crowds are Wildworks’ storytellers, actors dressed in industrial-type gowns who engage — and sometimes bewilder — the audience.

Upon entering, visitors are given a hand-drawn map for the quest at hand: to discover the history behind each of the seven princesses. There are no labels on the walls to provide the answers. Instead, visitors are asked to explore one princess’s story at a time, to become enthralled, enamored, and in more cases than not, saddened by her touching tale. To help make the magic happen, the curators and Wildworks tapped into the talents of UK fashion designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Stephen Jones, William Tempest, Boudicca, and Aminaka Wilmont, and illustrator and set designer Echo Morgan. In the Room of Royal Sorrows, for example, a dress of tears created by Aminaka Wilmont is draped over the bed, marking the place where Mary II was unable to produce an heir. In a dark room nearby, a dress made of origami cranes hovers above an oversized bed, revealing Victoria’s childhood dreams of fleeing the palace.

It is this collaboration with contemporary designers and artists that helps make the show so successful. By creating a bridge to the present day, “Enchanted Palace” does more than liven up some dreary spaces; it evokes emotion and wonder. Museums partnering with artists is not a new concept, as Peter pointed out here recently. Increasingly, curators are giving over their spaces, programs and collections to artists for creative interventions. The result is usually an exciting new interpretation. ...

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Categories: History museums, Innovation, Museums, Visitor experience, Visual art
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November 29, 2010

Should cultural institutions be in the business of “romance” or “precision”? Ask your newcomers

The ever-valuable museum consultant Beverly Serrell, who wrote the book on museum labels, recently pointed me to the early 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I’m glad she did, because his ideas about the stages of learning help organize something I’ve long believed about classical concerts, museum exhibitions, and other cultural experiences.

In the old days — say, mid 20th century — the rap on museums and the performing arts was that they were set up for people who already knew something about the content. You had to bring your own knowledge in order to make sense of the Latin-filled labels in a natural history museum or the formalist program notes in a concert hall.  And not just the written interpretive texts, but the objects or performance itself: you needed cultural “training” in order to find meaning and enjoyment in the conventions of exhibition or performance.

No wonder left-leaning sociologists tried to “out” those cultural institutions as markets for the accumulation and affirmation of class status, “cultural capital.”

Times have changed, of course. The sector has made big strides toward democratic accessibility. You no longer need a PhD or a dictionary to understand the annotator’s comments in your program book or the introductory panel at an art exhibition. At natural history museums, those cases of inscrutable specimens were long ago surrounded (or supplanted) by explanatory graphics and texts geared to middle-school students.

But if arts and culture institutions are no longer catering narrowly to the cognoscenti, there’s still a sense in which they’re catering to the converted. You may not have to bring your own knowledge, but you do usually have to bring your own interest in the subject. The conventions of presentation still, by and large, presume that if you’ve shown up, you’re already interested in this content. They proceed (again, implicitly and unconsciously) from the notion that you’re there—in your seat or at the exhibition—because you care about this stuff, and the institution can get on with the business of giving it to you.

What about the newcomers? What about people in the categories we culture professionals dub “experience seekers” or “cultural tourists,” who have come just to check out the symphony or the history exhibit, perhaps with a friend or on a lark? Shouldn’t the experience be designed for them, too? Isn’t that the only way to broaden the audience over time? (Megachurches, by the way, get this. They play to the newcomers and fence-sitters every bit as much as to the devout, all within a single experience.)

To do that, cultural organizations would have to stop taking for granted that what they offer is a priori, automatically valuable, and start taking responsibility for sparking a love of that content in people who may never have given it much time or thought. Here’s where Whitehead comes in handy. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Diversity, Engagement, Innovation, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Subjectivity, Visitor experience, Visual art
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August 01, 2010

Nudging the visitor research field to think more about [fill in the blank]

Sarah and I were in Phoenix these last few days for the Visitor Studies Association conference, where the debates ran well into the night over drinks. At the “marketplace” session on Thursday, we posed a question to our fellow attendees. Here‘s the data we collected…and an invitation to add your own.

Phoenix was hot, both meteorologically and politically. But in the cool confines of the Wyndham, we set up our table (see photos, a first for the firm) next door to our friends from Randi Korn & Associates. I scrawled this question on a flip chart:

“In your humble opinion, what should the visitor studies field be thinking more about?”

As people stopped by, Sarah and I invited them to write short responses on another pad. Here’s what we got. I‘ve re-ordered the responses to group and link the ideas, but left the wording verbatim.

The visitor studies field should be thinking more about…

  • Visitor studies as a tool for organizational change → need to work with CEOs

  • Accessing boards

  • Influence

  • Organizational culture

This was a frequent theme at the conference this year. Museum evaluators and other visitor researchers naturally want their work to make a difference to the institutions they inhabit (or work with as consultants). And they’re thinking big about visitors, impacts, values, and effectiveness — thinking in ways that could really help those organizations. But the fact is that most trustees and museum directors, not to mention many museum and informal learning professionals in other disciplines and departments, are kept at a distance from visitor studies because of institutional hierarchies, silos, and communication dynamics. So the field feels a little stymied, and its members are asking themselves what they should be doing to educate their colleagues and better communicate the value of their work. (Note this year’s conference theme: understanding the public value of visitor studies.) ...

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Categories: Assessment, Conferences, Learning, Metrics, Museums, Research issues, Visitor experience
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April 22, 2010

Blood and thunder: Santa Fe museum notes, Part 2

What’s the history-museum equivalent of a real page-turner? Museum professionals talk about the power of storytelling, but often exhibit stories are so broad they feel like summaries — book-jacket blurbs rather than the book itself.

Last weekend I posted about visiting the New Mexico History Museum, whose main permanent exhibit, “Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now,” opened last year but already feels dated, at least to me. Yet it represents typical contemporary practice in history museums — heck, even “best practices” in many ways. So the questions I’m raising are less criticisms of this installation and more a lob in the ongoing volley about how museums think about the “rules” and strategies of engagement.

In the same spirit, here’s an observation about the sheer breadth of the narratives that exhibits like these tend to tackle. That title, “Telling New Mexico,” says it all: this is 500 years of stories in six subdivided galleries, starting “Beyond History’s Records” and eventually arriving at “Becoming the Southwest” and “My New Mexico.”

Such breadth, coupled with the necessary brevity of panel texts and object labels, results in a level of generality that might seem comical if we weren’t so used to it. Here’s the only mention I saw of Kit Carson, that conflicted nemesis of the Navajos whose military genius led to the infamous “Long Walk,” in which hundreds of Navajo men, women, and children died:

In 1826, a restless 16-year-old Kit Carson arrived in Taos, New Mexico. Three years later, he was on his first trapping expedition. One of the most famous men of the West, he led a complex, adventurous life as a hunter, scout, soldier, rancher, and Indian fighter.

Texts like these are unsatisfying on almost every level. They raise more questions than they answer (Why was he famous? Was it somehow unusual for a newcomer to go on a trapping expedition at the age of 19? What was complex about his life?).

But the chief question they raise is, “Why should we care?” The panel feels dutiful, as if the curators were checking off an item on their list. It neither conveys their interest in the subject nor sparks our own. ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, History museums, Innovation, Institutional personality, Museums, Visitor experience
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April 17, 2010

Santa Fe museum notes, Part 1

The New Mexico History Museum opened last year, but the permanent exhibits feel like 20th-century thinking. They made me wonder — again — why museums are so uncomfortable taking a stand on their own content.

I was in Santa Fe last week, hiking, gallery-hopping, and choosing between red and green chili. One of my first stops was the New Mexico History Museum, which opened a year ago behind the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors, America’s oldest operating government building. (Take that, New England.)

The permanent exhibits convey some of that revisionist spirit, reorienting America’s origin story away from England and the northeast and toward Spain, Mexico and the southwest. That’s refreshing: we come to museums in part to have our assumptions shaken up a little. I could feel that pleasurable sense of something being reframed in my head as I made my way through the galleries.

But the means by which the museum conveys that fresh story felt incongruously dated. Contrary to the museum’s intentions, expressed in its press releases and brochures, the core exhibits struck me as familiar, handsome, institutional museum display and discourse: dispassionate, “objective,” and didactic, a one-way communication of facts and images from museum to visitor.

The facts, objects, and images are certainly interesting, and they’re juxtaposed in accessible, thoughtfully-designed displays. But they’re merely interesting: a cerebral experience rather than a social, ethical, emotional, or spiritual one.

There’s nothing unusual about this; I could have been in any serious, accredited history museum in America. So with apologies to NMHM, I’ll argue that there are two kinds of lost opportunities here. ...

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Categories: Culture sector, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Visitor experience
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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