Museums Reimagined

Museums Reimagined

Published on Monday, May 18, 2015. This article appears in the June/July 2015 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Author Staff
Avant Brunch Chefs

Chefs prepare plates for an Avant Brunch, a quarterly multi-sensory dining experience at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Photo: Nathaniel Edmunds Photography

“Museums came of age during the Industrial Revolution, when large, time-intensive efforts to create one-size-fits-all experiences like exhibitions worked remarkably well,” says John H. Falk, co-author of The Museum Experience Revisited and one of the experts we consulted about contemporary issues confronting museums. “Clearly today this approach does not work so well.” Today, museums face not only a fractured, often impatient audience, but also competition from a host of leisure activities – from shopping to movies to social media. They have to balance their role as protector of artifacts with the need to welcome the public. They need to provide space for contemplation – and interaction. They need to probe the past even as they look to the future. 

We asked eight thinkers who have wrestled with these very quandaries to answer three questions, considering how museums can be as relevant and essential as possible in our culture. Here’s what they had to say.

Q1: What is one way that museums can balance education and entertainment in their programs?
John H. Falk: Far too much ink and angst have been wasted within the museum community debating the false dichotomy of education and entertainment. Museum visitors seek both to learn and enjoy themselves. The difficulty is in developing educationally oriented experiences that are at appropriate levels of interest and intellectual challenge for the wide diversity of people who visit museums. Seeking a single, common-denominator solution is not the answer. A more successful way to accomplish this seemingly impossible balancing act is to create different museum experiences targeted at different audiences – for example, some experiences might be designed for a knowledgeable hobby group while another might seek to appeal to those who have never even thought about a particular topic. In this way the museum can collectively meet the needs of a large and diverse set of audiences but avoid the trap of trying to satisfy every person with every experience. 

Nina Simon: Stop worrying about the difference between education and entertainment. As long as people are engaged with your mission, you’re doing your work properly. For some museums, that means creating amazing learning environments. For others, it’s about aesthetic or emotional engagement. For still others, it’s about igniting curiosity. To me, there is no universal prescription for how a museum should program – as long as it has a mission and focuses ruthlessly on it.

Sree Sreenivasan: The Met is successful because we are able to maintain our scholarly standards while being accessible to the public. The key is storytelling. Our video series 82nd & Fifth is an example of how we are able to educate and entertain at the same time. A hundred curators talk about their 100 favorite objects, in two minutes each. 

Caroline Baumann: We’ve turned the museum inside out by creating a dynamic and immersive environment that invites participation, not just observation. Cooper Hewitt’s new visitor experience includes the high-tech Immersion Room where we’re using cutting-edge technology to bring to life our historic collection of wallpaper. In this space, visitors can explore digital images of the museum’s wallpapers and see them projected onto the walls at full scale, as they were intended to be viewed, or sketch their own designs. The interactive experience is married with relevant interpretation, including the ability to browse through more than 200 historic wallpaper samples and watch short videos where design professionals speak about what inspires them. By sketching their own wallpaper designs, visitors can better understand the importance of design elements, especially how patterns, repeats, and colors can have a major impact in a room. Visitors have been lining up for their chance to play designer and sharing their creative designs on social media.

Holly Jerger: Craft is in a unique position to address the blending of education and entertainment, as people often make things in their leisure time. At CAFAM, we value our visitors making something while they are here as much as we value people experiencing our exhibitions. The opportunities for making are often directly connected to the artworks on display and add layers of enjoy-ment and understanding to our exhibitions.

Namita Gupta Wiggers: Education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Smaller, nimble museums, such as the Craft and Folk Art Museum and Museum of Contemporary Craft design experience into their curatorial projects. The Denver Art Museum’s incorporation of interactive stations throughout the museum is exemplary – and includes both stand-alone and embedded spaces for active process within exhibition galleries. 

Scott Stulen: Museums can balance entertainment and education by grounding everything in their mission, while making the experience of going to the museum into an engaging social outing. One way is by making unexpected juxtapositions to find new connections between the museum and everyday life. For example, at the IMA, we offer an ARTxFIT class, which explores physicality in art through a combination of in-gallery lessons and aerobic activity. We host quarterly Avant Brunch events that merge quietly listening to unreleased music, eating an exclusive menu by a local chef, all set in an unusual space within the museum campus. These programs bring together different creative fields and showcase the museum as a hub of diverse activities, not just a static collection of objects, while creating a memorable experience that could only happen at the museum. Our motto is that fun does not need to be frivolous, nor does smart need to be boring.

Cindi Strauss: Our goal is to offer our viewers engaging experiences through our exhibitions, programming, and special events. If we are successful, they should be equally informative and enjoyable. There is no magic formula. It is all about understanding your audience and establishing initiatives that best serve them and the mission of the institution.

Q2: Exhibitions are a slow medium, taking months and even years to put together. Yet people increasingly demand real-time information. What's one way that museums can resolve that conflict?
Cindi Strauss
: There are many types of museums, many of which have shorter lead times for exhibitions than large, encyclopedic museums like the MFAH. These more nimble institutions tend to be non-collecting and therefore operate much closer to real time in their exhibition programming. That said, for larger institutions like mine, there are a number of strategies that we are employing in addition to using our website, cell-phone tours, in-gallery programming and tours, and apps to provide up-to-date content. These include having short-term, pop-up-like installations that present a significant current work for a month or so. These installations occur throughout the museum, allowing for unexpected and lively exchanges with the public.

Namita Gupta Wiggers: It is imperative that curators have time to delve deeply into projects. Research is foreshortened all too often to accommodate running the museum as a business. However, there are ways to rethink how museums employ their spaces to develop new exhibition models with different durational limits – and those can reveal curatorial process. What could exhibition prototyping look and feel like? Could small spaces be used to explore topics of current interest and research-in-progress in quicker rotation versus the longer exhibitions requiring large amounts of dedicated space? What might happen if the spaces within museums were used differently – turning dedicated galleries for specific periods into flexible, adaptable spaces? 

Social media is an obvious answer to the public desire for rapid responses. But curators are trained for marathons, not sprints. This makes social media outlets seem irrelevant and a distraction for many. Museums must treat social media with the same thoughtful attention devoted to collection-building and exhibitions. 

Caroline Baumann: Museums showing contemporary work absolutely compete against the real time of the internet and need to be creative in finding ways for spontaneity in exhibition installations and programming. As a design museum, we work to be very responsive in how we collect and exhibit objects that are current and relevant right now, from newly released designs to prototypes, or projects that address timely issues. One example is our 2008 partnership with the New York City Department of Transportation, where we exhibited the finalists in a contest to design a more functional bike rack and raise the profile of cycling as both a convenient and eco-friendly mode of transportation.

John H. Falk: Museums came of age during the Industrial Revolution when large, time-intensive efforts to create one-size-fits-all experiences like exhibitions worked remarkably well. Clearly, today this ap-proach does not work so well. The next-generation museum education solution has yet to be invented. Museums are left to experiment with alternative strategies, strategies that can more nimbly meet visitor needs. One promising solution that many museums have been experimenting with is to create the shell of an exhibition with objects and interactives but replace the labels with digital tools such as cell phones or loaned tablets. This allows the “interpretation” to be constantly updated and customized while leaving the core of the experience stable. Only time will determine whether this or any of the many other solutions being tried at the moment prove to be a suitable long-term answer.

Holly Jerger: Incorporating interactive components where visitors can express their ideas about the exhibition themes can make the experience more relevant to them.

Nina Simon: Think about exhibitions as a time-based medium. They can evolve and change over time if they are designed to do so. That can take the form of asking artists to engage differently with the space over time (through new work, workshops, or performances). It can also take the form of opening up space for visitors to contribute their stories and perspectives to the exhibition. The bravest exhibitions aren’t “done” on opening night; they grow and morph until they close.

Scott Stulen: The answer is going digital. While the painstaking process of developing exhibitions remains unchanged, many museums are responding to the demands for real-time information through savvy and timely use of social media platforms. The ability to use social media to contextualize works in the collection, respond to current events, and solicit dialogue among patrons makes the museum feel alive and connected to the outside world. It is more than a marketing platform; it’s a place for audiences to share their experience and give honest feedback. I have personally used social media as a real-time survey of programming successes and failures. Problems with ticketing, amenities, or even event content can be identified and addressed immediately by scanning Twitter traffic, often while the event is still happening. 

Sree Sreenivasan: Just having great exhibitions isn’t good enough anymore. You can tie current events to almost any exhibition through social media. Basically, you want to give people a reason to pay attention.

Q3: Museum members tend to be older and white. What's one way that museums can be more relevant to visitors who are younger and more diverse?
Namita Gupta Wiggers
: Stop asking the question of the same people, and start asking questions of the communities you need to serve. Consider models such as the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, where the community is built into the process of creating exhibitions and programs. This means shifting power structures and longstanding paradigms, asking tough questions, and responding to the answers with real change that may not result in museums that look like museums today. 

On a pragmatic level: Do the hours of your museum meet the work schedules of the communities with whom you want to connect? Is public transportation or the cost of admission a barrier to visitation? What makes new visitors feel welcome? How can you engage staff – at all levels – to actively ask, listen, and act toward change?

Nina Simon: Spend time learning about your audiences of interest – who they are, what they seek, what inspires them, what they need, what skills they have to offer. Many museums make the mistake of trying to force-fit existing programming to new audiences. Being successful means flipping the formula. When you develop programming based on authentic community needs and assets, your programming becomes responsive and relevant. 

Sree Sreenivasan: Every museum can easily be more attractive to diverse groups in the community by demonstrating it’s an open, welcoming place. Your programming, your staff, your art need to be diverse if you want a diverse audience. You can’t do what you’ve been doing for 50 years and then complain the audience is evolving. 

Cindi Strauss: For most museums, relevance begins with reaching out to school-age children of all socio-economic groups in the hope that it will make them lifelong museum visitors and that they will, in the short term, bring their families and friends back with them. But museums have to do more than this; they must break down perceived as well as economic barriers to entry and find ways to turn one-off visits for exhibitions and special events into repeat attendance.

Scott Stulen: In general, younger audiences are not seeking solitary activities, but rather opportunities to gather with friends to socialize around something unique. Inventive programming is the vehicle to make the museum more accessible, playful, and conducive to social interaction. This is not a rejection of the content in the museum, just a new way to frame the museum. At the IMA I have started a division called ARTx to introduce more experimental programs of this nature. It’s early, but the programming is drawing younger and more diverse audiences and is attracting more of our “traditional” members. If you can create a program that both the hipsters and board members are attending, that is a huge win.

Caroline Baumann: At Cooper Hewitt, we’re committed to providing stellar design education to our community, from toddlers to adults, including a wonderful initiative called DesignPrep, which brings free in-depth design education programs to more than 600 New York City high school students each year. Through active engagement in the design process, students understand the many ways designers think and make, and gain important 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, teamwork, and problem solving. At the 2013 Teen Design Fair, more than a third of the attendees identified themselves as Latino, followed by 28 percent African American, 13 percent multi-racial, 11 percent Asian, and 8 percent white. By reaching out to this generation, we help youth from many backgrounds learn about viable careers in design, ultimately improving the diversity of the many fields of design.

Holly Jerger: Take the artwork outside the museum’s walls. At CAFAM, we’ve been working to do this through our outreach program, Folk Art Everywhere, and by activating our streetside presence with artists’ projects on the museum’s façade and in our front windows. Through Folk Art Everywhere, workshops and artwork are offered in the places people work and live, and the program manager collaborates with those communities to develop the programs. The first CAFAM façade project, “Granny Squared,” was proposed and executed by Yarn Bombing Los Angeles, a collective that meets monthly at the museum. That project had a huge impact, and it really inspired us to think outside the normal exhibition space. 

John H. Falk: Over the years museums have invested considerable effort in attempting to broaden their audiences. Overwhelmingly, these efforts have been framed around demographics, despite growing evidence that this approach is not particularly successful. Demographic categories are too broad to sufficiently describe, let alone predict, why people do or do not visit museums. Although currently the demographics of museums skew toward older, white visitors, these individuals are not visiting because they are older and white. People visit museums in order to satisfy their own needs and interests. If a person feels that a museum is a bad fit with their needs, they won’t visit. If museums want to attract individuals who currently do not visit, regardless of age or race-ethnicity, they need to better understand how these individuals define their needs and interests and determine how they can cost-effectively reframe their exhibitions, programs, and marketing to better fit those needs. 

The Panel

Caroline Baumann, director, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, which reopened in December after a three-year renovation

John H. Falk, professor, Oregon State University; co-author, The Museum Experience Revisited

Holly Jerger, senior curator of public engagement, Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles

Nina Simon, executive director, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History; author, The Participatory Museum

Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Cindi Strauss, assistant director, programming, and curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts and design, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Scott Stulen, curator of audience experiences and performance, Indianapolis Museum of Art

Namita Gupta Wiggers, former director and chief curator, Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, Oregon; ACC trustee