Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Convivial Museum (and a CONTEST!)

"The Convivial Museum" is a favorite book of mine because it touches on so many important aspects of the entire museum-going (and museum-making!) experience.  So I was delighted to be able to review the book by Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock for the current issue of Exhibitionist, the journal of the National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME.)  My review first appeared in Exhibitionist (Spring 2012) Vol.31 No.1, and is reproduced below with permission.

To share my enthusiasm for both Exhibitionist and The Convivial Museum, I've decided to run a little CONTEST for ExhibiTricks readers --- I'll be giving away a copy of The Convivial Museum to one person and copies of the latest issue of Exhibitionist to two other winners. 

All you have to do to be eligible to win is to either leave a comment describing your most "convivial" museum experience in the "Comments" Section below OR to sign-up to start receiving ExhibiTricks updates via email (by clicking near the top right of the blog home page) before Friday April 20th, 2012.  I'll choose one random winner each from the new email subscribers list and the Comments Section for the copies of Exhibitionist, and award the copy of The Convivial Museum to the best comment overall.

So without further ado, here's my review of "The Convivial Museum"

What does it mean to foster a “convivial” museum?  Co-authors Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock have answered that question masterfully in The Convivial Museum, a book that every museum worker should keep on a shelf nearby (or better yet, in the bag or briefcase you carry with you to work).

I found the book interesting from both a visual and structural standpoint. Rather than ticking through a checklist of convivial “dos and don’ts,” Pollock and McLean have instead packed their book with evocative black and white photographs as well as short text passages and quotations that serve as landmarks rather than mile markers to contemplate along the road to more convivial museums.. (Here each picture is certainly worth a thousand words!)

The Convivial Museum begins with a discussion of conviviality itself, then moves into broader sections of “Welcome, “ “Comfort,” “Being Alive Together” and “Convivial Practice.”  Each one of these main sections addresses key components of conviviality in the form of “Entry” or “Seating,” as aspects of “Comfort,” for example. Every page offers words and images to help you consider (and reconsider) your own notions of conviviality in a museum context.

Early on in the book, the description of a dinner party effectively helps illuminate ingredients of a convivial social experience --- making people feel welcome and comfortable, and seeding interesting conversations. This social/food analogy is a good one since it emphasizes sharing and finding ways to entertain and delight guests.  It sets up the notion of allowing museum visitors the time and space to approach things in a way that makes sense to them,  to offer surprises, and to reward contemplation. This rather than setting visitors trudging along a path of knowledge in between paying their admission fees and exiting through the gift shop.

So what sorts of things make for a more “convivial” museum?  Let’s take a brief walk through some of the key aspects that McLean and Pollock highlight in their book.


Let’s start with “Welcome,” the place where every museum visit begins, even before you walk through the front door. As The Convivial Museum indicates, a museum with legible signs on nearby highways, a ramp for strollers and wheelchairs, a clear entrance, is truly open to all. There are thoughtful nuggets to consider here: Christopher Alexander says that if a grand museum building is not thoughtfully oriented to its surroundings, it will become “socially isolated, because you have to cross a no-man’s land to get to it.”   This is followed up with a series of images showing a variety of   approaches to museums, both inside and out.. While all these physical welcome sequences are different, they are all accessible with clear signage and orientation. Convivial.

Ways to soften the often monumental stairs and entrances of the classical “Temple of the Muses” approach are featured in the “Welcome” section as well: a long bench in front of the sidewalk entrance to the Tenement Museum, or entrance doors for cyclists during “Bike Night” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. There are no “right answers” or dreaded “best practices” here, just good ideas to pick and choose and adapt.


Next we follow the convivial path to consider the importance of “Comfort” in a museum-going experience. How do you make everyone in your museum, from senior citizen to babe in arms, feel “at home”?  No small task, but it is surprising how often simple elements, like seating, are glossed over, or worse, deliberately eliminated from museum spaces. The call to arms (or bottoms) in this section of The Convivial Museum may well be “more places to sit, please!” 

No matter how well designed an exhibition space may be, or how carefully cultivated the “vibe” of a particular institution, McLean and Pollock rightfully point out that no single space, however well designed, will meet the needs and preferences of everyone. So another takeaway from the section on “Comfort” might be to emphasize the need to vary or even change up the rhythms and types of spaces, even within the same institution. These types of possible variations are explored through words and images that ask the reader to consider where concepts such as “Ambience,” “Light,” and “Sound” fit into the convivial mix.  It is interesting to consider how much emphasis museums and exhibit designers may focus on lighting while often being deaf to the cacophony inside exhibitions that detracts from the overall experience.

Being Alive Together

In the final broad section of The Convivial Museum, the authors take up the social construct of museum experiences, the notion of “Being Alive Together.”  As McLean and Pollock posit, “It is not enough to bring people together. There are plenty of places where people congregate, socialize, and talk. Convivial museums deepen the conversation and foster a genuine meeting of minds by offering up somethird thing as a focus of common interest or concern.”  

In a way, this part of The Convivial Museum asks the reader to move back and forth (like a visitor) between the “active” experiences and objects in the galleries, to the “interstitial” spaces like lounges and cafes that hold the entire convivial experience together. How can we encourage active participation or deep contemplation in our museums, but still offer places for a “time out” ? There’s lots of good stuff to consider here.

Convivial Practice

The Convivial Museum ends with a coda of sorts, by offering up its final section, entitled “Convivial Practice.”  And here Pollock and McLean help us consider, and wrestle with, aspects of museum and exhibition practice that might well be “baked in” challenges to conviviality, like the notion of admission. If we as a field are truly willing to consider Elaine Gurian’s premise that “... general admission charges are the single greatest impediment to making our museums fully accessible...”(2006) what do we do about it? How do we unspool or recast a huge institutional and cultural notion to become more truly convivial?   Again there are no clear prescriptions here, but there are examples and thoughts to help us consider such roadblocks (or merely speed bumps?) on the road to more convivial museums.

The section on “Convivial Practice” ends by acknowledging one of the primary difficulties in becoming a more convivial practitioner, or of helping to foster or create more convivial museums: running out of time. While every museum job description seemingly includes the phrase, “and other duties as required...,” The Convivial Museum asks us to step back from our sometimes overwhelming quantitative concerns and to slow down, try things out, and talk things over. In our headlong rush to “keep our numbers up” we need to acknowledge that the qualitative aspects of our jobs and institutions are essential as well.

The Convivial Museum is very much a work that asks you to take the time to consider these qualitative properties of our museums. This book makes you think and ponder. Like a satisfying museum experience, it sets the stage carefully for contemplation and rewards your patience and consideration. Pollock and McLean help you remember the types of museum experiences that got you into this business in the first place. And what could be more convivial than that?

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  1. I would say that the most convivial museum I've ever known as a visitor has been Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, MA. It's an outdoor living history museum with a long community history, and that feeling of community is embedded in the institution, along with a really wonderful sense of place. It offers a great mix of active interaction (scheduled demonstrations and programs with interpreters), passive interaction (hands-on activities available for those who are interested), and simple welcoming space - its buildings are wonderfully evocative. They've also done a good job of letting people interact with the natural setting by putting in a couple of nature walks that offer great views, and there always seems to be a bench in just the right place to sit and rest underneath an apple tree, or near to the cow pasture. Recently, they've begun offering crafting workshops for adults and children. I've seen a lot of school groups go through a lot of museums, and I've never once seen a group at OSV doing that passive, eyes-down, drudge-walk that I have seen a number of time at other places.

    Interestingly, I've gotten that same sense of place and community from other museums at which I've been a staff member, and I wonder how much of that is my ability to be in the spaces after hours, alone, and soak them up on my own time? I used to sit on the stairs at Orchard House, in Concord, MA (my first job) and just soak the place up. I remember thinking that the house itself had soaked up all those years of love and happiness and that it could radiate them right back through the walls. I honestly couldn't say how much of that was accessible to the everyday visitor, though.

    1. Hi Amanda,

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  2. As for myself, I think conviviality is found in the people who create these experiences. Even if the methods are conventional, the joy one takes in their work is bound to shine through in the institution. There’s a great case to be made for a vibrant docent and volunteer program being at the top of the list rather than somewhere in the middle for just this reason. The more people there are to bring their own passion and joy to a place, the more passion and joy there will be.

    But to be honest, “convivial” is not necessarily a word that comes to mind right off when I think of museums. Zoos have always felt this way to me, especially with the newer innovations in recreating habitat. I can remember climbing through tunnels with my nephew, bumping my head, and laughing together at the Minnesota History Center years ago, but it’s difficult to say if that was because I was with my nephew or because of the museum itself. It was certainly joyful, but then any time with my nieces and nephews is usually a gas. Places that invite family to be together seem to fit the bill.

    Yet having said that, I can think of many specific moments of personal joy, even to tears, when viewing paintings at the Minneapolis Art Institute (I used to go there often to see just one picture), the Chicago, the Kimball, Metropolitan, and Houston Museum of Fine Arts, as well as several museums and churches in Europe. I’m not sure what that is about. The setting is conventional, even quite formal. Perhaps these paintings I’ve gazed at for so long in books somehow seem to belong to me. When I finally am privileged to draw near to a great work in a museum gallery the effect can be almost (dare I say it) spiritual.

    Access is something we are very proud that we offer in the archives world. The personal documents, records, photos and films we preserve are there for anyone to access and even handle. Researchers make them into something new like a book or a film, and students use them to do reports and papers. They have a life of their own because people can get at them. The fact that museums provide access to important cultural artifacts is, I would say, the source of many levels of happiness for us all. We may not really have a sense of how unique our democratic age is in this respect. As well, making knowledge “accessible” is perhaps the most people-friendly thing any science or history museum can do with exhibits. Concern over access and accessibility helps me design empathetically. But that's no secret. I do think it's a multitude of small details more than anything else that make an exhibit accessible whether something is particularly novel or conventional.

    A few years ago, my wife and I were in Rome searching out all the Caravaggio pictures. We discovered on the last evening of our visit that there were two in a historic mansion just a couple blocks away from our hotel. We had about 30 minutes before the place was closing so we ran. We were greeted by a young woman with a warm smile. She tried to offer us headphones for tour, but we declined saying we just wanted to see the Carravaggios. At that point, her “convivial” attitude turned to a chagrin, complete with an eye roll as she looked at her colleague and said something in Italian, which I’m guessing went something like “bloody tourists here to see the Carravaggios.” They begrudgingly sent us on our way. Out of breath and laughing at how we were rushing past so many other works of art, we found our paintings. In the light of that evening “golden hour” slanting through a window we sat on a bench together catching our breath and marveling at pictures that seemed like miracles. At one time, this mansion was only for the elite of Rome I’m sure. At least we had access to them, and as far as feeling convivial, nothing could have made us feel more welcome and “befriended” in that moment than being there with those pictures.

    1. Hi Steve,

      Please email me to claim your prize!