Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How Can Museums Shift, If The "Old Guard" Doesn't Budge?

I worry a bit about museums.

There are significant shifts happening in the Museum Biz, reflective of society at large.  Things like co-creation, crowd sourcing, the rise of Maker Spaces, "everyone a curator," digital distribution of experiences, and the unfortunate mismatch between the demographics of museum audiences (older, richer, whiter) and the growth of the communities around them (younger, less white, less affluent).

Designer Anab Jain frames changes like these as The New Normal

In one way, the New Normal ---  these continuing shifts and changes, provide tremendous opportunities.  On the other hand, the notion of things like "Art Everywhere" that this article posits, or the notion of creating museums without the onerous overhead and infrastructure of buildings, is a bit scary and confusing.

But I feel like many long-term museum leaders (the "Old Guard" if you will) are either ignoring or disparaging the changes embedded in the New Normal in favor of doing things the way they've always been done before.

That "this is the way we've always done things" approach didn't work out well for the auto companies in Detroit, and it isn't working out so well for print media like newspapers.  I can't see how that oblivious "we've always done it this way" approach will work out well for museums, either.

When I first started working in museums over 30 years ago, I thought I could I could just "wait out" the Old Guard, but in some ways, I feel like I'm still waiting.  There's an obstreperous and intransigent lot that seems like they'll never get off the stage and give the younger people coming up behind them a chance to help the museum field grow and evolve.

Maybe the Old Guard in museums has just always been resistant to change.  In years past, cultural institutions without "formal collections" (like many children's museums and science centers) weren't even officially considered museums. 

Maybe this is also partially a generational thing.  A recent Wall Street Journal article, "Everybody's an Art Curator" discusses outsourcing exhibits to the crowd, and then asks "Is it time to rethink the role of the museum?" One telling part of the article describes a (former) employee of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History who quit after a planning meeting for an exhibition project.  “It really looked like a bunch of college kids had gotten drunk and decorated their dorm rooms,” said the 66-year-old Santa Cruz resident, who has worked as a curator for 25 years.

As someone who participated in that particular project in Santa Cruz (and who admittedly was once an occasionally drunk college student) I would gladly stack the body of my work (and the work of fellow participants like Dan Spock, Kathy McLean, Maria Mortati, and Eric Siegel, to name a few) against the "sour grapes" objections of that particular curator, who refused to even be part of the process!

So what to do about all of this?  

First off,  I'd applaud the work of folks like Susie Wilkening and James Chung of Reach Advisors who realize that one important way to help museums become more relevant to shifting audiences (and funders!) is through data-driven, research-based approaches, not self-congratulatory, anecdotal "feel good" stories about our impact.

I'd also call out some of the excellent creative partners I've had the pleasure of working with on recent projects  --- museum professionals who continue to look for better ways to engage our audiences in meaningful and authentic experiences, both inside and outside museums.  Folks like Sean Duran at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in Miami, and Vessela Gercheva at Muzeiko in Bulgaria.  Ellie Byrom-Haley at Gecko Group, and Becky Lindsay at Mindsplash.

And lastly, I'd also recognize folks like Nina Simon (Director at the aforementioned Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz) and Seb Chan (Director of Digital & Emerging Technologies at the currently under renovation Cooper-Hewitt Museum in NYC)  who push the museum field to try important new things, and who share their successes and failures. 

As Seb said at a speech to graduating exhibition design students earlier this year: "The New Normal is here to stay.  It is times like these that we need museums more than ever to help us make sense of the present."

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