Sunday, 4 November 2012

Why museums matter: 'Museum Ideas 2012 - Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture'

In early October I attended Museum/iD's conference, Museum Ideas 2012 - Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture. I've posted the first part of my notes at 'War, Plague and Fire' and 'Bootstrapping Innovation in Museums' at 'Museum Ideas 2012 - Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture'.

I'll start this with a 'too long; didn't read' version: overall, the themes of the day seemed to be a version of Tim O'Reilly's 'work on stuff that matters', whether it's improving economic or social justice or helping museums cope with the need for constant evolution in a time of change. Museums matter, and the work people do in museums matters, whether they're reaching new audiences by reconsidering technology or marketing campaigns. There was also a thread around challenging dominant versions of history and confronting stereotypes, whether challenging YouTube viewers with performance art or democratising the process of documenting history.  Many of the projects we heard about were also strongly tied to the mission of their museum or team (and none of them were about technology in its own right).

The final speaker before lunch was Tate Media's Jane Burton, who spoke on Radical art experiences for the online space. She tied their work in creating 'radical content' for existing online spaces where their audiences are (i.e. not expecting them to come to your museum or your website) to Tate's mission to increase the publics' understanding and enjoyment of art. Their Tate Shots reach an audience of 3 million people a year directly, and more through syndication to the Guardian, Huffington Post, etc. The videos are about 3 minutes long and capture the artists visiting the galleries, working on exhibitions, etc; they're relatively unformated and don't have a presenter - the ease of being able to create them means they have a living archive of films that can exist online for free forever. They refuse to pay annual rights charges to show art in the films so they work with living artists they can get permissions from.

Tate has a small team with limited resources so they collaborate with others to reach audiences. Burton discussed a project with BMW on YouTube ('people weren't expecting to see performance art when looking for pandas' but some of the people who happened upon it stayed, particularly as they were engaged in conversation with art-loving audience members); Tate Kids film project; the Gallery of Lost Art (which turns the gradual release of archival material into an asset: posts to social media keep audiences coming back); Exquisite Forest. She also talked about mobile - 10% of traffic to their website is on mobile devices (which seems low, mobile traffic for a multi-museum project I'm working with averages about 17-20%) - and 'playful apps'. Advice on risk-taking: 'don't ask the directors, just do it'. They did three apps that might not have gotten permission to go ahead if they'd asked. Tate Trumps (updated after getting flack in the iTunes store about not being able to play outside the gallery); Race Against Time - play as a chameleon restoring colour to the world, 'activate the game at Tate Modern for special powers'; Magic Tate Ball shows artwork from Tate's datavase selected by time of day, weather, ambient sound, location of the device. They've had over 100,000 downloads across those platforms. Magic Tate Ball was received really well in India on Nokia phones, highligting that you need to think about your role in the world, not just the UK.

The next speaker was Louise Shannon from the VA's Contemporary Programmes team on Strategies for engagement: contemporary programmes at the V&A. Their goal is to support creative design, engage diverse audiences, be open and engaged, and have a global point of view. They have two exhibitions a year in a dedicated contemporary space; exhibitions that are popular and accessible, agenda-setting and responsive (critical) and creative, spectacular, risk-taking. Their projects include an experiment with an 'open source marketing campaign' for Decode - people could take the animation code, re-work it and re-publish it on the V&A website; through a partnership with a media placement company it might also be projected in tube stations or end up on posters. [Partnerships for broader reach was a theme in Jane Burton's talk about Tate, too, but it's only now that I've thought to ask about advice on partnerships for museums that aren't super-brands in their own right.]. Shannon also discussed the V&A's Friday Lates, part of their programme since 1999: 'the two staples are a DJ and a bar, everything else changes'.

Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community and Access, MoMA spoke on Advanced Style: Why Museums Ought to Respect Their Elders, pointing out that 'we are all apprentice older people. We can do this right, or we can do this wrong'. Like any accessibility issue, 'when we make changes for older visitors we make the museum better for all'. Her talk was inspired by the book and blog, 'Advanced Style', though that's only one model - there's more variety among older people than any other age group. Rosenberg pointed out that older people have time to devote to civil engagement, so design projects so they can participate, or re-market the programmes you already have. MoMA did a study with NYU to evaluate the impact of the programme - less depression, more social connectedness, new appreciation of their loved one. Personally, this was one of the most inspiring talks of the day, partly because it reminded us why museums do this work. The next speaker started by saying that MoMA's work inspired a project that his parents participate in, which just reinforced that.

Adam Rozan spoke on SURVIVAL: The Case for Evolutionary Adaptation In Museums. His
metaphor of 'evolutionary adaptation' echoed Sharon Ament's keynote in calling change 'the new normal'. He talked about 'five ways Starbucks are changing the game (even though they are already doing well)', (an unfortunate choice as many people in the room didn't seem to like Starbucks), then asked why do museums do the things they do? Are museums thriving? Attendance is up but there are lot of museums that aren't doing that well. He added together the museums that increased and decreased visits to get a 'stagnancy' figure. Overall museums aren't doing that well, the US is seeing stagnancy across the board. Our populations are changing, we can't keep doing the same things and expect the same outcomes. Rozan pointed out that lots of people are competing with museum-like experiences, whether MOOCs or Starbucks and called for people to re-imagine the museum - museums as living spaces; as content creators; as education centres.

The tone changed after the break as Lisa Junkin from the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago talked about Report to the Public: dangerous histories, public history and community development and an exhibition about the 'Conservative Vice Lords'. They're interested in how museums contribute to the growth and development of local communities, particularly of under-served communities. The CVL exibition was a co-curated pilot exhibit, taken on by their nineteenth century historic house museum because their museum is dedicated to dangerous ideas, encouraing discourse not as 'superficial consensus building but fostering dissent'. The house is dedicated to Jane Addams, the first woman to be given a Nobel Peace Prize, also called the 'most dangerous woman in America'. But it turned out that the exhibition was so controversial that they struggled to bring it into the neighbourhood because of fear of vandalism from other gangs. They ultimately displayed the original artefacts outside the area itself and put panels in local shop windows instead. The panels had numbers to call to hear audio content or to leave their own memories of the CVL. The exhibition closes by asking 'what next?'. Junkin also pointed out that museums have unique role to play with counterpublics, but museums are still often complicit in marginalising the publics they're meant to serve. In sharing the museum's authority and social capital with community groups, they can amplify their marginalised voices.

Jennifer Scott of the Weeksville Heritage Center, Brooklyn spoke on Normalcy as Innovation: Radical Dignity and the Right to Historical Inclusion. Weeksville marks a history that was erased from the books, but luckily for them both its nineteeth century and 1960s histories were victories. They work hard for historical inclusion: 'everything that we do is to democratise the documentation process of history', and participation is 'never a choice for us'. It was created by the community so they do everything they can to support the needs of the community. They interpret the everyday lives of ordinary people ('what was it like to be a free black New Yorker in 1838?'), normalising them in contrast to the 'histories of deviance' and traumatic events like slavery and civil rights-related violence that usually attends black history in America. The Weeksville site is an answer to assumptions and stereotypes about black history. They've created historical interpretive narratives that they've noticed visitors respond to then translated them into core values that are reflected in their tours, events and programmes. They include everything from 'girls night out' film nights with wine and cheese or a farmers market to cutting-edge art. Like Junkin's talk, this was a powerful reflection on the ways in which museums can work towards greater social justice, and like Rosenberg's talk, it left me feeling inspired by the good that museums can do.

The final presentation was from Tony Butler of the Museum of East Anglian Life, Everybody's Happy Nowadays: How museums can create conditions for well-being without costing the earth. He talked about the need to address 'bigger than self' issues and the challenge of making them relevant to everyday lives of people. People not only beneficiaries but also co-curators of the space at MEAL; they're not just a knowledge-based institution but also part of an active citizenry. He quoted Polly Toynbee on 'the most unequal societies are the least happy' and discussed alternatives to economic orthodoxy - 'one where planet and people matter' like Bhutan's 'gross domestic happiness'. MEAL's principles are: stewardship; participation; social enterprise; mindfulness, and a study has shown that for every £1 invested with them, they have generated £4 of social value. He said 'participation' is not just asking visitors what they think of the museum, and asked museums to get beyond 'participation-lite'.

Disclosure: my ticket was provided by Museum/iD. Many thanks to the speakers for their excellent presentations.  Some of the speakers on twitter include @ljunkin @tonybutler1 @adamrozan @francescatime @sebchan @rjstein.

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