Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Museum Inside Out: Taking the Collection Out of the Closet

Inventory isn't a museum activity that inspires curiosity in many visitors. This summer, the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art (Österreichisches Museum für Volkskunde) is trying to change that. Since June 15, they have been hosting museum insideout, a "discourse and exhibit" project in which they are moving their back-of-house registration, classification, and conservation work out onto the gallery floors. (You can read more here in German.) Their goal is to "break through conventions" and create opportunities for dialogue with visitors about objects and their value that are not dictated by the museum's terms of exhibition presentation. As their director, Margot Schindler, put it:
In spaces and places where objects can be seen without benefit of specific settings or pre-ordained interpretations, it is easier to ask questions about their meaning, or their topicality, or even how one perceives them. The museum itself would like to build on this dialogue for its own future, whether in terms of exhibit contents, programmatic plans, or organizational mandates.
People often talk about non-collecting museums as the museums of the future. This is a great example of a collecting museum that won't accept a back seat on engaging visitor experiences. How does a place that fundamentally collects and cares for objects innovate the visitor experience? By opening up their practices--not just their content--to dialogue and interaction.

Collecting museums are full of secrets. As museums went from collections to designed spaces, most of the collection went behind the scenes. In my experience, non-museum professionals are constantly astounded to hear how many pieces of the collection are NOT on view to the public at any given time. Some collecting museums have integrated open collections storage into their public offering, so that visitors can browse the collection as they might books in a library, and others have opened up their conservation labs so that visitors can watch and understand the work involved in object care. And while both of those opportunities open up the visitor experience, they do so in the context of the visitor as a consumer, not as a participant. Yes, you get to look behind the scenes, but the experience is still largely a passive one.

The museum insideout experience is active, and potentially collaborative. Their emphasis isn't on museum professionals teaching skills or demonstrating actions; it's on discussion about these skills, actions, and objects. It's important that they chose to put the experience out on the exhibit floors rather than welcoming visitors into conservation and registration areas. This may be a logistical choice--galleries may be generally better-suited for public engagement--but I also like the philosophical implication that the dialogue between visitors and staff IS the exhibit experience. This isn't "take your visitor to work" day. It's "take your work to the visitor" day. The museum is privileging the visitor's space, rather than their back offices and labs, as the place where the dialogue will happen.

This may sound like a simple distinction, but it's a big step towards being comfortable with other kinds of risks and experimentation on the exhibition floor. It's a project in the same vein as the Ontario Science Centre's rapid prototyping sessions, which take place on the floor, or any museum's willingness to put out unfinished exhibits or labels for visitor use and review. These kinds of experiences break down some of the museum's authority that emanates from heavily designed spaces and exhibitions. It's the ultimate "open architecture," where the work of the museum is the experience of the visitors, rather than visitors experiencing some output of that work.

I've heard people from collecting museums talk about themselves as "stewards of community property." I think there are very few visitors who enter collecting museums and feel like part-owners of the objects or the experience. The museum owns the stuff, and the visitors get to look at it. That's it. It's projects like insideout that can help visitors feel like they are part of the experience of defining and evaluating the objects, of owning the objects and, ultimately, the museum itself.

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