Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Meditations on Relevance, Part 2: Content vs. Form

In pop culture-land, relevance is all about now. Who's hot. What's trending. If people on the street are talking about X, the museum should be talking about X too.

This is the least useful form of relevance for the arts. "Now" is not an easy business model to chase--especially for institutions rooted in permanence. "Now" requires major changes to how we work and what we offer. "Now" comes off as disingenuous and irrelevant if done wrong. And now is not tomorrow. It is not the long term. It is just now. Endlessly, persistently, expensively, now.

I used to work at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA. Our mandate was to be the museum of Silicon Valley--not of its material history, but its pulse of innovation. This was impossible. The exhibits we put on the floor were immediately dated. Their physicality, long timelines, and big budgets made them immutable objects. They didn't speak to the thrilling drumbeat of change at the heart of innovation.

The problem was not one of content but one of form. This isn't just a science center problem. It's a cultural institution problem. The solution is in focusing on changing form more than content. Changing hours and pricing. Curatorial processes. Interpretative techniques.

Consider the experiments at the New World Symphony in Miami, where they are performing classical orchestral music for outdoor "wallcasts" that include projections and visual content. Or Streb Labs, where choreographer Elizabeth Streb flipped the traditional dance model by opening a 24/7, open-access venue for practice and performance. Or museums that extend their hours to match working people's schedules.

These institutions are not being relevant by presenting cat selfies curated by a hot celebrity. They are making canonical content relevant by updating the form. 

William F. Buckley, the conservative political commentator, said: “Modern formulations are necessary even in defense of very ancient truths. Not because of any alleged anachronism in the old ideas ... but because the idiom of life is always changing and we need to say things in such a way as to get inside the vibrations of modern life.”

Changing the form is about adapting to the vibrations of modern life. You can make "inaccessible" content relevant if you put it on a pedestal that speaks to today. The pedestal of today may be irreverent, or political, or multi-sensory. It may be loud or quiet. Digital or analog. The pedestals will keep changing with the times. The content needn't.

Of course, sometimes when you create a new format that prioritizes "the vibrations of modern life," those vibrations can affect the content. Consider the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum's "Rethinking Soup" lunch series, in which community members share a meal and discussion about social justice issues. Once you put that weekly lunch on the calendar, you're going to fill the bowl weekly with content. Sometimes, that content may be of-the-moment. Other times, grounded in the museum's collection. The weekly format doesn't prescribe contemporary content. But it makes space for it when warranted.

New formats introduce structural changes, whereas new content may only hit the surface. When a museum hosts a one-off community conversation in response to a national crisis, I often wonder: is this opportunistic? Are they taking up a hot topic briefly, only to retreat when the fire goes out? I worry that they will check it off the "relevance" list and forget about it. I worry they won't do the full work of changing to be more relevant in the long-term.

This kind of change is taxing. Relevance is only worth the effort when it is a gateway to utility and meaning. If making something more relevant makes it less meaningful, it's not worth it.

Consider the Victoria and Albert Museum's "rapid response collecting" program, which started in 2013. Curators acquire and display contemporary objects via "a new strand to the V&A museum's collections policy, which can respond very quickly to events relevant to design and technology."

I applaud the V&A for changing their acquisition format to be more responsive to modern life--no easy feat. Yet I'm unsure about its value. Museums have huge issues with overstuffed collection stores of dubious relevance to the modern day. Does collecting more stuff faster help improve relevance? Or does it accelerate an unhealthy emphasis on the "now?"

One of the objects the V&A collected is a pair of jeans produced at a Bangladeshi factory near another factory that collapsed. What's the value of a pair of store-bought jeans made nearby the site of the tragedy? This kind of relevance is a second-class offering to the cult of "now." If the V&A wants to speak to that tragedy, there other objects in its collection that could bring meaning (and relevance) to it. Objects rescued from factory fires. Objects made under duress. Objects that breathe life into the issue at hand.

"Now" matters, but not as much as utility and meaning. "Now" can distract from the real work of relevance--making cultural institutions useful, meaningful, and connected to people's lives. Not just now. Later, too.


This essay is part of a series of meditations on relevance. If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts. At the end of the series, I'll re-edit the whole thread into a long format essay. I look forward to your examples, amplifications, and disagreements shaping the story ahead.

Here's my question for you: How do you perceive the difference between relevance of form and content? Are there examples (of either) that have had lasting impact on the relevance of your institution? 

If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.
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