Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Book Club Part 3b: Talking Institutional Change with Elaine Gurian

On Tuesday, I reviewed Elaine Gurian’s essay, Choosing Among the Options, on museum archetypes and self-definition. (Next Tuesday, we'll look at chapters 16 and 17, on the merits and limitations of the team approach to exhibition design.) Today, discussion with Elaine about ways museums choose their direction, how change is possible, and new museum types to be added to the list.

I came out of reading this essay with a lot of what ifs. What if you don’t want to be identified as one type of museum? What if that type is unpopular or unprofitable? How can you change or adopt aspects of other types without losing your focus or mission?

There is a museum that did that--the Strong Museum in Rochester NY. It did that more than once. They were a rich collection museum with some local history—they had many dolls, a famous toy collection. And then about 20 years ago, they became one of the first “study storage” institutions. Which means you figure out a way in which your whole collection and collection information is visible so it becomes an encyclopedic museum. Their storage became visible in glass. Now there are a lot of people very interested in it because it is the closest to a kind of google you can get without damaging the objects. That wasn’t necessarily the point at the time, but even the evolution and relation to Web 2.0 is very interesting.

So Strong did that a long time ago, and a lot of people went to experience the study storage, but still enough people didn’t come, so then they decided to become an interactive children’s museum. [Now, the Strong Museum is the second largest children’s museum in the U.S. There are press releases from their reopening last year here.]

So the point of my paper is about intentionality—it’s about who are you serving and where is your primary focus. And it really came because I tend to be pissed off and I was pissed off that people were talking about community and inclusion but there was no evidence in their structure for it. Everyone was talking about community. And at the same time there were all these community museums, whose intentions were different, that were financially failing. Those institutions, as I talked about in Choosing, were mostly self-directed by the groups who wanted them. When people who are non-museum goers politically talk about museums, they tend to be talking about object-centered museums. And they tend to be talking about preservation first, audience second, or now, equal roles. But now there are museums where people are the only thing that matters—and they don’t even want to be called museums. But then there are folks on the other side of the spectrum who want them to be called museums for legitimacy.

But the point is that there really are museums that take their missions very seriously. You can’t just talk about community or inclusion or anything and expect it.

What about the criticism that some museums have faced when they try to go to a more community- or people-oriented focus? I’m thinking of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is trying to be a museum for people, but is also a national and collection-based place.

The question you have to ask is: who are the people who have issues with what they are doing? It’s people who are committed to collections and feel like that is threatened. In Puerto Rico and Chile, there are museums made out of posters so that kids in parks can come and visit real art—well, it’s not real art, but you’re getting access to Picasso for $5. Some art people would say it’s not a museum since it’s not real stuff. But I would argue that it’s a community museum and it’s doing really good service. There are contemporary art museums that come out of a political point of view. They are art museums but they’re not about collection.

In some ways, it seems like art and other object-centered museums have the most opportunity to diversify their modes of interpretation. So many science and children’s museums—client-centered places—feel the same.

The cookie-cutter phenomenon started in the 70s because people have seen Boston [Children’s Museum] and seen the Exploratorium and they want one in their neighborhood. But people who start new institutions with different intentions but with the same philosophy go somewhere very different. Outside the U.S. in particular science and children’s museums look completely different. In Ireland, a children’s museum dealt with what to do about colonialism in a multi-cultural place using a theater-based exhibit format. In Brussels, the children’s museum, which was found by a Boston person, now runs it as a psychological support system—they have one show every two years about things like failure or fear. So while there is the cookie-cutter, there are also chances for museums to take the basic idea and run somewhere else.

Let’s say there's someone—a reader of this blog—an educator or designer or director or whoever—who wants to and is ready to change their museum. Do you have to be a director to do it? How can institutional change happen?

It’s a very good question. It happens two ways—when the place is little enough and the stakes are low enough so the price invested can be done in paper and pencil and scotch tape. And the community and social expectation is low enough that no one will notice. And that what’s happened with the revolution at Boston—everyone else thought we were cute and inconsequential.

And the other way is when you have a director who has so much guts and can charm the pants off the trees and is willing to lose their job. There’s a guy who did this, Emlyn Koster, who is doing this with the Liberty Science Center. He’s invested in social service as an economic driver. He loves publicity. And he’s quite revolutionary—what he’s figured out is that charity from multi-nationals goes to social service more than anything. So if he’s serious about it, he can attract money. So he, for example, does live heart surgery that is broadcast to kids in his theater, and he has a reporter in the hospital broadcasting, and the kids sit in a theater and can ask questions of the reporter via two-way mic in this life-or-death situation.

Emlyn cowrote the Timeliness piece—the Liberty Science Center was one of the ones that reacted immediately to 9/11. It closed during 9/11, became a location for families dislocated in NJ—a third of those who died came from NJ—and what they did is all very straightforward. And then a corporation came forward and covered all the lost revenue.

You know, it works best if the two ways are both combined.

I know you have been thinking a lot about the Web, Web 2.0, and how they affect museums. Now, looking back at the essay, do you think there might be other museum types?

I do think there’s potentially another type, which is about individual quest. Which is really much closer to the library, which is why I know something about study storage, because individual quest is potentially there. I went to the library today and wanted to find pictures of houses to give me some ideas and I’m going to Paris so I wanted a book on that. What are the consequences of individual quest and the ability to google all the time? If you get diagnosed with cancer you’re going home to look it up. I picked a restaurant tonight by looking at reviews online. So museums have stuff, and I want to dip in and out like I do at the library. So how do you have access to a place, not as a visitor in which you are having time-dependent adventure—which is how most people use the museum—but in a way where you can get whatever you want?

The conversation on the blog about Free at Last touched on that. One person commented about how he loved growing up in DC as a teen and generally using the Smithsonian as a playground.

Sure—and he probably liked to go back to things he’d seen before because he knew they would be there and he could see them again. But take it one step further and what if he went to see that picture and he really wanted to know the answer to a question about the boats or the hats or the time period or whatever—there are now easy ways to do that. Put the internet inside the museum next to the picture and leave you alone. And not think that we need to control the content but also your attention. No one tells me what I’m supposed to learn at the library. It’s none of your business why I’m showing up.

So I think the facilitation of that makes for a new museum. Addressing this lack of answering of questions and allowing you to do what you want to do next—whatever it is—is the next museum.

3 comments, add yours!:

elizabeth said...

Hi, Liberty Science Center does not accept fundung from Phillip Morris, nor from any tobacco or liquor companies. The surgery program is (and has been) sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, as viewers may see on our website,

Elaine Heumann said...

Dear Nina, I am thrilled to be interviewed by you. Let me set some factual information straight. The Children's Museum that wanted to deal with Colonialism is the Tropen Junior Museum in Holland. It is based in the midst of a larger museum that collected many cultural and natural history items from the Dutch colonial period. The Children's Museum was founded and still directed by Kathleed Lippens a Belgian person who spent a few years in Cambridge when her children were small and her husband studying for a Harvard degree. She went back to Belgium to start a museum based on Boston's philosophy of the 1970's and became a very unique place as it evolved.

Many thanks for interviewing me and for such careful "reads" of my book. I am honored. e--

Nina Simon said...

Elizabeth and Elaine,

Thanks so much for your helpful comments. Elizabeth, I removed the incorrect statement from the interview.

This is one of the great things about blogging--that readers can immediately be involved in affecting the content. Not quite as democratic as wikis, but a good way to give (and for me to gratefully receive) feedback.