Monday, June 29, 2009

Museums and Relevance: What I Learned from Michael Jackson

Where were you when Michael Jackson died? By a strange and lucky coincidence, I was at the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum (EMPSFM) in Seattle for a two-day workshop. EMPSFM is one of a handful of museums worldwide for which the death of the King of Pop is a very big deal. On Thursday afternoon, our workshop fractured as curators, educators, media producers, and marketing staff scrambled to talk to press and put together spur-of-the-moment exhibits and tribute programs.

Within 24 hours of the news, the EMPSFM staff hosted a tribute event at a local music venue and mounted an exhibit of Jackson's iconic glove/jacket along with archival concert video in a free public area (appropriately called the Sky Church). They staffed talk-back tables where visitors could write on butcher paper, and outside the museum, they put out boxes of sidewalk chalk to invite people to share their thoughts. They also featured a memorial (and a talk back opportunity) on their website.

I spend a lot of my professional time trying to develop compelling opportunities for visitors to share their thoughts and connect with content that is deeply relevant to their immediate needs and interests. I watched this happen magically and easily for hundreds of people on Friday at EMPSFM, folks of all ages and backgrounds intently taking photos, writing messages, and talking to their friends. It was a rare moment where the cultural and historical importance museums tend to bestow on all exhibits was sought and appreciated by the public. "Yes," every camera and curator and chalk scrawl and family seemed to agree. "This Matters."

There's nothing new about museums serving as spontaneous memorials or providing support in emergency situations. The question is what happens after the news cycle is over, after the urgency diminishes. It's wonderful to see a museum as useful and energized as I saw EMPSFM over the past few days. But what about the rest of the year? Are museums only relevant when they can serve our most pressing needs? And if so, should they seek more opportunities to serve these needs?

I ask these questions amidst recent calls for museums to become more responsive, demand-driven institutions. Elaine Gurian has been speaking and writing about museums as soup kitchens, suggesting that museums should consider new uses of their spaces to provide direct social services to people, especially during the economic downturn. Many potential services, like job training and subsidized food programs, would be incredibly valuable to communities but are foreign to current museum practice. Elaine argues that we should stop worrying about whether these new programs fit the "business of museums" and instead consider whether the business of museums is sufficient to the extraordinary community needs of the day.

I struggle with Elaine's argument. I agree that most museums do not actively and aggressively seek out ways to truly serve the needs of their visitor communities (as opposed to donor communities). For example, museum spaces are often dormant for many hours of the day, and the most basic functions offered--beautiful spaces, clean restrooms, opportunities for food service and event production--could be employed to provide a huge range of community services. Hours before Michael Jackson died and it became the memorial site, I was talking with EMPSFM staff about the under-utilization of the Sky Church, an unusual and impressive public space. And awesome examples like 826 Valencia or the Boston Children's Museum's GoKids program demonstrate that sometimes putting traditional social services like tutoring or food distribution in a cultural context can destigmatize them.

But I also think that museums (like all organizations) need to focus both on who they are for and what they are about, balance the needs of their audiences with the goals of their institution. I'm as interested in how we can find connections between what people need and starting points museums already have--revealing or amplifying relevance--as I am in providing new services for peoples' needs.

It is apropos that the EMPSFM workshop was focused on how the museum can deepen relationships with teen audiences. We weren't talking about bamboozling teens with some hip marketing campaign; instead, we focused on ways that programs which currently serve just a few teens could empower and enable many more teens who are passionate about making music, reading science fiction, and sharing niche interests. We were looking for ways not just to provide more services to small groups of teens but to develop platforms where teens could support and serve each other. And we spent equal amounts of time talking about teens and their needs as we did talking about programmatic responses to support them.

Do these teens need EMPSFM to survive? Probably not. Does anyone need Michael Jackson or Ursula LeGuin or her guitar to make it through the day? EMPSFM may be frivolous in the face of world economic collapse, but it still delivers services that are relevant to some aspect of peoples' lives.

Michael Jackson belongs at EMPSFM (and visitors knew to find him there) because that museum is about pop culture and specifically music. The museum has physical items relevant to his life that served as connection points to visitors' pain and nostalgia. EMPSFM has contextual content that places a dislocative event into a familiar global story. And they have expertise and authority to connote a particular kind of permanent value to the news.

The flipside of this specificity is that when something non-pop culture-related happens that is incredibly relevant and important to Seattle residents' lives, EMPSFM probably won't be there. I think I'm ok with that... but I feel tension as I write this. If EMPSFM is never relevant to the majority of their community's needs, there's a problem. If they are always relevant, there's no problem. The reality--for every museum--lies somewhere in the middle. How do you know you are relevant enough?

Museums can't manufacture relevance to audiences. If you are not happy with the extent to which your institution is responsive to community needs, then by all means, change something. But start by honestly and openly assessing which needs you can appropriately serve. I agree with Elaine in hoping that every museum will earnestly try to do more, will spend more time thinking about what visitors need and less time trumpeting what objects are on display. And to me, providing space and chalk for a twelve year-old skater to scrawl on sidewalk about how Michael Jackson changed his life, well, that counts.

12 comments, add yours!:

John Buchinger said...

I was thinking about this today when NPR was sharing that in Tulsa, Okla., the Philbrook Museum of Art was devoting much of its outdoor garden space to growing vegetables to help supply a food pantry.
It made me think that no matter how precious a collection is, it ain't a thing if you can't eat it!
Museums need perspective. This time is about meeting need. Our best bet is to focus on our end user, because from the CEO to the soccer Mom, they all are looking for experiences that bring value (monetary or otherwise) to their lives. So we need to grow gardens when we can.

Rachel K Varon said...

Well said, Nina. I agree that relevance is key, although a museum shouldn't move too far away from its core mission. I think asking the community what they want from their museum is essential, not just try and provide what the museum staff thinks they want.

Unknown said...

As a follow-up to this, one question I've been thinking about is: How facile are museums at reacting quickly to news (aside from press releases from our public affairs departments)? Traditionally, our organizations are set up more for "reflection" and "interpretation" than "reaction."

Blog posts and tweets are good exercise for these sort of things, but what about impromptu exhibitions? Any chance we'll ever get there or even want to get there? Just thinking.

jeyl said...

Nina - well put- you'll be surprised to know that at SPY we are working in partnership with DC Kitchen to staff an outdoor food cart with staff trained by them (these are people who are typically difficult to employ - recently released from prison or have had trouble with drugs - they are trained in the restaurant industry to re-enter the work force.) It feels good that SPY is contributing to our community in this way.

Nina Simon said...

The thing that stood out at EMPSFM was the quick exhibit. It wasn't much, but people spent a long time with the artifacts, the talkbacks, the music, and each other in the space. Eric Siegel at the NY Hall of Science has talked for a long time about "flash exhibits" and how we can be much faster and more responsive with our objects - clearly a good move if we want to demonstrate that we can be relevant with the content and expertise we already have as well as with new programs!

Lynda Kelly said...

Thnx Nina. What seemed to happen here was a response to a community need with the community having an active input. That's what relevance is in my view and is something that can't be 'forced' as people see through that.

Regarding teenagers, we're about to have a paper published in the Journal of Museum Education that may add to the discussion: Revisioning the Physical and On-line Museum: A Partnership with the Coalition of Knowledge Buildng Schools

Eric Siegel said...

OK, I'm gonna snark here, so as they used to say on the internets /flameproof suit on/

I think it is a shame that everyone at this museum scrambled to give people a way to honor michael jackson's memory...talkbacks, chalk, butcher paper...all ephemera, all talk no perspective. What is the EMP doing to help people understand a larger/longer time scale, a larger context? What is the value that EMP is adding other than a few artifacts and archival footage that can be seen in the comfort of my own armchair?

The web site offers an opportunity to "share your thoughts about..." and then a "see what other people have shared" link. In the latter, there are about five posts, all with the predictable "I saw..." "sensitive spirit" etc etc. Not sure if they edited the rest or what.

There is so much great music that is totally neglected, and this pop flash with the twisted history is being celebrated beyond all reasonable measure. Isn't there anything a museum can/should do to broaden our perspective rather than just jumping on the pop culture bandwagon? As if there weren't enough internet opportunities for people to share their deep feelings about MJ's death.


/flameproof suit off/

Still love Museum 2.0!


Anonymous said...

Concerning reactions to world events that are not centered around the core aspects of the institution, I am reminded of what we did here at EMP in the aftermath of 9/11. In Sky Church, we had a symbolic representation of the Two Towers on the giant LED screen, and just had soft contemplative ambient music playing in there for days. It was a place where the community came together in a quiet public space to pay tribute to those lost. It was very moving.

Brian Scott Phraner

Elaine Heumann said...

Nina, Thanks for bringing this up and all the other bloggers with their relevant thoughts. I have two thoughts here.
1. I would love it if all institutions asked themselves what was the meaning of relevance to them in a serious and thoughtful way and then went about delivering it. Relevance might mean social services, quick responsiveness, more silent empowerment (food cart,) personalization, etc. It might mean a lot of different things to different institutions. But the idea of relevance is not currently a universal internal conversation. And I am not talking about mouthing the word "relevance" but instituting the action related to it. That is why the examples cited here and elsewhere are so important.

2. memorailizing in a public setting is an important community action. It is not trivial and it should not be casually repeated over and over again but it is a matter of deep community need when some gathering event happens. Congratulations to all that responded.
It would be interesting to find out how many museums responded to Michael Jackson's death and what they did.

I was at the Powerhouse Museum in Australia. They set up their case and their memorial book within 4 hours of his death. It turned out that the Sydney Australia media found it because the Powerhouse display was real and tangible and not just old film footage. The Powerhouse also owns a Jacket. But what it meant for the Powerhouse was important too.
They learned they were nimble and that they could be responsive if they wanted to. They were proud of their new skill and they should be. Now the Powerhouse will know that they can be fast when they want to and will begin to choose how to deploy their new skill.

Memorializing is only a part of responsiveness and "social service" is another part, and there are many more aspects to consider.

Let's hear it for all the many levels of responsiveness and while I agree with Eric that his thoughts on the need for reflection reflection are also essential it is a balance we should be looking for that immediate and slower action each with intentionality that I am looking for. If museums aqree and begin putting proceedures into place for all levels with attendant skills let us all rejoice. e--

Nina Simon said...

Ah, my snarky friend. Eric, if you loved Michael Jackson and revered him as the King of Pop (as many of the people at EMP clearly did) would you really want contextual reflection right after his death? Wouldn't you want some awesome public space to wave your proverbial lighter and revel in the memories? I get what you are saying about museums offering something special (and the Sky Church is a pretty wild space) but within 48 hours of an idol's death, his disciples just want a place to share the love.

Museums may be better suited to provide deep and broad content than to hit an emotional desire - but if and when we can support people's most gratuitous and powerfully felt yearnings, shouldn't we?

George said...

I think young people nowdays must work on keeping their own culture by preserving national values.
This could be achieved by keeping these values in a museum.
The Politechnics University Museum site was realized by a few students beeing published temporarily here:
It represents a science museum in where we can find varius hystorical technical models.
For improovments of the site wich is just a scale model you can write us a message on the
Contact Form.
Thanks for your support.

Eric Siegel said...

Well, Nina, if what museums are going to do is to respond to people's most "gratuitous and deeply felt yearnings..." need I say more? I do? OK... Sex and inebriation probably have stood the test of time as deeply felt...And an awesome public space, no less! That is cool!

I don't want to argue myself into a corner, and I don't have a real answer...(hence all the ellipses). I do have an instinct that there is something broader, more durable, and deeper that we should be doing than being a transient forum for mourning the death of a pop star.

Elaine's point is very compelling, what *are* the real needs that can be filled by a beautiful public space that is unused 75% of the time?