Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Guest Post: A Tale of Two University Museums

This guest post was written by Margaret Middleton, a Bay Area-based exhibit developer and fabricator. Margaret shared these thoughts about "museums for use" on her blog, and I asked her to adapt a version for the Museum 2.0 audience.

Should a museum be a destination or a place for everyday use? Nina Simon posed this provocative question at a recent presentation, and it got me thinking about the differences between museum "users" and "visitors." I immediately recalled a phenomenon I witnessed as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

During my time at RISD studying industrial design, I developed relationships with two museums on campus: the Museum of Art and the Nature Lab. The Rhode Island School of Design was established in 1877 alongside its Museum of Art, an important resource for RISD students. The Museum hosts collections directly related to the majors offered at the school, including painting, sculpture, and decorative art and design. The Edna Lawrence Nature Lab was established in 1937, also as a resource for students. Instead of works of art, the Nature Lab offers taxidermy specimens, bones, seed pods, and other natural items. Both buildings are located within whispering distance of one another at the heart of the city-scattered campus. Both are free for students. Both identify themselves museums with curators, a collection, and a similar mission: to inspire and captivate RISD students. And yet, the Museum of Art is often overlooked or dismissed outright by students while the Nature Lab is cherished and spoken of fondly.

It was always obvious to me which was the preferred resource. I worked in the Museum of Art for my four years at RISD and when I'd talk about my tour-guide job there, other students would say, "Oh yeah, I never go there," or sometimes, "I should go there sometime," as if they felt guilty for not visiting. But I never heard the Museum referred to with the same glassy-eyed endearment that the Nature Lab enjoyed. Lack of appreciation for the Museum became even more apparent when it was announced that the Museum would be undergoing a massive renovation and addition. Students talked about the new plans with disgust, insulted that the money was going to the Museum instead of their studios. Museum expansion was the topic of many a heated Student Alliance meeting. Regardless of the fact that the grant was specifically for the Museum and the school did not have the choice of funding studio space instead, clearly students didn't see the expansion as benefiting them.

The Museum attempts to attract students to its impressive 8,000 piece collection with various programs and exhibitions, some more successful than others. The Sitings contest invites students to propose an installation and the two proposals that win each year are awarded grants and displayed in the Museum. Faculty shows tempt students into the Museum to see the work of their professors. The Siskind Center gives students and the public the opportunity to pore over the photography in the Museum's large collection of works on paper. Evening events entice with the promise of music and food. You might think that would be sufficient effort to engage the students, but a quick informal poll suggests otherwise.

The Museum is open the usual 10-5, Tuesday-Sunday. You can't bring in an ink pen without a permit. The evening events attract mostly older community members instead of students. As much as I loved spending time in the Museum, drawing the sculptures, chatting with the docents, giving my friends informal tours, and enjoying bluegrass music in the painting gallery, I knew that not everyone felt so free in the museum environment. They preferred the cluttered, noisier, grittier atmosphere of the Nature Lab. To them, the Nature Lab was much more accessible.

While the Nature Lab does admit the general public, the majority of users are RISD students and the place is nearly always packed. And effortlessly: no programs, no big exhibitions, just old animal skulls and sea shells. The Lab is open late, the visible staff is almost entirely students, and they play mix tapes over the stereo. You don't have to sign up to use wet media, you can touch many of the specimens, and you can even check some of them out. Some of the display cases contain mini-exhibitions curated by students.

Though both are meant for student use, the Museum attracts visitors while the Nature Lab attracts users. If the Museum wants the students to use the Museum the way they use the Nature Lab, it needs to be accessible, work-focused, and have a variety of low-commitment entry points.

Here are a few things I think the Museum could learn from the Nature Lab:

Inviting art-making: Design students will always tell you they can’t go out tonight; they have work to do. Secretly, they want to be socializing once in a while just like anyone else. The Nature Lab is a great way to multitask because it’s a space to create artwork and there’s a built-in social component. If the Museum is a place to visit, students won’t make the time for it, but if it’s a place to use, it becomes a higher priority.

As someone who spent lots of time in the Museum sketching, I know creating artwork in the Museum is permitted. However, it’s understandable that not everyone feels comfortable doing so. With all the signs stating what visitors can’t do in the space and the fact that the space isn’t set up for art-making, there are no visual cues that it’s a safe space to set up an easel without getting a stern look from a guard. Students need to be invited personally: “please come and create art here.” Invitations would need to come in many forms: welcoming signage, actively accommodating docents and desk staff, and easels and drawing benches set up in galleries. Students need familiar charcoal-smudged easels and benches that don’t feel sacred. Not only would it improve the students’ relationship with the museum, it would attract other non-student visitors; anyone who has created artwork in public knows that people absolutely love to see artists at work. It reminds visitors that the art they are looking at was created by a human being and it can inspire them to look at the world around them in new ways and maybe feel less intimidated by the art-making process.

Display techniques: It’s risky to set up an art museum in the curio-cabinet style of the Nature Lab. But a more packed-in display can feel less static and lead to a more permissive atmosphere that invites dialogue and (hopefully) art-making. It’s something that’s already starting to happen at the RISD Museum. An excellent example of unconventional display techniques is the controversial salon-style make-over the main painting gallery underwent. Once a traditionally hung, neutral-walled gallery of oil on canvas, the main painting gallery has become an overwhelming space, chock-full of artwork from floor to ceiling with deep blue walls setting off the gold frames. There's an energy in that space that invites a bit more discussion of the artwork, even if it might sometimes be a discussion about how difficult it is to get a good look at the top paintings. And some of the new galleries in the Chace Center are set up in a more packed-in, cluttered way that feels more energetic and stimulating. As long as the over-stuffed galleries have room for students to sketch comfortably, I think this is the right direction.

Ownership: Students feel like they own the Nature Lab because their peers run the front desk and play music for them. There are no chaperones standing in the corner, and they have opportunities to customize the space with mini-exhibitions. Even just seeing a casually-dressed classmate behind the front desk at the Museum of Art would increase a sense of ownership.

Programming: I don’t think that the Museum needs more programming. We artists and designers love our cheese-cube-and-wine-fueled Gallery Nights and those should stay. The same goes for the Museum’s very successful Music Fridays and other nightlife events. However, these special occasion draws are not the community-building tradition-creating experiences that students get from on-campus hangouts. The Nature Lab is successful because its big draw isn't reliant on programming. It relies entirely on the collection and the atmosphere of the space.

I don't think that all art museums need to be like this model I suggest. There's definitely a place for white-walled museums with quiet, contemplative atmospheres and I'd hate to see places like that disappear. But the RISD Art Museum was not meant to be a traditional museum. Its goal is to provide students with an inspiring collection of objects to use and aid them in their studies. In that respect, the Museum has missed its mark where its younger, quirkier cousin the Nature Lab has filled a need. The Museum could really benefit from a long hard look at itself and its mission and take a few cues from the time-honored, student-approved institution around the corner.

5 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

I have worked for a University Museum, though one of natural history, was incredibly underutilized and misunderstood. Most students either didn't know the museum existed or assumed it was about the University's history. Many university museums need to focus on being more approachable by their students and alleviate the stigma that "cool" college kids often associate with going into galleries or museums.

Maria said...

I think "ownership" has a lot to with being a museum "user" versus "visitor". I am glad to see that this was one of the main suggestions because it seems to be the most vital...atleast for the youth and young adult crowd. For people to actually start "using" a cultural institution that "ownership" hurdle needs to be jumped first. This would be a great point of discussion for many institutions wanting to attract a more permanent audience. Great thought provoking post...

Colleen said...

I love this idea of a "visitor" verses a "user" and that captivating museums, as you describe, may be those that make users out of visitors in the points outlined by your Nature Lab example. A "visitor" comes and goes; it feels more passive. A "user," on the other hand, is actively doing or feeling something. I think there's a powerful differentiation there that comes out in this post.

I've seen several studies indicating that individuals visiting art museums, as opposed to other kinds of museums, would rather experience the museum quietly on their own (without staff interpreters, etc). Your post makes me wonder how much of that is because we culturally perceive art museums to be static, quiet places while other institutions (like the Nature lab) do not have such constraints. I think that to challenge these constraints, museums might do well to read your post and focus instead on community needs.

Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!

Sabra Smith said...

Loving the book "The Great Good Place" as a leaping off point for these discussions, and this post as a concrete example of so many principles of Oldenburg's notion of "the third place."

The success of the gritty and engaging Nature Lab supports his observation that successful gathering places tend to be older and "grittier" (good news for a historic preservationist like me)and that they have a playful mood that allows the visitor to define themselves, rather than have the space (or rules, or quiet atmosphere) define them or reign their nature in.

I'm intrigued by the notion of the spacing of elements -- I compare it to restaurants I visit where the tables are too far apart and the place feels disjointed. While I don't want to feel cramped, I want to feel connected to fellow patrons. Museum art spaced on a wall demands reverence, not interaction. By contrast, a place like the Wagner Free Institute of Science -- a wonderful Victorian museum with all manner of natural history flora and fauna on display -- is a delightful free for all for the visual senses.

Thanks for these keen and thought-provoking observations comparing two spaces with identical goals but widely varying success in achieving them. (And for the smile-inducing photo of Nature Boy in his element)

Elina said...

Hey guys, I'm actually doing an assignment on museum visitors- students/youngsters in particular and wheter we should attract them todwards museums and museum-education... perhaps you guys could give your opinion on my blog about it?i'm curious how you think about this topic