Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Participation, Contemplation, and the Complexity of "And"

"The words we use in attempting to change museum directions matter. We need translators within each cultural context. We do not yet have precise words or even uniform understanding of the words we use. But we do have 'and.' And a good thing, too." 
--Elaine Heumann Gurian, The Importance of "And"
Recently, I've been embroiled in local and national conversations about the relationship between active participation and quiet contemplation in museums. Our museum in Santa Cruz has been slammed by those who believe participatory experiences have gone too far. It has been championed as a site of courageous experimentation. It has been challenged for our community-centered approach. I joined the dialogue this weekend with an op-ed echoing Elaine Heumann Gurian's powerful call for the "museum of 'and'" - a museum that includes and values multiple experiences and approaches.

Each of these articles--and the comments around them--are fascinating artifacts of a debate that has been behind the scenes for too long. I am glad this conversation is happening and that both museum professionals and local Santa Cruzans are engaged. We always knew that the inclusion of participatory and community-centered practices in arts institutions was controversial. But this is a rare moment when that controversy has come directly to the surface. It's a unique opportunity to learn from people with different perspectives.

To me, the backlash against participatory and community-centered experiences is not surprising. I've always understood that participatory experiences are not for everyone. I've always known that some people feel that social work means mission creep for museums. What surprises me is the argument that participatory and community-centered initiatives, offered alongside many other interpretative strategies, program types, and projects, can erode the value of an institution and the experiences it provides.

Like many of our supporters, I am perplexed as to why critics claim we have thrown tradition out the window when, from my perspective, we have simply added new opportunities alongside a strong commitment to traditional practice. We know most visitors use only a small percentage of the programming and interpretative elements that museums provide. Some people commune with the art. Some visit the archives. Some come to family festivals. Why should a comment wall in an exhibition be more threatening than a label? Why is a crowded Friday night event in conflict with a quiet Saturday in the galleries? Why should any one type of experience in the museum have veto power over others?

I have wrestled with these questions over the past six weeks. In doing so, I've come to believe that the fundamental issue here has little to do with participation. It's about the complexity of "and."

My whole museum career has been predicated on the "museum of 'and'" premise, as championed by Elaine Heumann Gurian and the museum professionals who crafted the seminal publication Excellence and Equity in 1989. I believe the strongest museums fearlessly seek out, test, and iterate many ways to achieve their missions. I believe that the diversity of the human experience necessitates an approach that values multiple forms of learning and making-meaning. As I wrote in my op-ed:
The more "and" we integrate into the MAH, the more people value the museum as a catalyst for meaning-making, creative expression, and civic participation. Value is reflected in the diversity of the people who participate, the power of the experiences we offer, and their ripple effects throughout the county. The stronger our value, the stronger our finances, the stronger our ability to expand all our offerings -- the contemplative AND the participatory.
But "and" is not an easy mandate to carry out. It requires balancing priorities, embracing creative tension, including diverse voices, and staying true to our mission as we explore new opportunities.

Here are the three big tensions we're confronting as we navigate being a museum of "and":

Defining the limits. One could imagine applying the principle of "and" willy-nilly to justify any outgrowth. One commenter on my op-ed, referencing the idea of our organization as museum "and" community center, asked: "If diversity is the goal, why not also make MAH part skate board park and off leash dog area?" The answer to this question comes back to the strategic vision for the organization. Our museum's vision statement begins with the phrase, "The Museum of Art & History is a thriving central gathering place...". This framing suggests a community-centered approach in which the museum brings people together around art and history. If our vision statement started with a phrase like " The Museum is a cutting-edge research facility..." that would imply a different set of appropriate activities, approaches, and limits.

We are rigorous internally about tying our mission and vision to specific programmatic strategies and goals for different program areas. Those goals form the constraints for our approach to "and," allowing us to say yes with confidence to some opportunities and reject others.

Resource balancing. With infinite resources, "and" can exist without friction or conflict. But in reality, every organization has to decide where to put time, money, and attention. It's not possible to perfectly balance resources across areas, and it's probably not useful to do so. Let's take the one example of active participation and quiet contemplation. Here are several different ways to look at the balance of these two forms of visitor engagement:
  • Time: 90% of our open hours are daytime hours when people can explore exhibitions in peace and quiet. The other 10% are primarily Friday nights when we offer hands-on, social event-based programming that tend to be crowded and lively.
  • Attendance: 25% of our visitors attend during daytime hours. 65% attend during community programs. This means we devote 90% of our time to 25% of our general visitors, and 10% of our time to 65% of them. (UPDATED on Nov. 8 to reflect onsite visits only. The unaccounted for 10% attend on school tours. Thanks to those who wrote in seeking clarification.)
  • Space: During daytime hours, approximately 15% of our exhibition galleries offer participatory experiences. During community programs, that number jumps to 95%. Our building is about half galleries, half public spaces. The public areas include both participatory and traditional content but are dominated by open space and seating.
  • Staffing: We have 2.25 full-time equivalent staff members devoted to exhibitions and collections, 2.5 devoted to community programs.
  • Money: We spent $287,000 last year on exhibitions and collections, $179,000 on community programs. Both of these figures represent increases over the previous year.
Looking at all of these bullets, how would you assess the relative number of resources devoted to participation and contemplation? How would you decide where to put more resources? How would you decide who is underserved and who is overserved?

Our strategy is not to try to perfectly balance the teeter-totter of resources but to develop the most generative combination. We do that through a structure that emphasizes cross-functional job descriptions, a program development strategy in which exhibitions and events build on each other, and an evaluative eye on how our mission and goals are manifest across diverse projects.

Messaging. Perhaps the biggest challenge to "and" thinking is the way that our organization presents itself and is presented in the media. We have a big banner outside our building that says PARTICIPATE. We do not have a comparable one that says CONTEMPLATE. Almost every article about our museum casts the institution as one that has gone through radical change. We issue press releases for everything we do, but the stories that get picked up tend to be about new programs and approaches. People talk about the museum in terms of then and now, old versus new.

In some ways, this makes sense. We want to welcome in people who may have felt excluded by traditional museums, so we over-communicate a sense of openness, inclusion, and active participation. The press loves novelty. People who get involved are passionate about what's new. People who feel less connected focus on what they lost.

A detractor says our museum has "gone to hell." A supporter responds, "Gone to hell? More like back from the dead." Both of these perspectives represent "or" thinking. The reality is that we have made the museum more vibrant by adding, not replacing. But it can feel like more dramatic change because the new additions get the lion's share of the ink and the oxygen.

Is it possible to have a brand that represents the totality of the diverse experiences offered by one institution? Probably not. It's both impractical and strategically undesirable to try to present a museum as all things to all people. Each visit is a single data point in a constellation of diverse experiences and offerings. While our staff and our most engaged participants perceive the diversity of the blend over the course of the year, most people only attend once or twice and form an impression based on those singular experiences--or on what they read in the paper. To teachers we are an educational facility. To historians we are a research facility. To art-lovers we are an exhibiting facility. To crafters we are a making facility. And so on.

As a museum with a mission to "ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections," it is our challenge to make the "and" more overt, to help people see the bridges between the experiences they currently enjoy and unfamiliar ones that might open up new opportunities for them. In the same way that we focus on social bridging--bringing people together across difference--we are also increasingly focused on programmatic bridging--bringing museum experiences together across program areas and audiences. We may never be seen entirely as a museum of "and." But we can do our best to be that kind of institution and hope that the message shines through.
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