Monday, November 12, 2018

How Hello Museum Builds Intimate Community in one of the Biggest Cities in the World

When I tell stories about how the MAH builds community, I emphasize the importance of deep partnerships and relationship-building. We connect with people both professionally and personally, at the museum and on the street. Colleagues from bigger cities often ask: is this approach relevant to us? Can this kind of intimacy and informality work in a sprawling metropolis? This weekend, I got my answer in Seoul--the 18th biggest city in the world--at Hello Museum.

Nestled in a forest of high-rise apartment buildings, this small museum connects children and families with contemporary art. Like the New Children's Museum in San Diego, Hello Museum creates building-wide interactive exhibitions with artists, on themes like nature and #NoWar. But while Hello Museum originally opened as a "children's contemporary art museum," that's not the tagline they use today. Now, they call themselves a "small neighborhood museum"--in the middle of a city of 9.8 million people.

Hello Museum embeds neighborliness in every aspect of its work, starting with its name. I assumed the name was an invitation for children to say hello to contemporary art. But director and founder Ysaac Kim explained that it's not about people connecting to the museum. It's about them connecting with each other. As she said, "I noticed that children these days are taught not to talk to strangers, not to say hello to them. So we made this museum as a place where you can say hello."

Walk into Hello Museum, and you'll encounter a million touches that create a sense of intimacy and community. Everyone takes off their shoes on entry, which creates a homey feel. As we padded in, the front desk was manned by a visiting artist. In a warren of small rooms without doors, parents sat chatting on the floor as their children swirled through art installations made from everyday objects. There were plants and books everywhere.

We wandered up the stairs, slipped on slippers and sunhats (provided on a friendly shelf), and enjoyed a small rooftop garden with waterplay and painting areas. Up on that roof, our world of paints and plants felt tiny in contrast to the skyscrapers looming all around. It felt like a place to be human in a concrete and steel world.

While Seoul is very different from Santa Cruz, Hello Museum felt like a sister to the MAH. The warm, sociable spirit felt the same. Visitors easily and happily collided and said hello to one another. Staff members and teenage volunteers brokered conversations and play. At one point, Ysaac effusively greeted a woman visiting with her child. As they hugged and laughed, they explained to me that the mother was a friend - and part of a company that had sponsored this exhibition opening. It reminded me of every time I've given a tour of the MAH and run into a friend or partner along the way.

Like the MAH, Hello Museum brokers new "hellos" through local partnerships and visitor participation. They try to be of, by, and for their community (which is why I was visiting). For example, on our way into the museum, Ysaac pointed out tiny textile factories dotting the neighborhood run by "grandmothers." In Hello Museum's maker space, children worked with scraps donated by these seamstresses. On the floor, children sat and slid on denim cushions, sewed by the grandmothers out of cast-off jeans donated by museum visitors. After the exhibition closes, these community-made denim cushions will keep doing good in the community. Hello Museum is donating them to a local animal shelter that needs warm cushions to insulate dogs and cats from cold concrete floors.

Ysaac and her team at Hello Museum have created something small, beautiful, and powerful. Seeing this hive of creativity and human kindness made me realize that this kind of museum may even be more valuable in a big city than a small one. In a city that is rapidly growing and changing, they've created a place to come together and play and create things and make friends. A place to slow down and say hello.

Hello Museum taught me that intimacy and community-building is a choice. It's a choice to keep things simple. To work with neighbors. To design spaces that feel human and warm. A choice that any small museum, no matter how big the city, can make.

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