External forces, communities and the museum

INTERVIEW

Bayer Árpád
2017-12-18 09:00

The title of your presentation is Exhibitions without borders. What kind of borders should an exhibition cross?

Today museums are engaged in many-many different types of exhibitions. Museums try to reach out to many audiences. Sometimes they are targeting students, sometimes general public, etc. But by mission museum tries to connect to community. So exhibition without borders refers to everything that is happening right now in the world.

Tomorrow I am going to talk about forces of changes and how external environment affect museums all over the world. So those forces of changes are six: political, social, economical, legal and ethical, environmental, and technological. Everything we do in exhibitions, everything in museums somehow is affected by external forces.

I give you an example. An exhibition created for visitors in general isnot totally accessiblefor disabled, let’s saycripple people in wheelchair. In that casetechnology will help us a lot. Technology is some fantastic platform to bring down exhibitions to visitors with special need.

Let me give you a very good example for the younger visitors. In the US many museums right now are targeting teenagers as visitors. Why? Because teenagers are going to be the audience for tomorrow. How are they doing that? There are many things in programs right now, like the Metropolitan Museum, the After Dark events. [https://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/met-celebrates/teen-night] Those events are targeted and created by teenagers. The Museum invites teenagers to work with them in planning for these activities.By teenagers for teenagers.They will love to go to the museums.

Another example is the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. [https://www.penn.museum/teachers-and-students/k-12-educators/teen-programs/teen-ambassadors] They created a teenager ambassador council. For one year they work with creators, with educators, and in programs as volunteers. They will go back to their social spaces – schools, places where teenagers relax and communicate - and they will be the first one promoting these events.

 

It means that there is a kind of change about how does the museum think about its own role. What is the difference between the traditional museum’s role and this new museum’s role?

 It is definitely the same museum. It is just a different approach. Why? Because our museums need to understand the external environment. What is going on out of its boundaries? For example if they want to cultivate this younger generation, they have to have a strong personal social media. And for example the Museum of Modern Arts – they have a facebookaccount with two million followers all over the world. [https://www.facebook.com/MuseumofModernArt]

More and more museum needs to understand the community. What is going on around them? So the museums should not be isolated for many years focusing mainly in school programs. Of course school program is very important. But thereare more differences in audiences. The Metropolitan Museum of Art received last year six million of Chinese visitors, counting as the largest group after Americans that goes to the museum. So they opened an account in Weibo which is the Chinese facebook, so now their museum has a big presence in social media in China. That is a way to interact visitors previous to their visit to New York City.

 

In this concept has the object the same role as before? We create an account in China, or targeting Chinese people, butit is still hard to bring an exhibition to China.

Social media is a platform museums never had before. It is very interesting to look at those and to see what is going on and think of the bigger picture and to think about the audiences in different levels. That could be the visitor, that comes to the museum, or the userthat goes to the website and interact with content. Not yet going to the museum, and we cannot replace the physical visit to the museum, but still, there is an interaction.

The whole idea is this: we need to reach more audiences. We need to look around the world. It is a strategic opportunity for museums to work together on this. We need to look what is going on in the world’s communities. And communities are changingday by day all around the world. We should bring teenagers, immigrants, new refugees in the museums, where they feel welcome to the museum.

So we cannot have the same approach what we did before when social media did not exist. We need to think, we have to see how we can adopt, how we can interact, how we can make our projects. Because museums work extremely hard to present first quality exhibitions. But we have to promote these activities, those amazing projects.Sometimes we are limited to traditional level of audiences. We have to think about what else we can do to bring these excellent projects and this amazing exhibition to more people, to more audiences.

 

You said the museum should reflect on social and political issues as well. Isn’t it counterproductive to step into the political field and say something? Can a museum say something about political issues without being part of politics?

That is a very good question. And the answer is yes, because we are not asking museums to be political actors. Museum should be social actors. Political in the good sense not necessarily means identifying with a specific party of a position. No. Museum should be open as the safest spaces for civic engagement. And museum should be part of the community. Need to be a really important actor. Let me give you another example.

Museums, especially national museums are memory holders. They preserve and they collect and they take care of the past. This is an incredible opportunity to immigrants to new people to come to the museum and learn about the country, about where did they come. I am an immigrant as well. I am an American citizen but I moved to the U.S. 20 years ago with my family, with my young kids, and at that time museums played a key role in my family. I needed to bring my kids to the museums, because I wanted my children to learn the history, the culture of the new country. So in that sense museums play a key role in new generations, in new groups of citizens. So without museums would be extremely hard for new generations, for immigrants to understand the value of the country, the value of history.

 

There is a definition of museum on the website of ICOM (International Committee for Exhibitions and Exchange) from 2007. [ http://icom.museum/the-vision/museum-definition ] Do you think that it is a fixed definition or we should think about its rewriting sometimes?

I think that the ICOM definition of the museum is a general concept. And we need general concepts, we need guidelines, however, each museum is different. The obligation of that concept should be flexible enough. There are so many ideas, values around the concept of museum. So in my opinion the concept of museum is evolving, because the world is constantly evolving. So I agree with ICOM museum definition. The strategic value of ICOM is that as an institution it is an incredible resource for museums all over the world. But national communities are fundamental pillars in this structure.

 

We talked about this definition with my colleagues and we felt that this definition is very wide, this is the core of the museum. There was one little word that caused debate and this is “non-profit.” Is it necessary for a museum to be non-profit?

Well, in the last 20 years we have seen an incredible amount of new private museums. That is no more than private collections that are open to the public. They are fantastic sometimes, they make an amazing work in the communities, they open with no fees, etc. So in a sense that the basic concept of museums they are museums, of course they are museums because they take care of collection, they take care of a patrimony depending on the public value and depending on the relationship with the community. If you want to make profit, if the main goal is income, that is – I would said – not a museum. But when your main goal is to promote arts, and culture, and science, or technology or history, if you want to preserve patrimonies, and you do program, you make access to the social level to everyone – that is a museum.

 

Which are the greatest challenges for the museums today?

Literally there are many-many challenges for museums to adopt that new reality. But at the same time there are many opportunities. One of the challenges is economical. All museums are facing budget reduction. So they have to do more work with less people, with less crew members. So of course that is one of the challenges.

If we think about technology, it is amazing but it is very expensive. How small museums can afford these amazing tables that can beputinto the exhibition,that is extremely expensive. So that is what I think that technology should have a more social role helping museums to accomplish the mission. So there are amazing opportunities.

Probably financial source is one of the biggest challenges. And kind of the biggest challenges are also understanding what is going on in these communities, what are forces of changes. What is going on outside the museum that could impact the work of museums?

 

Do you have any example for good practices or surprising working solutions by museums?

There are amazing teenager programs. In terms of technology for example there are amazing projects going on right now, one of them is in Smithsonian Hewitt Cooper Design Museum in New York City. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V6AlRZ9Gbs] They have a special room full of technology, for example visitors can design an own wallpaper. Then you can take the design with you and print it if you want. So I can design my own wallpaper, it is fantastic.

Another example is the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American Museum in Washington DC which is a unique example of how to deal with very difficult issues, like immigration and slavery. [https://nmaahc.si.edu] The museum opened more than a year ago and still sold out, there is no ticket, so if you can, go and find access, because it is definitely an unique experience.

 

They found their way to the community.

The Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, [http://mjhnyc.org/exhibitions/new-dimensions-in-testimony/ ] have interactive exhibitions for kids. This includes even virtual interviews with people who are not there, only on screen. So kids for example have a list of 50 questions,that they can ask from a Holocaust survivor who answers instantly because of voice recognition technology. It is beautiful. So kids will have the opportunity to learn about this sad and terrible moment of our history through emotional testimony of old survivals.

In general I am very optimistic because I think museums are more and more understanding the changes, and understanding how the world is changing.

 

This is the first day of Museum Digit Conference. What is your impression about the conference?

What I saw today is an incredible amount of digital projects going on. My question to the audience tomorrow will be how these forces of changes affecting the implementation of those projects?  How these projects will make sure that our museums are reaching out to the audiences we want? And more important: how do these projects, museums will be able to accomplish the mission? Because one thing is that we work very hard, but the external forces, environment effect dramatically our work.

ICEE [http://network.icom.museum/icee/] is trying to understand how to provide help and support  and how we can create a common space for sharing knowledge, how we can help the museum’s community become more aware of the global environment. Our annual conferences has been going all over the world from South Africa to Finland, from Toronto toMoscow, we have been all over the place. And what is important for us to understand what is happening in each country. What we can help and what we can learn from them. So our conferences bring international experts to those countries to interact with the local community. We want to create places for changes, for growing, for mutual understanding. That is a big priority.