The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

July 20, 2012

Mini-post: What we should be talking about when we talk about the Trenton City Museum

My colleagues tease me that I never write a short blog post when a 1200-word essay will do. To prove them wrong, here’s a quick thought about the struggling Trenton City Museum — or rather, a recent diagnosis of it in the NY Times.

The Times piece lays out the dismal saga: city cuts budget, lays off museum director (along with a third of the Trenton police force), puts intern in the directors’ office. Donors panicked and angry, Brooklyn Museum retracts offer to loan a vase for upcoming exhibition, exhibition cancelled. Search for new director yields 10 resumes, most unqualified.

Why such a sorry state? Budget woes, according to the article.

But there, alongside the article, is a photo that makes a very different argument about what the problem might be:

Photo: Tim Larsen for the New York Times

Shouldn’t we really be talking about what a museum is supposed to do and what kinds of experiences it should try to make possible? About the relationship between the past and the present, and about how ‘culture’ looks and works today? About innovation in the cultural sector and how organizations of all sizes are renegotiating their relationships with their communities?

I suppose that in some situations the macroeconomics are so bad that no amount of reinvention would save the day. But until cultural organizations try it, they'll never know. Look at what Nina Simon is doing in Santa Cruz. My guess is that the budget problems we talk about so much in the arts are the water that seeps in when the foundations begin to erode.

"The City Museum still hopes to mount an exhibition of the vases,” we’re told. I hope they also take the opportunity to ask some new questions about why and how.

I’ll try a few other mini-posts in the next few weeks; let me know if they’re valuable.

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Categories: History museums, Innovation, Museums, Visitor experience, Visual art
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April 06, 2012

Do cultural institutions tell stories? A new bestseller gets me thinking

The rise of live storytelling in recent years is remarkable, both for its bottom-up, scrappy scene (headquartered in Brooklyn, of course) and its rehabilitation of a historical form of entertainment and conviviality. A few storytelling events are held at museums, but that’s not the same as museums telling stories in their own exhibitions or programs. A new hiking memoir, of all things, just reminded me what the recipe has always been.

Having been laid up sick for a few days with the book, Wild, for company, I can tell you that its author, Cheryl Strayed, deserves the praise that critics have been showering on her. The book, which is about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone in order to put her reckless, splintered life back together, is heartfelt, honest, gripping, funny and, for me at least, deeply moving.

Those are critical clichés, I know. But there’s one kind of cultural narrative they’re almost never used to describe: museum exhibitions. Museum people often speak of exhibitions as “telling the story” of so-and-so, or collections as “telling the stories” of a particular time and place. But compared to the real storytelling that’s going on these days, from The Moth (pictured) to This American Life to books like Strayed’s, museums’ use of the word “story” feels like a mere metaphor, an approximation.

You’ve seen plenty of exhibitions with a historical shape, and a beginning, middle, and an end. But when’s the last time you came out of an exhibition feeling like somebody had told you a story? 

When’s the last time you’d have described an exhibition — or a symphony concert or dance program, for that matter — as heartfelt, gripping, honest, or moving? The individual artworks, historical artifacts, or performances, sure. But the exhibition — the evening — the program created by the cultural institution itself?

Strayed’s book got me thinking about the difference between a narrative (that slightly precious, academic word) and a story. Her book, like all good stories, moves in two directions, which we might call horizontal and vertical (see diagram, below). The horizontal direction is the unfolding of the plot: where the story is taking us, and how we’re going to get from here to there. It’s the dimension of surprises, twists, and the pleasure of wondering (or fearing or wishing) what’s going to happen next. When we say something is gripping or suspenseful, we’re praising the horizontal dimension.

Exhibitions, for all their traditional emphasis on chronological and other kinds of narratives, aren’t particularly good at this. As I’ve asked here before, when do museum visitors ever feel suspense about what the next gallery will tell them, or how it’s going to end? ...

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Categories: Classical music, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling
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March 21, 2011

Nastygram from the NY Times on visitor research

Maybe the Times arts critics have it in for the Brooklyn Museum. Or maybe they just don’t believe museum curators should get to know the audiences they’re creating exhibitions for. Then again, some museums don’t believe that either, which is why “front end” evaluation is often a botched job.

So I tried not to get defensive when I read this paragraph in art critic Ken Johnson’s review of Brooklyn’s new show on Plains Indian tipis.

Beyond some basic historical context, the exhibition offers no revelatory perspective on its contents. That might be partly because, as the organizers, Nancy B. Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller (both Brooklyn Museum curators) point out in their catalog preface, part of the planning process involved focus groups and visitor surveys “to determine the level of visitor interest in and knowledge of the tepee and Plains culture.” They also invited a team of American Indian scholars, artists and tribal members to vet their plans. The result is an exhibition that speaks down to its audience, assuming a low level of sophistication, and that does as little as possible to offend or stir controversy.

On one level, this is the familiar highbrow take on visitor studies: If you ask the public what they want from an arts or culture experience, you’re doomed from the get-go. Focus groups yield lowest-common-denominator thinking, which should have no place in planning encounters with the great or challenging or profound. The museum should exercise its cultural authority and decide what visitors need to see and learn, without getting sidetracked by what they want.

But when you gather museum-goers in a focus group or ask them questions on a survey, do they really tell you, “I want this exhibition to talk down to me. I want the interpretation of objects to be bland and inoffensive”?

Of course not. The real issue here is what kinds of questions the museum asks and how it understands — and makes use of — the answers. I hasten to add that I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, and I may not agree with Johnson’s that it is condescending or bland. (From what I’ve been able to see online, it looks promising.) ...

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Categories: Accountability, History museums, Museums, Research issues, Visitor experience, Visual art
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December 30, 2010

Guest blogger: Jaime Kopke on the “Enchanted Palace” in London

For our parting post of 2010, I’m delighted to have Jaime Kopke as our guest blogger. Jaime founded the Denver Community Museum, a one-year pop-up experiment in community curation. She then spent a year in London earning a Master’s in curating contemporary design. Which gave her keen eyes for the new installation at Princess Di’s house...

Browsing through the comment book at the “Enchanted Palace,” an exhibit currently on show at Kensington Palace, I noticed two main sentiments: love and extreme dislike. I was in the former category, an enthusiastic fan.

“Enchanted Palace” is the Historic Royal Palaces’ answer to the challenges of a £12 million building renovation, one which has forced the closure of a large portion of the site. The exhibition will run through early 2012, when the rebuilding is complete.

Kensington Palace was the home to many of Britain’s famous princesses, including Queen Victoria and Diana, Princess of Wales. This exhibition tells the tales of seven of these royal inhabitants. Under the direction of the Cornwall-based theater company Wildworks, the building has been transformed into a magical, eerie, thoroughly fascinating space. Instead of following a linear timeline of the princesses’ lives, visitors encounter dramatic installations inspired by their stories. In each of the princesses’ rooms, historic artifacts are intertwined with contemporary artwork, handmade props, dramatic lighting and strange soundscapes. Drifting among the crowds are Wildworks’ storytellers, actors dressed in industrial-type gowns who engage — and sometimes bewilder — the audience.

Upon entering, visitors are given a hand-drawn map for the quest at hand: to discover the history behind each of the seven princesses. There are no labels on the walls to provide the answers. Instead, visitors are asked to explore one princess’s story at a time, to become enthralled, enamored, and in more cases than not, saddened by her touching tale. To help make the magic happen, the curators and Wildworks tapped into the talents of UK fashion designers, including Vivienne Westwood, Stephen Jones, William Tempest, Boudicca, and Aminaka Wilmont, and illustrator and set designer Echo Morgan. In the Room of Royal Sorrows, for example, a dress of tears created by Aminaka Wilmont is draped over the bed, marking the place where Mary II was unable to produce an heir. In a dark room nearby, a dress made of origami cranes hovers above an oversized bed, revealing Victoria’s childhood dreams of fleeing the palace.

It is this collaboration with contemporary designers and artists that helps make the show so successful. By creating a bridge to the present day, “Enchanted Palace” does more than liven up some dreary spaces; it evokes emotion and wonder. Museums partnering with artists is not a new concept, as Peter pointed out here recently. Increasingly, curators are giving over their spaces, programs and collections to artists for creative interventions. The result is usually an exciting new interpretation. ...

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Categories: History museums, Innovation, Museums, Visitor experience, Visual art
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May 28, 2010

Museums and subjectivity: food for thought from the AAM annual meeting

I’ve got a lot of blog-catching-up to do, and I’ll start with a few ideas I heard in Los Angeles this week at the American Association of Museums gathering. As some of you know, I’ve been thinking lately about the importance of subjectivity in cultural institutions, and I was happy to hear several speakers strike the same note.

Subjectivity is one of those ten-gallon abstractions, but I just mean the human, personal presence that animates an act of communication — say, a museum exhibition or a symphony performance.

That presence can be felt on at least three different levels. If the story is about Einstein’s discovery of special relativity, the storyteller might emphasize the subjectivity of the “characters” in the drama: Einstein’s struggles, feelings, thought process, beliefs, or the way he burst into the apartment of his friend Max Born to share a realization that had just clicked. I find this kind of subjectivity more common in science books than science museum exhibits, which tend to be more about concepts than scientists. But we do see a little of it.

Or the storyteller could emphasize the audience’s subjectivity — the responses, feelings, beliefs, and ideas in our minds as we take in the story. Museums have been doing this since the dawn of interactive museum displays, but exhibits like “You! The Experience” (at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry) and the rise of participatory, co-created experiences show how comfortable museums have gotten with the subjectivity of their visitors.

But what about their own subjectivity? What about the feelings, commitments, attitudes, and plain old human personality of the storyteller(s)? In our Einstein example, how does the “author” (of a book or any other form of cultural communication) connect to this story? What does it mean to her, and how and why did she come to know it? ...

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Categories: Culture sector, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Natural history, Science museums, Visual art
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April 22, 2010

Blood and thunder: Santa Fe museum notes, Part 2

What’s the history-museum equivalent of a real page-turner? Museum professionals talk about the power of storytelling, but often exhibit stories are so broad they feel like summaries — book-jacket blurbs rather than the book itself.

Last weekend I posted about visiting the New Mexico History Museum, whose main permanent exhibit, “Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now,” opened last year but already feels dated, at least to me. Yet it represents typical contemporary practice in history museums — heck, even “best practices” in many ways. So the questions I’m raising are less criticisms of this installation and more a lob in the ongoing volley about how museums think about the “rules” and strategies of engagement.

In the same spirit, here’s an observation about the sheer breadth of the narratives that exhibits like these tend to tackle. That title, “Telling New Mexico,” says it all: this is 500 years of stories in six subdivided galleries, starting “Beyond History’s Records” and eventually arriving at “Becoming the Southwest” and “My New Mexico.”

Such breadth, coupled with the necessary brevity of panel texts and object labels, results in a level of generality that might seem comical if we weren’t so used to it. Here’s the only mention I saw of Kit Carson, that conflicted nemesis of the Navajos whose military genius led to the infamous “Long Walk,” in which hundreds of Navajo men, women, and children died:

In 1826, a restless 16-year-old Kit Carson arrived in Taos, New Mexico. Three years later, he was on his first trapping expedition. One of the most famous men of the West, he led a complex, adventurous life as a hunter, scout, soldier, rancher, and Indian fighter.

Texts like these are unsatisfying on almost every level. They raise more questions than they answer (Why was he famous? Was it somehow unusual for a newcomer to go on a trapping expedition at the age of 19? What was complex about his life?).

But the chief question they raise is, “Why should we care?” The panel feels dutiful, as if the curators were checking off an item on their list. It neither conveys their interest in the subject nor sparks our own. ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, History museums, Innovation, Institutional personality, Museums, Visitor experience
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April 17, 2010

Santa Fe museum notes, Part 1

The New Mexico History Museum opened last year, but the permanent exhibits feel like 20th-century thinking. They made me wonder — again — why museums are so uncomfortable taking a stand on their own content.

I was in Santa Fe last week, hiking, gallery-hopping, and choosing between red and green chili. One of my first stops was the New Mexico History Museum, which opened a year ago behind the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors, America’s oldest operating government building. (Take that, New England.)

The permanent exhibits convey some of that revisionist spirit, reorienting America’s origin story away from England and the northeast and toward Spain, Mexico and the southwest. That’s refreshing: we come to museums in part to have our assumptions shaken up a little. I could feel that pleasurable sense of something being reframed in my head as I made my way through the galleries.

But the means by which the museum conveys that fresh story felt incongruously dated. Contrary to the museum’s intentions, expressed in its press releases and brochures, the core exhibits struck me as familiar, handsome, institutional museum display and discourse: dispassionate, “objective,” and didactic, a one-way communication of facts and images from museum to visitor.

The facts, objects, and images are certainly interesting, and they’re juxtaposed in accessible, thoughtfully-designed displays. But they’re merely interesting: a cerebral experience rather than a social, ethical, emotional, or spiritual one.

There’s nothing unusual about this; I could have been in any serious, accredited history museum in America. So with apologies to NMHM, I’ll argue that there are two kinds of lost opportunities here. ...

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Categories: Culture sector, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Visitor experience
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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