Reprogramming the Art Museum @ AGNSW

This week has been quite a rush. On Monday and Tuesday, I attended a great symposium run by a new research group at COFA. The symposium was on the topic Reprogramming the Art Museum, and really emphasised strategies for engagement in museums. It featured fabulous keynote speakers Adam Lerner (MCA Denver), Dominic Willsdon (SFMOMA), Lawrence Rinder (Berkeley Art Museum) and Justine McLisky (National Portrait Gallery, UK). There were also some shorter papers presented, including a wonderful presentation by Elizabeth Mead from MONA on the effect of bringing an outsider’s voice into the art museum (I am officially a massive fangirl of Mead’s following the presentation – must get to MONA soon).

Similarly, I loved and was super-excited by Adam Lerner’s presentation on his work at MCA Denver. I think one reason I’ve been drawn to museum tech is because most technologists that I’ve met are actively thinking about/tackling questions about how to engage audiences, and how to make the museum meaningful in an online space. What I loved about Adam’s work – and really all the presenters actually – was that they were doing the same thing, but in the physical space. It made me really wonder whether what I am working towards is not necessarily museum tech, but museum engagement – online or offline, and preferably both. I think this is the reason I love Jasper Visser’s work with the Dutch Museum of National History (including the national cultural vending machine) – although much of INNL’s work happens online, their truly awesome initiatives are the ones that marry the virtual with the real.

That term engagement is an interesting one. I had a conversation with a friend recently about a philosopher he was studying, and my friend mentioned that he thought that often people think that he is smarter than he is because he has really connected with this philosopher’s work. People seemed to associate intelligence with engagement, with a passion for intellectual pursuit. Simply by choosing to really focus on and connect with an issue, my friend was going over and above what others do, and thus found that he gained significant respect for that fact. He also found that it left him a little fearful about the expectations that he had created for himself more generally… that it would no longer be ok for him to just be ‘ordinary’ in his work on this, or related subjects, because the expectations had changed.

Similarly, I think the situation is the same with museums. Creating engaging exhibitions, programs or websites is wonderful, because it brings the opportunity for an extra layer of credibility with the actual community with whom you are trying to connect. But of course, it also brings expectations. In talking to a gallery director I met at the conference, I mentioned my love for programs such as those run at MCA Denver, because they are precisely what I think museums should be seeking to do. She agreed, but with some hesitation, and then expressed a feeling that sometimes she wanted to simply be able to display art without needing to be more than that, and without the added expectation that came with starting a culture of more. I’d love to hear from any of you who have been involved with these kinds of programming choices in museums to hear about your experiences too, and whether starting a program of intentional engagement has also brought with it changed expectations. Has this been sustainable?

Overall it was a really thought-provoking two days, with lots of cumulative takeaways (although the big one for me is that this is going to be an ongoing and important issue for my own career). Hopefully will run another symposium again soon. I will definitely go along.