Are we engaged yet? What happens after the pledge is made?

Just about everyone I know in this sector seems to have harboured some fantasy of having his or her own museum; of doing things differently. Some want a small rebel museum (easier for experimentation); some want to take charge of a bigger space for really radical change (which brings to mind Jasper Visser’s recent post on big ships versus speedboats). I am curious as to why this is. Is it simply a question of ambition? Does everyone want to be “the guy” (instead of “the guy the guy counts on”)? I don’t quite think that’s it. Is it that the engaged sections of the sector are full of entrepreneurs-in-museum clothing who love the institution of the museum, but grate against its limitations? Is it simply because, like imagining what you’re going to be when you grow up, it gives a focus for crafting a vision of the future?

I suspect one factor is the very fact that we (and by we I mean anyone who thinks seriously on the question of the museum, and what its purpose is and how it should best fulfill that purpose) are so engaged with the problem. On some level, all engagement brings with it a promise or a pledge for further action. It is a gearing up in readiness for something further. And so when museum professionals engage so seriously in regular and ongoing rumination about the questions of what a museum should be doing, and how, and for whom, the next natural step is to want to do something with that engagement; to fulfill the pledge that was made upon immersion in the subject. To take the ideas and tentative solutions being dreamed up and discussed on blogs and in Tweets everywhere and test them out.

That’s not always possible (although pilot projects and the like can provide some opportunity for discovering whether an idea had real legs, or was merely a beautiful fiction). Acting upon the urge to make serious change can be difficult until you control a budget and a staff; until you have your own department or museum. And so people dream of having a museum of their very own and think about what they would do differently; about how they would start a museum from scratch, conceive of a kinetic museum or re-imagine museums. Some of these conversations are simply fun. Some are great intellectual forays that get the mental juices flowing in an entirely pleasurable way. But some, no doubt, come from a sense of powerless and frustration at a perceived need for change, without having the mechanisms to do anything about it.

It makes me wonder whether the same is true of museum audiences. Once they are engaged, do they too have an urge for something more? Once a museum has put time into courting a visitor and getting them engaged, does the museum then consider how to make good on its pledge for further action? I am sure that the best museums do, although I often have the impression that the discussion finishes at “engagement” rather than being about a lifelong relationship. Is there a level of frustration, then, when someone is engaged and committed if the relationship stalls? Sue Bell Yank recently farewelled MOCA’s Engagement Party, asking in the title of the post if she could “have her ring back?”, and I think her post is a useful metaphor for considering how we deal with museum audiences once they have coyly batted their eyelashes at our proposals, and said yes.

If you make an effort to engage someone, whether for a speaking engagement or a marriage, there is an expectation that accompanies the pledge. And if the  relationship doesn’t meet those expectations, there can arise a frustration that can lead to disengagement, to breaking off future involvement. And I wonder if that is a problem that confronts this sector in both professional and public circles. If a great museum professional’s commitment and ideas aren’t recognised, they will probably stop giving them. If a visitor (or user) cannot see validity in their input or ongoing relationship with the museum, they probably will stop committing to it. How can we make sure that neither of those outcomes happen? How can museums make sure that engaged staff continue to feel that their contributions are valid, even if they are not always practical? How can we help visitors feel appreciated, even if they are just lurkers in our physical and digital spaces?

Dating and courtship might be the first steps in a new relationship, but engagement isn’t the last. So often it seems that our discussions end at that point, but I’m not sure that’s where they should stop. How can we utilise the investment (whether of time, money, or emotion) that someone has made into our exhibitions, museums, programs, or their own careers, to ensure that the relationship continues to be fulfilling?

Does your (current) museum see engagement as being the goal, or just a stage in a longer relationship? And have you ever harboured your own fantasy of having a museum of your very own? If so, what would you do differently?

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.