Monday 27 April 2015

Museum Next starts here

Christian Lachel, BRC Imagination Arts (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
It seems to me that the three words that were mostly heard at the 2015 MuseumNext conference were: emotion, stories, engagement. Words that clearly mark the change that has been taking place in museum attitude, aiming to establish, with the help of their collections, a better, more relevant and meaningful relationship with people - more people, different people, common people.

A presentation that was wholly dedicated to this subject was “Emotionalizing the Museum”, by Christian Lachel of BRC Imagination Arts. “Does the experience transform your guests and compel them to share it with others?”, Christian asked. And this is probably the right question to ask. Although the transformation we all so much desire to make happen might take time to be consciously acknowledged by individuals (if it is acknowledged at all), the compelling wish to share with others is a more immediate indicator of the occurance of a meaningful encounter. And the starting point is people’s heart, acoording to Christian. The process of creating an engaging experience is one from the inside to the outside and not vice-versa. One that aims to involve people through a meaningful story, looking then for the right tools and creating the appropriate physical environment for the encounter.

Christian Lachel, BRC Imagination Arts (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Another issue that repeatedly came up was that of digital vs physical. At the same time that museums are racing to embrace the new digital tools and platforms in order to create more engaging and meaningful experiences, they often seem to take a step back, re-evaluating the advantages and strengths of the physical encounter.

An inspiring project of the Brooklyn Museum, the Ask Mobile App, has gone through these stages of thinking and evaluating (which are openly shared on the museum’s blog – a great example of professionalism, generosity, transparency and accountability that more museums should have the courage to implement). As Shelley Bernstein explained to us, at a time when the Brooklyn Museum is re-evaluating a number of points of contact with its visitors (its austere foyer, its confusing reception area, the lack of seating), it also wishes to improve their experience allowing them to ask on-site and in real time any question they might have regarding the objects or the exhibitions in general. The project is still being tested in its details and will be launched in June. 

Shelley Bernstein, Brooklyn Museum (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
At an earlier stage, the museum had members of its staff on floor and discovered that visitors loved engaging in conversation with them. Such a large museum would need a lot of people, though, to be able to cover all areas. In order to optimize the idea of the direct and in-real-time contact with a member of staff, they decided to turn to technology. A team of six people will be available to answer visitor questions sent through their mobiles using the Ask Mobile App. Evaluation so far has shown that people still consider this contact to be personal and the museum is confident that this will be one more way of fulfilling their mission of being “a dynamic and responsive museum that fosters dialogue and sparks conversations”. For one thing, the museum has discovered that people seem to take more time looking at the objects... looking for questions to ask!

Is there anything more personal and physical, though (and funny and inspiring), than being taken to a museum tour tailored to your needs and interests by Museum Hack? “I hate museums!”, this is how Nick Gray started his presentation. And he did hate them... once. Now all he wants is to share his passion for them with people who still hate them, people who feel that museums are not for them. A colleague from the Museum of Architecture and Design in Oslo called Museum Hack “our natural allies”. And aren’t they indeed! Nick’s favourite object at the Metropolitan Museum is the fragment of an Egyptian queen’s face. This is what he had to say about it (quoting from memory): “If these are the lips, can you imagine the rest? How beautiful she must have been? And although we don’t know who she is and which tools were used to make her, we know she’s made of yellow jasper. Yellow jasper was so-so expensive, that the only other object at the Met made of it is this tiny. In a scale of hardness from 1 to 10, where diamond is 10 and marble is 3, jasper is a solid 6. It makes marble feel like rubber...”. Aren’t museums f***ing awesome?!

Nick Grey, Museum Hack (Photos: Maria Vlachou)
My visit to the recently renovated International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum somehow put all these thoughts and ideas to the test. It’s a museum that greatly combines the physical and the digital, using technology in order to enhance the meaning of the objects, to share powerful stories and to engage the visitor – both emotionally and intellectually – in the discussion of quite sensitive universal questions. The three main chapters of the story are “Defending Human Dignity”, “Restoring Family Links” and “Reducing Natural Risks” and each space/chapter was created by a different architect, proposing quite distinct environments. One of the most touching moments for me was in the room that exhibits the gifts offered by prisoners of different conflicts to the Red Cross delegate in charge of their case. It made me think of the beauty, sensitivity, creativity and humanity that can still emanate after the horror of barbarity, brief glimpses of a renewed hope. I must say, though, that the most powerful moment was touching the extended hand of a witness on a screen, a gesture that would trigger their testimony. A brilliant conception, linking the physical to the digital and creating a profoundly emotional and memorable experience.

I must say that in almost every museum visit, presentation and discussion during the conference, there was an underlying issue for me: can museums fulfill their social and educational role, can they be relevant and engaging, if they don’t also clearly assume their political role? Right on the first day, Gail Dexter Lord introduced the concept of soft power as “the ability to influence behaviour through persuasion, attraction or agenda setting”. How can museums exercise this power? "We cannot take sides", colleagues often exclaim. Oh, but we do... Sometimes with our silence or by pretending to be neutral; more often with the objects we choose to show or not to show, the stories we choose to tell or not to tell.

More than taking sides, though, assuming our political role is to assume that there is actually more than one side to every story and to allow for space for these views to become known, to be discussed, so that citizens may get better informed, see their own views being challenged, meet and listen to the ‘other’, develop empathy and understanding, take a stand. Museums are not islands and, as Tony Butler (Derby Museums / The Happy Museum Project) said, “What’s happening out there is as important as what’s happening inside”. Isn’t it urgent, and doesn’t it make sense, that museums in the 21st assume their role in promoting democracy?

Gail Dexter Lord (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

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