Monday, 11 May 2015

One good idea, two responses and some lessons

It’s 125 years since Vincent Van Gogh’s death. Starting May 3 and for 125 days, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will be answering 125 questions regarding the painter, his life and his work. The museum invites anyone interested to ask a question to send it through their website and a page especifically created to present the results of this Q&A (watch the promotional video and visit the webpage).

The first 8 questions have been answered and I find myself eagerly waiting to see what comes next. It strickes me how simple the basic idea behind the project is and what a wealth of knowledge it’ll help put together: not only with regards to Vincent Van Gogh, but also, and equally importantly, with regards to the Van Gogh Museum’s visitors (both physical and virtual), their interests, existing knowledge and queries and the museum’s current and future response towards them.

Another thing we must mention here is that this is not an isolated “good idea”. It falls into the museum’s larger policy of establishing a relationship with people of different backgrounds, based on the clear mission of making “the work of Vincent van Gogh and the art of his time accessible for as many people as possible, with the goal to enrich and inspire them”.

This was also the challenge given to webdesigners who worked on the museum’s new website, presented in the end of last year. David van Zeggeren, of Fabrique, wrote in an article published in the Guardian, that they were precisely asked to develop a website that would support the mission of the museum. How did they do it? By creating two distinct areas: Visit the museum and Meet Vincent. “We had to ensure it was easy for visitors to plan their visit, but also tempt them with inspiring stories about the artist. (...) With this “Meet Vincent” concept, the team had to make not only the collection (and thus the museum) accessible, but also the artist. (...) Each story has been specially written and designed for the website and offers new approaches to the work of the artist and his contemporaries.”

Answering people’s particular questions is also the simple basis behind the Brooklyn Museum’s Ask App, which I mentioned in my last post. Driven by its mission, to act as a bridge between the rich artistic heritage of world cultures, as embodied in its collections, and the unique experience of each visitor”, the Brooklyn Museum is looking to change (improve) the visitor experience from entry to exit. The Ask App has involved for more than a year now web, interpretation and curatorial staff and it’ll be launched in June. All parts of the process have been generously shared by members of the team on the museum blog, for anyone interested to learn along them. This is a more sophisticated answer to the need to engage with people in a more personalized and meaningful way. I find it truly amazing, as it also involves Location Aware Technology, which is used to tell the staff answering questions which gallery a visitor is standing in and what works of art are nearby, giving them the opportunity to give a more complete answer and guide the visitor around. Every step of the development of the app is being evaluated and sometimes there are simple and practical consequences, such as rethinking a label, since visitors ask the same question about a specific work of art.

The Brooklyn Museum Ask App dashboard (image taken from the Brooklyn Museum blog)
Despite the level of sophistication of the two projects being quite different, their common basis – answering people’s questions – made me bring them together is this post. I believe there are some clear lessons one can gather from both:

Everything starts with a clear mission: projects are not being developed simply because someone had an idea that seemed good or because a commemoration is coming up, but because they help the museum fulfill its mission. Really, every idea for a project should be tested against the mission. How often do we do this exercise?

The right people must be involved: this probably sounds as a luxury in countries struggling with severe cuts and overworked members of staff doing a bit of everything. But, if we wish to be relevant and part of people’s lives, a time comes when priorities need to be set straight and clearly and the objective must be something more than “OK” iniciatives and “OK” results - even if we insist on presenting them as “extraordinary”. How soon can we start working on this?

Finally, evaluation: a clear mission and clear objectives allow for clear evaluation indicators to be set, so that we are able to monitor if things are developing according to plan and make the necessary changes. Can we honestly say that the number of exhibitions presented, the number of activities proposed and the number of people who attended are good enough indicators when we present our reports at the end of the year? What are they telling us – they, alone - about the quality and impact of our work, in relation to the objectives initially set?

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