Ideas

Super Museums - by Adam Rozan, Allison Agsten, Hanna Cho and Aimee Change

HammerMuseum-Big.jpgBeing simply average has become the modus operandi for museums. But a new and bold interpretation of the traditional museum model is slowly emerging. Adam Rozan talks to some of the pioneers in the field of audience engagement about museums that are mindful of every opportunity to delight their audiences

The existing cookie-cutter model most museums utilize to attract visitors leaves them feeling and looking nearly identical to each other with subtle differences visible in their locations, building attributes and collections. Luckily, we’re seeing a new and bold interpretation of the traditional museum model slowly emerging to give cultural institutions the freedom to meet their visitors halfway. This shift in museum thinking is as radical as it is practical, and is called “Audience Engagement.” This approach is a giant step away from the one-size-fits-all model and will help bring museums back to a socially relevant existence.

The complex challenges that museums face today require an ability, and willingness, to combine typically isolated functions and departments - blending the boundaries between marketing and communications, education and curatorial, to further align the needs of the visitor - online and onsite - with the work and activity of the museum. 

Museums that can do this, which are what I like to call “super museums”, think and act differently. While they have typical museum-like functions, they are anything but typical. These institutions are contemporary in intention and action, and are mindful of every opportunity to delight their audiences.

To better illustrate the role of “audience engagement,”Adam Rozan - Director of Audience Engagement Worcester Art Museum - asks some of the pioneers in the field to weigh in. They are Allison Agsten of the HAMMER Museum; Hanna Cho of the Museum of Vancouver; and Aimee Change of the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. This small group is paving the way for us all. They provide more examples and context in the following Q&As...

Adam Rozan talks with Aimee Chang, Director of Engagement, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

What does engagement mean to you and your organization?
I think engagement is a key part of human nature - we seek to engage with people and our environment. In museums, including at BAM/PFA, there is a shift to include participation and real-time person-to-person exchange as part of the museum experience. For me, maybe because of my curatorial background, I think about how this intersects with “traditional” exhibitions and about how and in what ways art viewing can be or is participatory. I also think about how to support artists doing this kind of work and where it intersects with the political. What is the role of the museum in supporting and historicizing public and social practice works made outside of museums?

How would you describe audience engagement as it relates to museums?
I think this means many different things at different organizations. Overall and at its best I think it is a philosophical shift throughout institutions—a deep consideration of varied audiences when thinking about what museums are and do.

Describe your position and your department, division, or function?
At BAM/PFA the director of engagement is a new position that oversees the education, communications, and membership departments. There is a newness to this here and at other institutions and I’m fascinated by the many different ways we are finding to realize similar goals.

What’s next?
At BAM/PFA I’m excited about a new open-ended exhibition, The Possible. Opening during the spring of 2014, it will explore the intersection of art, craft, pedagogy and performance. The installation will grow and evolve over the course of four months through multi-layered workshops, discussions, and collaborations.


Adam Rozan talks to Allison Agsten, Curator of Public Engagement, Hammer Museum

What does engagement mean to you and your organization?
We of course want to engage with our visitors in many respects. This may play out onsite with Visitor Services or online in social media. More specifically, engagement at the Hammer often refers to Public Engagement, a curatorial endeavor within the museum. Through Public Engagement, we aim to forge connections between visitors and the institution though art projects that value exchange.

How would you describe audience engagement as it relates to museums?
I do not think there is a standard for what “audience engagement” means at this juncture. My program is artist driven, for example. Other engagement programs are the amalgams of various departments at the museum, like marketing and education. Engagement can also refer to just one of those things vs. a combination of various functions.

Describe your position and your department, division, or function?
I curate art projects aimed at connecting visitors with the museum. Often this work is categorized as social practice though in my program, music and sound also have an important role. And in the next year, we will stage our first olfactory piece.

Is audience engagement a trend or do you see it growing in the museum field?
One way to dispel the stodgy, elitist stereotypes (and realities) of museums is with engagement-oriented programs. Do I think this work is the panacea? No. But I do believe engagement is more than a trend.

What’s next?
An uptick in the presentation of interdisciplinary work.


Adam Rozan talks to Hanna Cho, Curator of Engagement and Dialogue, Museum of Vancouver

What does engagement mean to you and your organization?
Engagement means being a platform for creative forms of inquiry, knowledge-driven exploration, and active understanding that is interdisciplinary, intersectional, and, for us, Vancouver-focused. It’s something that is central to the Museum of Vancouver’s mandate. After a lengthy consultation process that started about 7 years ago, in 2009 the MOV launched a new vision to hold a mirror up to the city and lead provocative conversations about its past, present, and future. In short, it means updating the way in which museums position themselves in relation to their audiences and intellectual community, to serve as a platform that is more participatory and inviting than museums traditionally have been.

How would you describe audience engagement as it relates to museums?
For me, the growing attention and profile given to audience engagement in museums, is simply a way to describe a fundamental reset and desire for relevance in a changing cultural field. Focusing on engagement is a vital way for museums as institutions to adapt in an increasingly decentered and networked social reality.

Describe your position and your department, division, or function?
Interactivity, participatory values and creative collaboration are at the heart of my work at the museum. Whether it’s a public program, online (digital) storymap, or urban design charrettes, these keywords can describe much of how “engagement” manifests at the MOV. Organizationally, my position sits squarely in an interdisciplinary team of curators, yet also works collaboratively and often, with a range of community, academic, and public sector partners. Overall, I see the department and my role as a clear signal and commitment to the MOV’s progressive new direction, and ability to be a leader and partner of, rather than mere observer of, civic change.

Is audience engagement a trend or do you see it growing in the museum field?
Absolutely not. Audience engagement is a key component of a generational shift that is already underway and exemplified in every aspect of how workplaces, education, and other cultural sector agents are evolving. I think I see engagement becoming part of museum DNA especially in how many organizations (including mine) are pursuing longer term collaborative relationships within our community.

What’s next?
A growing presence for the Museum into and of the city’s geographic core, particularly through opportunities for exploratory play, design workshops, and exhibition/programming pop-ups that encourage interactive “hands on learning” that treats the city as a living artifact.