Verslag: We Curate kick off seminar
Lessons from the past
“Museums are in desperate need of physiotherapy. There is an abundant evidence of an identity crisis in some mayor institutions, while others are in complete state of schizophrenia. They are unable to serve their role in society” declared a young ambitious museum director by the name of Duncan F. Cameron 40 years ago.1 At the time when Cameron made his maiden speech at a full auditorium at the University of Colorado. Museums were- like today- in a great turmoil. Mass anti-Vietnam demonstrations were taking place and the civil rights movement made daily headline news. There was also a high unemployment rate as more and more people were graduating from college.2 The majority of graduates were seeking employment as teachers.3 As a result, there was a surplus of teachers that, by the 1970s, was overflowing into art institutions.4 Change was in the air. It was the time when education flourished, the social historians rebelled against the history deans and new conceptual art was in fashion.5 Museums were now faced with demands of a new Beatnik generation. But as one director said at the time: “There can be no change in the arts; it is only possible if the Louvre burns down”.6
Reform was certainly possible in the eyes of Duncan Cameron.7 Cameron believed that in order to survive museums must respond to social change and allow for public space to exist within their institution’s walls.8 Cameron felt that art institutions needed to flexible and should move with their times. He suggested that the museum temple needed to be supplemented –not replaced – by a museum that could act as a forum. Museums in this latter mold would, like the forums of ancient Rome, serve as places of confrontation, interchange and debate. After all” it is the forum is where the battles are fought, the temple is where the victors rest.”9
Confrontation, a dialogue and debate are certainly what the public got at the Brooklyn Museum. Cameron served the institute for four years inviting woman’s groups, Afro-Americans, Native American and other community groups to participate in his museum and to install their own exhibitions.10 His main goal was to become a people’s museum. The museum served as a true culture broker, and still does today.
In an NPR interview at the time, Cameron reflects back at his four-year tenure and says: “I knew I had a great challenge when I first entered the museum, but the community gallery is a special place. It is a reference point for all without the curator’s interference.”11Even today Cameron’s vision is still reflected in the museum mission statement which reads that” all communities have a right to narrate their own history and culture.”12
Reading about Cameron’s work, one wonders are we not glorifying the museum’s past. No interference? No censorship? And complete public participation? Would those ideas still be possible today?
It is a question on my mind when listening the presentations of the Belgium artist Koen van Mechelen, and the academics Leontine Meijer van Mensch, Mia Ridge and the writer Shaheen Merali at the WeCurate Kick off conference in Venice. The conference is organized by Framer Framer which hopes to develop a new model for visitor participation.
Moving forward towards audience participation
As Mia Ridge, culture heritage technologist and PH.D candidate at the Open University, points out that museum participation might have started in the 1970s, but we still have a long way to go”.13 Leonine Meijer van Mensch, senior lecture at the Reinwardt Academy tends to agree with Ridge and explains at the We Curate Conference in Venice. “Museums since the 1970s have changed tremendously. Before the seventies curators had a very “Do Your on Thing” approach. The curator oversaw everything, from the framing of the artwork to their place on the wall. He or she was his own Lord of the manor. That changed in the seventies when art institutions professionalized. With the introduction of the education and design departments, the old fashioned curator lost ground. In the old days, target groups were well defined, but today with Facebook and other virtual platforms it is hard to define those specific communities.” Therefore Meijer believes that in the networked ‘Web 3.0’ society of ‘connected content’, museums will, therefore, be facilitators and information managers connecting people and data plus heritage. Or as Karsten Ohrt, director of Statens Museum for Kunst has argued “Museums are no longer masters of knowledge, but servants of knowledge.”14
The museum willnot play a central role in giving communities a voice as it did in Cameron’s day. It can only do that if it is willing to change. We need to think about how we can a give new generation a voice.
Given an new generation a voice: Audience participation
In an interview with The Arts Newspaper director Arnold Lehman, the current director of the Brooklyn Museum said “that if US and the European population changes continue at the current rate then the survival of museums will depend on their ability to embrace diversity and audience participation. If they don’t, “they will be either figuratively or literally out of business.”15 Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) embraces that idea fully. The museum has encouraged first-time visitors to DIA from specific groups to “use it as a place to meet and gather” as part of a program entitled ‘Community Connections’. Publicized mainly through word-of-mouth with the help of employees and board members, the initiative targets African-American, Latino, and Arab-American communities and has been a “huge success” says Beal.
But Beal also acknowledges that his efforts to engage local communities are “moving much more slowly than he anticipated.” One challenge is the suspicion with which community leaders can view community participation within the museum. Beal: “I had a conversation very early on with someone from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I gave him my pitch and he said: ‘Why are you doing this?’ They felt like we’d ignored them for over 100 years, so there was a deep suspicion about our motives—they assumed we wanted something from them16 Shaheen Merali, writer and curator agrees and points out at the We Curate seminar that institutions often will work with source communities to that they may come in and verify the facts for them.But “if you invite people to really participate in the making of a museum, the process must change the museum.17 So why hasn’t the power structure of the art institutions changed? Can we indeed speak of audience participation. And where does it start?
Changing the process of audience engagement
Mia Ridge points that by sticking a yellow post-it on a wall or placing a visitor’s book at the gallery is just not enough. It is a a one way street of visitors’ feedback. The audience is not involved in the decision making process. According to Helen Weinstein of the Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past, when we talk about participation, we mean only does activities where the community or external participants share power with the organization. The participants and organizations are deciding together, acting together, The organization is supporting the participants to pursue their own agenda. Moreover the institution supports multi-directional content experiences. The institution serves as a ‘platform’ that connects different users who act as content creators, distributors, consumers, critics, and collaborators. This means the institution cannot guarantee the consistency of visitor experiences. Instead, the institution provides opportunities for a diverse visitor co-produced experience.
As Mia Ridge points out that in the UK there are many examples whereby different groups are deciding together on the content of the exhibition. A case example is the Derry museum in Ireland. Leading academics, activists and support groups were asked about certain events in history and were able to negotiate on a contested past. Another example is the Beamish museum whereby the museum is able to move beyond nostalgia and acknowledges local experiences related to the coal and steel industries through co- curating programs like ‘Remembering the Silkworth Evictions’. Sharing information, and really participating an exhibition have left curators and all those involved with lots of unanswered questions. Which groups should be allowed to fully participate with the museum. And by what authority? Can peer-led groups have a shift in thinking in museum policy? Can participatory culture (crowdsourcing) be used to help make links or show relationships that are not otherwise possible? Are art institutions ready to do some hard work of authentic engagement? Or is it just quick hit pay off from current crop of cultural fades.These are questions that need to be addressed before true participation can take place.
Perhaps Duncan Camero’s utopia of art institutions and audience engagement does belong in the past. Museums have moved away from being a forum and are now trying to become a network organization with all its ups and downs. Perhaps institutions without a collection will be more succesfull in establishing a true open engaging museum. But as Nina Simons days: one does need to remember that participatory projects are like gardens; they require continual tending and cultivation. They may not demand as much capital spending and pre-launch planning as traditional museum projects, but they require ongoing management once they are open to participants. This means shifting a larger percentage of project budgets towards operation, maintenance, and facilitation staff.18
By Michele Jacobs
a report of the event in Palazzo Dona, Venice, Italy, July 1st, 2013
1. Duncan F. Cameron, (1971) ‘The Museum, a Temple or the Forum’ originally Published in Curator 14/1. Also see reader We Curate Kick off Seminar Venice, Italy. June 1st, 2013, page 1
2. After World War II, the GI Bill passed by Congress gave veterans and their families access to higher education
3. Rebecca B. (2002) “If these walls could talk: museum interpretation in theory and practice”. Ba Thesis, Caverford College, Dept. of History http/triceratops.brynmawr.edu/dspace/handle/10066/661
4. Michelle Jubin (2011) “Museum Education and the Pedagogic Turn” In ArtWrit. (summer issue)
5. James B. Gardner and Peter S. La Paglia,(2004) Public History: Essays from the Field. FA: Krieger Press
6. Duncan F. Cameron in an interview with Ruth Bowman, 1972. Online via The New York Public Radio Archives
7. Duncan F. Cameron is regarded as one of the founders of ‘new museology’ along with Georges-Henri Rivire and Hugues de Varine (France), John Kinnard (United States) and Mario Vasquez (Mexico). Also see Vergo: The new museogology (1989) London: Eaktion Books
8. Duncan F. Cameron, (1971) “The Museum, a Temple or the Forum” originally Published in Curator 14/1. Also see S. Weil (1995) A Cabinet of Curiosities: Inquiries into Museums and Their Prospects: NHBS -, Smithsonian Institution Press
9. S. Weil (1995) A Cabinet of Curiosities: Inquiries into Museums and Their Prospects: NHBS -, Smithsonian Institution Press p.7
10. For a complete overview see. The Brooklyn Museum Open collection date base
11. Duncan F. Cameron in an interview with Ruth Bowman, 1972. Online via The New York Public Radio Archives
12. In her opening speech Mia Ridge refers to the mission statement of the Brooklyn museum. Participatory Practices We Curate @ Venice Biennale, & OPEN CULTURE
13. Mia Ridge (2013) We Curate @ Venice Biennale, & OPEN CULTURE
14. Yasmin Khan (2013) The inclusive Museum. Issue 113/08.p.18. 01.06.2013
15. America is changing – but are its art museums? By Martha Lufkin (2009). Features, Issue 204, July/August 2009. Published online: 12 August 2009
16. America is changing—but are its art museums? By Martha Lufkin (2009). Features, Issue 204, July/August 2009. Published online: 12 August 2009
17. Dan Spock. Museum Authority up for grabs The Lastest thing, or Following a long Trend line. Quoted by Mia Ridge at the We Curate Kick Off seminar, July 1st, 2013
18. Nina Simon, The Participatory Museum