Museum as Platform

Authority, access, and third-parties

CC-BY-SA 2.0 image by Dave Pickersgill

Authors

John Gordy — John Gordy started his career as a high school art teacher. He realized soon after that he loved helping the world make connections with art but it was much easier to do it with digital media. He has helped museums scale up what they can do with technology since back in the day of dial up.

Rachel Ropeik — Rachel is a museum educator and museum adventurer. She is always in pursuit of the unexpected museum experience, is a passionate advocate of fun in the museum, and regularly changes the color of her hair. Rachel has brought — and continues to bring — her sense of experimentation and curiosity to museums in the USA and the UK.

Fun fact: The authors went to the same high school.

The Initial Prompt

One of the more exciting, progressive ideas to enter the museum space in the past decade has been the idea of “museum as platform” — the concept that rather than having to be the sole and final arbiter of all that goes on within its walls, museums could become platforms upon which others create their own cultural and educational experiences. Nancy Proctor’s 2010 Curator article, and John Stack’s 2013 Tate Blog post are good examples of the early promise of the premise.

Since then, we have seen a proliferation of efforts to open up museums to outside expertise, from citizen curators, to for-profit enterprises like MuseumHack. And no small amount of negative reaction, from cultural commentators, critics, and professionals. In this month’s exchange of letters, John Gordy and Rachel Ropeik will discuss their experiences and different views on this new platform.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

Our Correspondence (as it evolves)…

John to Rachel: January 6, 2016

Hi Rachel

I had such a great time in Minneapolis. Thanks for touring the museums. My best memories of most conferences are usually what happens off site.

I want to follow up on our brawl at the bar over Museum Hack. I don’t think I’m ever going to change your mind but I’d like to articulate, while clear headed, why I think the Hack is awesome for museums.

I have participated in some fabulous programs led by educators in museums. For a Louise Bourgeois exhibit at the Hirshhorn I was led through an exercise where we were asked to use craft materials to create a box that would contain our fears. If I remember correctly mine had something to do with biting aluminum foil and Twitter. The product wasn’t important but the process made me see Bourgeois’ work differently ever since.

Our more participatory programs in museums are a big hit with the public. We can’t do enough of them. For instance there are popular programs which involve sketching and conversation. The drawing workshops were posted yesterday and 175 slots were snapped up in two minutes. In 15 minutes there were 400 people on the waitlist. There’s no doubt that there is a demand for engaging programs led by museums.

But those are the outstanding exceptions that only serve to point out the problem that tours at most museums are boring. They are often led by people who have been giving the same tour for years and have not felt the need to shake things up. Many of them have backgrounds in art history and are qualified to lead the audiences around to the works that the museum considers important but they are not really engaging the public.

Museum Hack aren’t the only ones creating engaging tours but they do have a financial incentive to create an experience that people will tell their friends about. The hack tour here in DC is $50. If it’s anything short of awesome people are going to raise a fuss.

Their marketing is totally inflammatory in our professional circles. They position themselves as offering the tour that the museum would never give you. They are marketing to people who will pay extra for a unique and reliably good experience. Coming in as “outsiders” allows them to say things on tours that would be considered in bad taste if delivered by a guide on staff. (By the way, the tour you gave of Delacroix would be a huge hit as a Hack tour. Have you considered moonlighting?)

There’s not a lot of difference between a Hack tour and some of our better programs. I did my first DC Hack tour incognito to get the real experience and I had a blast. I kept talking about it to my coworkers and convinced them that we had to try it together. Sara, one of my colleagues from our Education Department mentioned Molly the Hacker’s story about a painting sounded like something she heard in her art history program at Bowdoin. It turns out they studied in the same program and idolized the same teacher. We’re all in it for the noble cause of the love of art. There are just multiple paths to the same place.

Yours forever in love of museums

-jg


Rachel to John: March 6, 2016

Hi John.

You make some excellent points, and also some that — I’ll be honest — get my museum educator dander up. Don’t worry, no punches will be thrown. We’re all friends here.

I agree that many people’s expectation of what a guided museum tour will involve is… shall we say, less than exciting. The shadow of the B-word (*whispers* “boring”) floats ominously around the edges. But when we assume the best way to change that is to bring in outside people, it seems to imply some giving up and giving in. Like we’re accepting that yep, standard museum tours are boring, and people only like the active stuff, so bring in someone from outside to shake things up. It lets museums off the hook for making that change themselves. If, as you say, participatory programs sell out fast, it sounds like an opportunity for the museum to offer more of them, rather than relying on an outsider to provide them.

Any museum worth its salt should be (and most are) working hard to train their educators so tours aren’t boring, and so they offer different kinds of experiences for different kinds of visitors.

To follow up on your Museum Hack example, I also had a lot of fun on their tours when I went on them. I’m always in favor of more opportunities for fun in museums. That said, my MH tours also felt like races through the galleries that didn’t leave any time for contemplation or in-depth looking, which I also love. There wasn’t much facilitated conversation between participants to build an understanding of the artwork or encourage us to look closely at it. Much like the format of a B-word museum tour, it was mostly the guide doing the talking while the participants followed and listened. Then, periodically, we did some of the same active strategies (pose like an artwork, look from a new viewpoint, take a selfie that puts you “in conversation” with an artwork) that museum educators have been using for years.

Museum education (and general learning) pedagogy has moved so far beyond this.

We work on including visitors’ voices in conversation, on making them feel like they’re the ones creating the experience based on their own observations and knowledge, on making them feel safe and confident enough that when we ask them to do things that are outside their comfort zone, they participate and love it.

That’s not easy to do, and it takes a lot of training to get there. There’s a long and continuing history of museum educators not being given our due as trained professionals (stemming in part from the tradition of amateur art enthusiasts giving museum tours for free), and it twangs that string in me to see the acceptance of the false dichotomy that outsiders — many of whom don’t have that kind of training — do cool stuff, while insiders are the boring ones. If museums sit back and accept that third party (for-profit… that’s a whole nother issue) companies will be seen as the ones doing the most exciting, outsider things in museums, it denies — or, at the very least, relegates to the background — the hard work and solid pedagogy that museum-employed educators put into our work.

OK, initial volley sent. Food for thought? Want to talk about the for-profit issue?

[*sings in the tune of the Hamilton soundtrack*]

I have the honor to be your obedient servant,

R. Ro


John to Rachel: March 10, 2016

Oh no! I never want to raise the dander of a museum educator. I’ve been fortunate to work with many great ones over the years and I’ve benefited from that perspective.

I was thinking about participatory in terms of sketching, posing, taking pictures as you mentioned. All those are great but I really appreciate that you brought up the visitor sharing their thoughts. A really good museum experience involves sharing, listening, and as a result changing what’s offered based on the interest of the visitor. One of my favorite curators starts a tour with a question. If you could bring any one of these works home which would it be and why? Everyone picks their favorite and talks about what it means to them and this curator, based on extensive knowledge, can tell the story of that work and touch on the reasons it was special to that one person. I call it art history improv.

I don’t want to make this entirely about Museum Hack. They are just one example of a new openness in museums. I appreciate the commercial sector finding value in our collections. This may seem a stretch but I would put this in the same context as opening up access to images of collections. Not many museums would make beach towels from works in their collection but if a private vendor can make a profit at it, more power to them. And let’s give them the highest resolution possible so that it can be a high quality beach towel.

Cultural institutions exist to provide an experience that’s not driven by profit and we both were drawn to working in them out of a noble spirit. I just want to leave open the possibility that if we are generous with our space and our collections people will come up with things we never would have thought of and that’s how we all grow.

Your budding capitalist

-jg


Rachel to John: March 14, 2016

Hi John.

A couple of your points got me thinking about the “authority” portion of our topic’s title (Museum as platform: Authority, access, and third-parties). I see all of this (welcoming third-party orgs into the museum, sharing collection images freely online, giving visitors more of a voice in their museum experience) as the efforts that museums are/are not making to shift where museum authority lies.

There’s definitely a historical precedent for museums to present themselves as the source of authority about whatever they’re putting on display. Lots of them were built in the “temple of culture” model, meant to intimidate visitors with a “dag, I amaze and astonish” (I’m going to keep putting Hamilton references in here as we go) approach. I think we all know museums like this: high ceilings, big staircases, labels full of complex sentence structure and multisyllabic vocabulary.

But (some) museums are acknowledging the need to move away from that model into a more shared-authority approach. And I’m in favor of that, big time. There’s that noble spirit you mention that motivated both of our career choices. I got into museum education out of a desire to make art museums approachable to anyone who wants to visit them, to encourage anyone to voice their opinion about artwork, even if they’ve never been to a museum or taken an art history class. The more visitors feel like they can speak up and be validated for it, the better off museums will be as we move forward.

When educators take the focus off ourselves as performing group leaders and shift it to encourage visitors to provide most of the conversation, that’s one way to encourage ownership in those visitors. Participatory activities are another way (and selling beach towels, too). So is allowing outside organizations to come into the museum space to offer alternatives to the museum’s in-house offerings.

This is all stuff museums should be doing, if you ask me.

That said, if a beach towel is $95 or a private tour is $60, there’s a huge accessibility barrier for visitors right there, especially if the museum also has a required admission fee.

If a museum educator leading a gallery experience (I actually hate the word tour; it sounds so didactic) can facilitate a conversation where they aren’t the one dominating the dialogue (and that’s still a big “if” in many cases), that’s a way for visitors to gain some ownership and authority in the museum without having to pay extra for it.

I’m gonna wrap it up there for now. I’m actually pretty OK with capitalism in many of its aspects, but I do get nervous when we start commodifying an experience that is, as you say, not inherently a profit-driven one.

Since it looks dangerously like we agree with each other (uh oh), I wonder if we might want to address Micah’s comment about approaching the museum as service.

What can a museum offer to the world as a service?
Can an art museum be thought of as a platform to elicit political change in a conflict country?
Can the services provided by say a design museum be utilized throughout the developing world?

What are your thoughts? I’m especially intrigued to think about how the realms of digital and education within museums might play into this.

I have the honor to be your obedient servant,

R. Ro


John to Rachel: April 1, 2016 (no foolin’)

Hey Rachel

It’s great to see so many people react to the exchange!

Thanks for posting the Scary Museum by Ashleigh Hibbins. It is a great portrait of a lot of experiences I’ve had when I’ve dragged people into museums. A lot of people feel unprepared to visit an art museum. They feel like they don’t know how to decode the secret meaning of the works. The assumption is that the work of art has a value because it’s on the museum wall. If a visitor doesn’t connect with the work of art they think they are somehow insufficient. We can’t ignore our role in creating this fear.

You and the other commenters on this thread are the exceptions to the rule. You’ve committed to a career of helping people make connections with art. Don’t you know of some peers along the way that perpetuated the fear? Haven’t you heard a museum professional say “Let the art speak for itself”? I suspect they don’t even think about the background in art history that gives them this privilege.

Many years ago, in a previous incarnation, I was trying to create an online guide for first time visitors to a museum. In my kick off meeting with the curator I naively asked, “What would be the first thing you would show someone who knew nothing about this type of art?” Without losing a beat they said “The door”.

Yep, seriously. For real. I couldn’t make that up.

I liked Koven’s comment about the creation of specialized experiences. Museum Hack is not successful because they’ve created an experience for everyone. They are going for that niche of people who want that faux rebel vibe. I love Molly’s Hack tour in DC but I wouldn’t bring my mom. I would bring her on the Easter Story in Art tour. She mostly appreciates art but she really knows her bible. When we offer content that aligns with the interests of our visitors we acknowledge their area of expertise and they become owners of the experience.

I hope we can continue the conversation when everyone comes to DC for AAM. This will be a good conversation starter for #DrinkingAboutMuseums.

Your conspirator

-jg


Rachel to John: April 12, 2016

Hi John.

I have indeed heard plenty of museum pros speak that dreaded line about how the art should speak for itself. I’ve heard some of them say it very recently, in fact. And yes, it makes me frustrated and sad, but I recognize the hold-onto-the-past place that impulse may come from. In addition to growing and changing over time, museums also safeguard and preserve the past. I’m not arguing against that purpose (nor do I think you or anyone else who’s chimed in on our discussion would), but I know it can make us museum people slow to change and slow to recognize the importance of change.

I don’t exempt myself from said reluctance. It’s part of why I’m wary about the “museum as platform” idea to begin with. Will there come a time when museums are seen as primarily places of transaction or service with art appreciation coming second? Maybe. That makes me sad, but it also doesn’t seem ridiculously far-fetched. And hey, if that’s what communities call for and how museums can stay relevant and visited and open, then I suppose there’s an argument to be made there, too.

Still, I’m going to keep fighting the good fight for museums to take ownership of offering a variety of different experiences to a variety of different visitors. Like you said, your mom doesn’t want the same kind of museum experience you do. And I still think it’s on museums to hear what visitors want and do our utmost to provide a version of that to them. I’m not ready to let museums off the hook for taking those “let the art speak for itself” colleagues to task. If visitors know nothing about the art they’re coming to see (and three cheers for visitors who enter our doors despite the potential discomfort of not knowing what they’re in for), I still say it’s our job to have something we can offer them without relying on an outside organization to do it.

Since all this flag-waving zeal is starting up the opening bars of “Do You Hear the People Sing” in the background (man, I’ve really outed myself as a big ol’ musical theater nerd throughout our exchange, haven’t I?), perhaps it is time to draw our treasured correspondence to a close. You’ve been a more than worthy partner in this endeavor, and some of the conversations we’ve had between us and with commenters have been thoughts I’m glad to have out there in the public realm.

So, with that in mind, let’s make like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s George Washington and teach ’em how to say goodbye as I close, one last time, with

I have the honor to be your obedient servant,

R. Ro