In conversation with: Nina Simon

As this Future of Cultural Heritage project progresses, we’re aiming to get input and ideas from a range of voices across the sector to inform and challenge the work we’re doing. To kick us off, I’ve taken advantage of a conference in San Francisco to head down the coast to Santa Cruz to meet Nina Simon, Director of the Museum of Art and History, author of The Participatory Museum and The Art Of Relevance, and founder of a new initiative called OF/BY/FOR ALL.

If you’re reading this and you haven’t yet heard of Nina Simon, you should have. Since the publication of The Participatory Museum in 2010 (and for some time prior), she’s been the leading voice globally for an attitude to the work of museums — and increasing theatres, libraries, galleries, and more — that is rooted in participation. She is in person exactly as she comes across in the many keynotes you can watch online (here and here, for example): a passionate, intense, and fundamentally caring person.

If anything, the addition in person is her very obvious love of place. Santa Cruz, with its beach boardwalks, clifftop drives, and wooded mountains, is not a difficult place to love — but Nina really does love it. From the moment I land at San Francisco airport and am instructed to approach via the longer coast road better to appreciate the beauty, to the nighttime guided tour I receive on the way to drop her and her bike at the off-grid wooden cabin she shares with her husband and 5 year old daughter in the hills above the town, I am left in no doubt of this.

It’s people that matter most though, and visiting the MAH is an instant experience of a real living cultural resource. I arrive around 6pm to find the lobby, a thoroughfare between two of downtown Santa Cruz’s busiest streets, full of people of all ages painting inspirational quotes on T shirts. It’s an event held in partnership with a local charity supporting survivors of domestic violence, and people are discussing the issues as they paint. Nina and her family are among them as participants but not marking themselves out at all. Such events in this space are the rule rather than the exception.

She gives me a whirlwind tour of the building: the main display on the town’s history is a microcosm of the whole, with a permanent exhibition around the walls and a changing feast of storytelling down the centre of the room, as the citizens tell their own stories to one another with the help of Nina’s team of “Exhibition Catalysts”. Several of the team are still present, now around 7pm on a Friday, as we pop into the office space on the third of three floors. The museum will be open until 10, as it is every Friday and Saturday.

Then out to witness Nina’s proudest achievement to date, the creation of a town plaza in Santa Cruz. I regret a little that I can’t picture what the space must have been like before, but apparently they have transformed both an indoor and an outdoor area that were not public space before, and installed a food market, seating, and regular (free) cultural programming. A live band is kicking off as we arrive. Simon tells me that she was recruited after the articulation of a vision statement that saw the MAH as “a thriving central gathering place”. At the time, coming up for a decade ago, that seemed unlikely, with a staff of seven supporting a museum that — like many others — looked more likely to close than thrive, and was certainly not a gathering place. Before the creation of the plaza a year ago, attendance had tripled; since, it has tripled again. And it is one of the most thriving central gathering places I have ever seen.

We settle down for tacos and talk — and this mention of the vision statement is a good starting point. Our take as New Citizenship Project has been that cultural organisations need to start from a clear idea of what they’re trying to do in the world, rather than just asking “what can people participate in?”, if they’re going to move beyond participation as an activity on the sidelines and put it at the heart of what they do, as the best way to fulfil their purpose. For us, purpose and impact are the starting point; participation then an obvious means to achieve those ends. Simon’s work seems from what I have read to start from a slightly different point — relevance rather than purpose or impact is the watchword, and defining what community you want to create relevance with is the starting point as a result.

Pretty quickly, I get the feeling that this is more because she wants to get on with action than any fundamental disagreement. “Almost all institutions have these phrases, these mission statements. They give you cover. That’s what ‘a thriving central gathering place’ did for me — I signed up to that, I said ‘I’m here to do that, not this other thing over here, you can hold me to account for that’ — and it meant I could get on with it.”

This isn’t the full picture, though, as is clear from the fact that Simon and her team felt it worth going beyond this vision statement and setting out their theory of change in full detail in 2013. It’s prominent on the office wall, and when prompted, she reflects that “That was a crucial process for us — since that work, and proper evaluation measures as a result, what we do has taken a major leap on.” It’s very clear from this that for the MAH team, participation is the primary means to the end of stronger, more connected communities, not an end in itself; that it is strategic participation, not tactical. I push her on this, as I wonder whether this sort of thinking and work should perhaps play a more prominent role in the way she frames her work, and the path she recommends others follow; I also wonder if it might help hold a space in which some of the experts I suspect have felt alienated by the radical openness Nina preaches might feel more comfortable.

MAH: Theory of Change

When I share some of our thoughts, though, about articulating the role an organisation exists to play in the world as the starting point, she is equally challenging in return. “There’s such a risk of ‘you should want what we have’ — I think you have to start with the people you want to involve so you don’t slip into that.” I’m reminded of a story she tells in The Art Of Relevance, of a formative moment when the CEO of a big name institution banged his fist on the table and said, “Our job is not to give people what they want but what they need.” I can sense her wariness that we might be coming from a similar place.

Having interrogated what seem to be differences, though, they drop away to a great extent. What we agree on most is that cultural organisations need to put themselves in service of something greater, of outcomes in the world, and on reflection after our conversation I think the different approaches — ours of self-reflection and hers of outward action — are probably a question of order, of what comes first, rather than any fundamental disagreement. In her work, she started with a guiding purpose that was good enough, got going, and then improved it later; that is the spirit she encourages in others, and I think it’s pretty much the same for us. We just think that the initial purpose statements are rather less present, and so many need to do a bit more work here first.

It may be that this is because her focus is on organisations (whether performing arts, museums, libraries, parks) that are fundamentally rooted in local community, so purpose can to some extent be taken for granted. “It’s to make the community stronger and better, right? However you say it.” Right — but maybe for the National Archive, or the Wellcome Collection, it’s a little different — and maybe even for community places it matters a little more what kind of place they are and what they’re bringing to the party. Not at the expense of what people want, but in combination.

Agreeing to sort of agree, we turn to OF/BY/FOR ALL, a new initiative hosted at the MAH. Starting with a prototype round which sees her working with 20 organisations across sectors and across the world, it’s a hugely exciting project, but there is a little sadness in the way she talks about the need for it. “I’m impatient for change. I’ve enjoyed doing the keynotes, writing the books, but to me, it doesn’t actually seem to have made that much difference. For every one person who comes up to me with a copy of my book and says, ‘this is my guide, I’m doing it,’ there are 20 who say ‘great book, interesting’. I want to see and help spark more change in this world. So we decided we need to build a movement more actively, not just put out more words.”

The OF/BY/FOR ALL prototype has just kicked off, and is running through to March — so finishing around the same time as this project. We have agreed to do a review session together in the Spring, to share the tools we each develop, where the organisations involved get to, and what might come next. I’m looking forward to continuing the semi-argument over what order the questions should come in — but, like Nina, more excited about doing stuff!

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Jon Alexander

Jon Alexander

1.5K Followers

Co-Founder, New Citizenship Project and Author, CITIZENS: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us