Daring to be fun

Thoughts from Communicating the Museum: Chicago

The theme of Communicating The Museum in Chicago was ‘Dare to be Fun’.

It reminds me of ‘say something funny’. They’re both commands which make you feel impotent, because fun and humour are organic things which cannot be forced.

Instead, fun needs to be a fundamental part of your museum. Once ‘fun’ is legitimised as an outcome it is the justification for filling your main hall with a ball pit, getting Will Ferrell to review your art gallery and tweeting about fat sheep.

Fun and playfulness should be inherent in your institution’s culture. Fix that, and fun will follow.

Being fun

Museum Hack have kind of cornered the market for fun museum tours. When I signed up for the pre-conference tour of the Art Institute of Chicago, my preconceptions of these snake person-focused tours was on the fantastical side. I came prepared for two hours of high-fiveing strangers, oversharing, and potentially having to dance and sing.

What I got instead was a wholesome tour full of honest and passionate enthusiasm for art, relatable references and genuinely funny jokes. We posed as artworks, went on a treasure hunt in the Miniatures room, created our own stories around objects and, yes, we did have to sing (but I didn’t sing).

The fact that I didn’t want to curl up and die in the face of all that is testament to Museum Hack’s well-honed method. They are also tapping into what we all know already: the best tours are those led by funny, passionate people who talk about the objects and art which matters to them.

If your labels and interpretation are fairly standard, there’s a good chance you’d benefit from an active, Museum Hack-esque tour. Jessica Gasbarre from the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester showed us how she’d applied Museum Hack principles to her own successful tours, which include Harry Potter and Game of Thrones themes.

Social media as enabler

One key learning from the conference was that social media enables museums to be more human and relatable.

There’s still a palpable angst, however, around adopting a human voice and creating relatable online content. Questions at the conference circled around the tensions of having different voices online and offline, how to talk about serious issues when your voice is informal, and the practicalities in terms of time and effort when being truly social on social media.

I talked about this at length with Woulter, the creator of Rijksmuseum’s SnapGuide, and we concluded that a museum’s online voice is simply another lens for accessing the collections. Just as a person’s personality has many sides, so too can a museum’s. And if you’re serious about engaging young people online and serious about using social media as a communication tool then your voice must chime with those audiences and the culture of the internet. It’s not to say that you should just make memes (a command almost as bad as ‘be funny’) or constantly be trying to be down with the kids, but you should at minimum be talking like a human being.

It’s also not all fun and games. There was a fascinating talk on handling crises on social media from Jill Allread and Amy Ritter Cowan, who have dealt with everything from irate mothers prevented from breastfeeding to the theft of museum objects. Crises are a matter of when, not if, but by acting fast, being honest and having clear messages then a lot of time you can nip problems in the bud or to get on top of a spiraling crisis.

Fun IRL

Fun isn’t confined to social media (though sometimes it feels that way). Stories from places as diverse as Copenhagen and Northern Carolina showed us that it is possible to bring boardgames and children into gallery halls without affecting the mission of a museum.

I’m still a little shocked that there’s opposition in some art galleries to the kind of family-friendly and fun activities which history museums, science museums and other institutions have taken for granted for years. The penny is dropping: we are competing with much more attractive offers for people’s time, and if we continue to appeal to the tastes of 20 years ago we’re doomed to fail.

More than once, however, the spectre of the curator was held up as the enemy – the person in the way of fun and exciting things.

It is a pointless fight.

Even if it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, we are all working towards the same aim: meaningful engagement with arts and culture. It is often easier than you’d think to integrate collections and programming, but it requires clear purpose and direction across the institution. In the case of the Chrysler Museum of Art, a small project grew into a full-on kids Wonder Studio in part due to this collaboration across teams.

Resilience and failure

Other talks at this conference were insights into fascinating museums and projects addressing huge issues and challenges.

A common theme emerged of endurance. Atelier Brückner endures massive uncertainty when working with the Egyptian military on the Grand Egyptian Museum, often having to prototype and make decisions at extreme short notice. When plans for relocating a museum in Lausanne were voted down 52% to 48%, they bounced back with an even better proposal after analysing voter intentions.

A Swiss city is better at this than the British government

This endurance is very often the ability to keep going in the face of endless shite, and having the patience and creativity to work with others to fix problems rather than throw your toys out of the pram. It is a trait I see in the people I most respect in this sector.

A part of this endurance is undoubtedly dealing with failure. People have been banging on about being more open to failure for ages, but Alesha Mercado and James Heaton actually made me sit up and listen to their 9 definitions of failure. It accounts for the when you genuinely mess up through incompetence, but by identifying other, more subtle types of failure it allows us to discuss them more maturely.

Will Dallimore talked through how to satisfy his artist bosses as well as visitors

So that was that

Time and again it’s reinforced that our sector is full of friendly, enthusiastic and creative people. Time and again it’s also reinforced that many of those people are held back by archaic power structures, traditional thinking and the perennial lack of time and resource. It’s a testament to those people that they continue to push what museums stand for and what we do, and that they find the energy at all to dare to be fun.

I’ve also missed many things out from this conference wrap-up. Talks full of enthusiasm and fascinating detail, such as the upcoming Museum of the Obama Administration and how it reflects Chicago’s communities, the idiosyncrasies and core principles in expanding the Royal Academy, and how the Field Museum is reinventing its image as a scientific force. We also had sneak peeks at an incredibly diverse collection of museums all facing their own unique challenges, such as the DuSable Museum and Oriental (!) Institute. The Agenda team also deserve a shout-out for their slick organisation, friendliness and Pictionary skills.