Back to the future


In modern museums, the quality of the food and the facilities can matter almost as much as the collections. So how can a 19th-century institution survive in the 21st century? ROSITA BOLAND reports

Never underestimate the importance of a clean toilet or a good burger in drawing audiences to museums and cultural spaces. This is one of the many pragmatic points made at a recent roundtable symposium held by the National Gallery of Ireland on “The challenges facing museums on-site and online”. Speakers and panellists came from a range of highly-regarded museums, and answered a range of questions on the future of institutions that focus on the past.

What is culture in 2012?

“Culture lies in people, not in objects,” is the view of David Anderson, director of the National Museum of Wales. “A museum and its contents are just a shell.” He points out that children often leave museums “feeling angry and excluded and do not want to come back”. Anderson talks about a “vertical culture, which comes down to us through our ancestors” and a “horizontal culture, which is the everyday one. We should not allow the dead to rest in their graves, they still have work to do.”

What creates innovative public programming for the future?

Peggy Fogelman, chair of education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, points out that looking to the future includes looking at the past, and analysing why and how things have moved on in the interim. “When the Met was founded in 1870, it didn’t have a building or any artworks,” she says. Nor did it originally make any provision for people who worked office hours, as there were no weekend or late-night openings: the museum didn’t start opening on Sundays until 1889, which at the time was innovative public programming. Since then, it has become one of the most famous museums in the world. Last year, the Met had 5.6 million visitors through its doors, and 47 million visitors to its website.

“Innovation is partially about challenging assumptions about what can take place in museums, and how visitors can have an impact,” Fogelman says. She mentions a two-year experiment at the Met in the 1970s, where visitors were invited to dance, sing and make noise in the museum, to “blur the lines between visual arts and participation”. At the time, this was seen as extremely radical and even a dangerous act by the Met, which was effectively passing an element of trust and ownership of museum content to its visitors.

She also references the Shine a Light initiative in the Portland Art Museum, Oregon. For the last three years, the museum has been trying to push “the conventional boundaries of art” by scheduling a number of interactive and experimental activities onsite. Last year, people had the option of getting haircuts in the style of their favourite piece of artwork, getting a tattoo that referred to an exhibit at the museum, or eating art-inspired food created by Portland chefs.

“The question for us is how to incorporate public programming into the daily life of a museum. Over one year, things can’t substantially change. There has to be incremental innovation over time,” Fogelman stresses. “Visitors want to experience something that has a meaning beyond information. They want to make meaningful connections. People want to participate and not just be spectators. Break down barriers between people and objects, past and present.”

She believes it is crucial that museums should be multi-generational, drop-in, self-directed and free: “Education is not a department. It’s a goal, and it only works when everyone on staff takes on shared responsibility.”

How much do cultural institutions need to think like enterprises?

Possibly the biggest challenge any cultural institution faces is financial. “We have to find new and flexible ways of getting income,” says Sarah Glennie, the outgoing director of the Irish Film Institute who has been appointed director of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. She points out how museum shops and cafes have added to visitor experiences.

“Clean toilets are essential to the experience,” she says, quoting a slogan adopted by the Victoria and Albert museum in London in recent years: “An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached.”

When the IFI lost sponsorship for its recent French Film Festival, it raised €15,000 through its cafe by offering a French menu as a tie-in. “There needs to be a more porous relationship between our programme and our audience. And we have to find out more about our audiences.”

However, no matter how clean the bathroom facilities or how good the burgers, as Glennie observes wryly, “programming is the core”. In Ireland recently, museums and cultural institutions are often included in discussions about “cultural tourism” as a way of attracting overseas visitors. “There is a danger in Ireland that our home audience could be overlooked at our discussions about ‘cultural tourism’,” Glennie says, talking about the importance of recognising the strength of the repeat home audience.

What trends will shape the future?

Audience member Michael Ryan, a former director of the Chester Beatty Library, argues that viewer participation is not a future trend but a well-established practice.

Peggy Fogelman disagrees. “Some of the ideas embedded in public programmes may not seem new – drawing sessions, artist intervention, etc. But the way that those programmes of public participation are approached and what happens when it takes place is new.”

Fogelman says it is now taken for granted that what occurred in the 1970s in the Met is in itself a huge shift in public perception about what is possible in a museum. “It’s happening more, in different places, and crossing artistic boundaries. It’s open-ended in terms of outcomes. Museums are becoming more affected by DIY communities, who are using museums as a resource.”

“In the past, the experience was passive,” says Marie Bourke from the National Gallery of Ireland. “There is now a huge desire by the public to participate. They want to take a greater sense of ownership about the experience, and they want to be listened to.”

“In the 19th century, the museum was an institution. In the 21st century, it’s a network,” comments David Anderson. “The challenge of institutions now is of being nimble with working with networks.”

He mentions the importance of social media for museums. Many exhibitions or museum projects now have online aspects, often inviting responses from people looking at them online, but offsite. “Museums can now move back and forwards between physical space and online space.”

Anderson also sees “regeneration” as a future trend. “What we’re going to see in the future is the retreat of empire, or of national institutions per se, partly because of finances.” He refers to local communities taking responsibility for the future of their museums. “Communities will need to take culture back to themselves because support that was there in the past may not be there in the future.”

How will museums record the recent trends of ephemeral art that has been made onsite, including viewer participation, wonders Kathleen James-Chakraborty, of UCD’s School of art history and cultural policy. “How do museums adapt to the changes in art production to conserve the past – such as onsite dance, interventions, etc?”

If you had one piece of advice . . .

As the symposium was hosted by the National Gallery, its chair, Olive Braiden, asked the panel for “a gem” of advice about this institution in particular. Peggy Fogelman identifies one element of particular importance to the partially closed museum: “When undergoing a renovation where galleries have to close, that’s when public programmes become even more important in maintaining audiences and engagement with the place.”