On the brink of closure with little in the bank and a stack of unpaid bills, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History of 2011 was not only in trouble financially but says it had also lost touch with its community. The figures were stark; with a week’s worth of cash in the bank, no reserves and a stack of unpaid bills, the museum was attracting just 17,000 visitors a year, mostly students and seniors.
While in a position no business ever wants to face, from this dire situation came a renewed motivation in management to take risks and change things up. Almost four years on, attendance has tripled, the budget has doubled, grants have increased from US$39,000 to US$780,000 and the museum’s financials remain solidly in the black.
This is all largely thanks to the influence of executive director Nina Simon, whose arrival in 2011 spurred on the museum’s participatory experiences to create a sense of ownership from the community.
“The more people get involved, the more they care about the organisation, the more they want to see it succeed, the more they want to be collaborators and the more they want to support it financially. So it really is a business strategy as well as a philosophical strategy,” says Nina.
As part of the process of reconnecting with the general public, she ushered in a series of novel exhibitions such as Memory Jars, the museum’s most successful participatory project yet. Visitors were invited to bottle a memory using objects and craft supplies, resulting in a floor-to-ceiling display of more than 600 diverse memories.
“We really believe that we have to experiment to be successful so we love to say that nothing is sacred,” says Nina.
Curatorial practice has also had the experimental treatment through Hack The Museum, which saw 80 museum designers work together for two days.
“We invited people from all over the world, some of whom were museum exhibit designers but also artists, architects and engineers to come together and for 48 hours to create little exhibits from art in our collection.
These projects are a risk in an industry that’s steeped in tradition. However, today’s museum audiences want and expect more so while it may scare some curators to allow people more freedom to form their own ideas about objects and interact with exhibits, it’s key to survival, says Graham Black, who has authored a book on transforming museums in the 21st century.
“What has mattered most in visitor research in recent years has been the recognition of different audiences, not in demographic terms but in terms of motivation and, from that, their strategies on site,” he explains. “This has been linked in turn to generational change and to differing expectations and to the impact of new media. Thus, simplistically, those under 35 are used to taking, participating and using material as they see fit, and expect to be able to do the same in museums – and are thus changing the nature of what museums must offer. My own view is that visitor research shows a desire to participate going back decades and only now being partially met.”
One museum taking the time to know its audience better is the UK’s Ikon Gallery, which has been collaborating with local youth via a dedicated program, Open Social, on Friday nights since 2009. But it’s the Black Country Voyages project that’s literally taking the museum beyond its four walls, using a canal boat to hold workshops, film screenings and live music.
“We’re focusing on priority areas in the West Midlands, where there isn’t fantastic cultural provision and there are issues with low skills, unemployment or lack of aspiration among young people,” says Simon Taylor, Ikon Gallery’s head of learning. “There’s now a chance for communities to work with professional artists where the workshops are of a high quality. It’s about being as accessible and inclusive as possible. We’re no longer in a traditional gallery building, we’re in a 70-foot canal boat, which is a massive asset. It means we don’t expect people to make the journey to the city centre and come to us; Ikon is making the journey to the communities in the Black Country.”
The Museum of Copenhagen in Denmark is also going straight to the people with The WALL, an interactive touchscreen for locals to explore their city. Made up of four large screens that fit inside a shipping container, The WALL has been used by nearly 1.5 million people. And though The WALL was not aimed at increasing visits to the museum itself, yearly attendance has doubled since it launched.
“We wanted to, as we say sometimes, ‘take the museum to the streets’, we wanted to meet new users in another place than inside the walls of the museum and we wanted a tool to create a dialogue about what Copenhagen has been and is and will be in the future,” adds Jakob Parby, the museum’s curator and acting head of public outreach.
“One of the fears of course when you do these kinds of projects is, ‘what if somebody out there writes something wrong about the images and then the museum has to be responsible for that?’ All these ‘ifs’ – ‘what if they destroy things we have worked so carefully to preserve?’
“What we have seen is actually the other way around – there’s so many people out there who know a lot about history and their opinions can actually enrich our collections with their comments. We have tried to move beyond this involvement where you have some curator control and then going in a direction of actually having users control the process much more themselves.”
Challenging the tradition of museum authority and curator control has become a regular part of exhibition practice at the Frye Art Museum in the US. Led by director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, the museum has collaborated with youth, homeless people and even an elderly critic to curate exhibitions, but nothing captured the world’s attention quite like the 2014 show #SocialMedium, which asked people to vote for pieces from the museum’s founding collection using social media ‘likes’ and comments. The project went global when it was picked up by Wired magazine and The Huffington Post. It attracted thousands of votes, comments, praise and criticism from around the world.
“There were comments online and two curators had written and said that it was really dreadful what was happening in museums, that museum directors were abandoning their responsibilities for maintaining the curatorial voice or authoritative voice of scholarship and some people said it’s terribly brave of you… but it has been an extraordinarily rich experience and I think that it’s something that has changed the way we see ourselves and our collection and what we’re doing.”
While visitation to the museum during #SocialMedium remained on par with popular exhibitions previously, what it did for the Frye was introduce it to a worldwide audience with the kind of publicity money can’t buy. Moving forward the Frye plans to balance its more innovative and experimental projects with the traditions of its classic collection to give the audience both a space for reflection as well as excitement.
Despite innovations occurring in the museum sector, future survival is not guaranteed. The institutions that will remain relevant, and profitable, will be those that get to know their visitors and find a way to keep their attention.
“Most museums are moving away from the collections being to the fore, to the audiences being to the fore,” says Graham. “Getting to know your audience better, responding to audience needs is not just about giving them what they want, it’s about giving them what they don’t know they need.”