Museums for Society: Towards Cultural Democracy

Last week I attended the Irish Museums Association Annual Conference 26-27 February 2016. The conference looked at museums civic institutions with an important role to play in the socia…

Source: Museums for Society: Towards Cultural Democracy

Museums for Society: Towards Cultural Democracy

Berlin 120

Alte National Galerie, Berlin. Photo, Jenny Siung, 2014


Last week I attended the Irish Museums Association Annual Conference 26-27 February 2016. The conference looked at museums civic institutions with an important role to play in the social, cultural and educational life of society. They hold, interpret and exhibit their collections – the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity – on behalf of the public. They should therefore be ideally placed to help define and enhance a sense of citizenship and belonging, but are they living up to their potential? Do our audiences really feel ownership of “their” museums? Is a democratic museum possible?

Speakers from both Ireland, the UK, Northern Ireland, Germany and Denmark addressed key issues that concern primarily Irish museums today: access, participation of audiences as well as leadership in museums.

Digital engagement popped up a few times in some of the presentations, however the main thrust of the debate was how museums need to let go of its lion’s share regarding key holders of knowledge.  Nazia Ali of Birmingham Museums described active curating, i.e. a model that requires curators to have a wider skill-set other than pure research and exhibitions.  Curators not only carry out these tasks but shift their focus to stakeholders as well as take heed to current statistics, current affairs and trends both inside and outside the museum, i.e. they take a more holistic approach when curating for their audiences.

Dr Jette Sandahl, museum advisor and former director of the Museum of Copenhagen cited a number of examples of museums in Turkey, Poland, Sweden and Denmark with specific reference to their participatory approach with local audiences. Digital technology features strongly in the Museum of Copenhagen. Copenhagers can contribute to the museum collection; The Wall is an interactive screen and features images that reflect the city of Copenhagen; selected by local audiences for the museum on a 4 multi-touch plasma screen.

As Sandahl emphasised the importance of inter-disciplinarian approaches as a skill for museum staff; someone from the outside who does not work within the axiom of traditional museum disciplines is the ideal person to have on museum teams – this is something I wrote about in my last blog post and it was enlightening to hear it being reiterated again.

Leadership in Irish museums faces a number of obstacles; lack of support from within, funding cuts from government, lack of understanding or appreciation of culture, arts and heritage; global economic instability – the list goes on.

And yet other museum leaders such as Tony Butler from Derby Museums Trust hit the nail on the head. The Happy Museum project creates a sustainable museum; involves multiple stake holders; offers a place for encounters and gives back to visitors by encouraging co-creation. This refers to Heather Nielsen’s description of participatory practice in Denver Art Museum and my first blog post Creative Learning in Museums. The Happy Museum project comprises of 22 museums partners in England and Wales, promotes active citizenship and fosters well-being in both visitors and museum staff. It sounds like a very straight-forward approach – so why is this not being embraced by other museums?

Other examples of good practice include: Alan Kirwan’s Are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) histories locked in museum closets?; Jo-Anne Sunderland Bowe’s Object-based learning to support language acquisition for new arrivals and referred to the ESOL programme in the British Museum.  Themes range from Citizenship, Word in Islamic Art, The Origins in Writing to What makes us human? 40,000 years of human artistic endeavour.  This is a timely programme and offers migrants the opportunity to improve English language skills with the help of museum objects.

Edith Andrees spoke about migration in museums in Germany citing examples of how local museums are more open in their approaches to collaborating and engaging local migrant communities.

The panel session gathered Lar Joye of the National Museum of Ireland, Fiona Kearney of the Lewis Glucksman Gallery Cork; Dr Malachi O’Doherty, writer and broadcaster, Eithne Verling, Galway City Museum and Trevor White, Little Museum of Dublin. They each spoke about current challenges their museums face as well as the efforts made to engage with local audiences. What struck me, however, is the lack of collaboration between museums in knowledge and skill-sharing; upskilling of staff when faced with difficulties such as finances; the ‘silo’ effect is still very apparent in Ireland. Or perhaps exchange and sharing does exist – it was just not highlighted enough in the discourse.

For me there were still a lot of questions still unanswered: what happens to all of this information now that we have shared it in the open? Will local Irish museums take on leadership and ideas shared in their programmes, train staff and review programmes and exhibitions? Or will we wait another year to find out little has happened due to the lack of finances?

More importantly, in parallel with Ireland’s most recent general election whereby people exercised their right to vote, Irish museums need to pay heed to their audiences and promote active citizenship. Otherwise Irish museums could face the same fate as some politicians last week; the power of the vote.  We could see the demise  of our audiences if museums do not step up to the plate and provide access and participation for their visitors.

Personal Experiences in Museums


Asia Between Worlds, Weltmuseum, Vienna. Photo, Jenny Siung, 2014

In my last post I wrote about some recent and not-so-recent write-ups re: digital engagement in museums and cities.  I posed the question what next for museums; gone are the days when art and culture were confined purely for the elite and wealthy. Just look at Waldemar Januszczak on BBC4 The Renaissance Unchained series exploring the art of the Renaissance, who it was commissioned by and what these works symbolised (it just happened to be on TV while writing this post). Nowadays museums face a multitude of challenges including how to reach diverse audiences and hold on to them.

Digital trends, as cited in the last blogpost, offer a solution to one of these challenges and yet do they provide meaningful and personal experiences for visitors as raised in Museum Geek’s post? If museums decide to combine both digital and audience engagement what are the results? Are they short or long-term initiatives, experimental, explorative and ready to take ‘that’ risk and admit when mistakes are made as well as celebrate successes?

Just look at BBC’s Get Creative Scheme launched in 2015.   This is a national campaign that wants to unlock creativity of everyone in Britain. Imagine if museums did the same and through digital engagement?  Would this then result in both meaningful and personal experiences on a digital platform? Or as humans, do we require face-to-face interaction with both objects and people?  I remember listening to an inspirational talk by Heather Nielsen of the Denver Art Museum where she spoke about participatory approaches in museums, i.e. creating opportunities for visitors to engage within the museum rather than the museum primarily presenting its collections.

These terms (participatory arts practice) refer to arts programmes and activities in which people play an expressive role.  They are activities in which people are involved in making, doing or creating regardless of skill level. The James Irvine Foundation

Audiences, i.e. visitors of museums be they physical, virtual or intellectual, all have the potential to be creative. So why do some museums create a barrier between creative audiences and their collections?  Is it due to their fear of sharing their knowledge letting people in on their ‘secret’ therefore making curators and researchers obsolete or is it that museums forgot to look outside their walls to tap into the other world, i.e. the real world?  I think it is a combination of the two as well as that well-known fear factor – change.

If museums could take a leaf from Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire and provide a space for audiences where they can let loose, i.e. tap into the messy process of creativity; imaginative play; passion; daydream; solitude; intuition; openness to experience; mindfulness; sensitivity; turning adversity to advantage, think differently.  Would these approaches both digital and physical provide meaningful and personal engagement? That’s for my next post.

Museums: what next?



Two-headed Buddha, State Hermitage Museum, Russia. Photo: Jenny Siung 2015

I spent coveted time today (free day) reading some current writing and thinking re: museums of the future by a number of bloggers such as  Jasper Visser, Museum Geek and Chris Michael‘s blog for the British Museum (Head of Digital Publishing).  On reflection I did ask whether museums carve out specific time to reflect and work out what their next ‘big’ step is? Are museums tuned in to what is happening on the ground in the cities, communities and contexts they exist in?  It is important museums carve out ‘down time’ within their busy schedules. This enables museums when developing exhibitions, strategies and programmes to understand their multi-faceted audiences and their expectations.  This too should reflect in staffing, i.e. have the right staff for the appropriate roles and programmes. And it is important to tune in to the what is happening outside the museum on a regular basis.

Jasper Visser recently wrote about museums in the city of the future and raised a number of issues for city-based museums; as they are located in communities, they can become actors in the change of society and often find they have to take on new roles and responsibilities and expected to play an active part in the future of the city. See his post Museums in the city of the future.

Museum Geek recently blogged about the trans-formative power of museums with and for their audiences. It is really important for museums to understand the behaviour of their audiences especially when it comes to digital technology. Interesting to note as Museum Geek highlights the difficulties museums face when seeking new audiences or when museums try and transform audiences, as this move can destabilise the very institution that is trying to initiate change. Why? As the blog points out, for museums in the US, they rely heavily on philanthrophy for their funding and museums are “unable to demonstrate their impact and social value to younger, civil-minded audiences” due to the largess of individual philanthropists.

In a way, museums are bit like the two-headed Buddha (see photograph above) as they are being pulled in a number of directions; it is safe to stay with tried and tested methodologies in museum practice. However, museums are faced with the rapid changing tastes of visitors as cited in Museum Geek’s blog:

“Last year, Seph Rodney argued that the museum visitor has undergone “a subtle transformation into an autonomous consumer” in response to cultural policy (in the UK), the new museology, the onset of an experience economy, and the rise of marketing and branding as the primary methods for visitor engagement and audience development. In response, engagement in museums is now understood as a mechanism for providing meaningful and personal experiences.”

Which brings me on to Chris Michaels’ prediction for the future. His 5 digital megatrends towards Museums of the Future identify the following:

1. The increase of digital-dependent economy and how people connect online. Museums can respond to this by uploading content while at the same time share and tell stories based on their collections and remain interesting, relevant and engaging at the same time.

2. The impact high-speed-rail will make on potential visitors globally, enabling people to travel with ease and create wider access to cities and hot-spots such as the British Museum.

3. The rise of smart cities and buildings (I am really interested in this topic right now) and how buildings, such as the British Museum, manage large crowds of visitors as well as its own ecology and sustainability such as lighting, large queues for exhibitions around single objects or exhibitions and even toilets. Chris Michaels also emphasises the importance of how museums connect themselves and people through the internet.

4. Siri – voice activated technology. Instead of using text, people can use their voice when searching online and Siri has the potential to assist visitors visiting museums.

5. Media markets reach the tipping point. If one looks at the generation of media produced by museums such as the British Museum, they produce publications, film content for TV and radio in recognition of the power of media. I think Chris Michael’s summarises this point brilliantly. He says “the internet is changing who we are and what we do, and the museum must change with it.”

And yet do each of these key digital trends provide meaningful and personal experiences for visitors? That’s for my next blog posting.