In five years, a lot has changed: museums are more empowered and empowering than ever, more entrepreneurial and more socially-involved. They open up more and more and become real powers and counter powers in their communities and societies. This year, our speakers told us a lot about how a museum works when digital is integrated everywhere, and how it helps bring even more meaning to their everyday actions.
Here are our 10 takeaways from this fifth edition of We Are Museums that took place in the Baltics, in the capital city of Latvia: Riga.
Museums and the arts are definitely not neutral. We have seen it in the very first months of 2017 in American museums, but even without big political trigger, museums take stands. For women’s history and gender equality, for accessibility and inclusivity, for emerging artists or to give a space to digital art. Even things that seem very natural in the way your museum works, they are actually political and can positively impact whole communities and start conversations. How amazing is that?
It is something that Museums have always been good at building strong experiences and universes, but in the past years, brands seem to have been more daring in terms of content creation. Bloggers, YouTubers, instagrammers and pop artists can be turned into ambassadors that tell your story in a way that will speak to their audiences by finding a middle-ground between your universe and values and theirs… and will give you ideas for content that you can create yourself. Beyond blogger visits and instawalks, provide Youtubers and influencers with all the information they want or let music stars in to reach out to an audience that is often overlooked but needs to be addressed but high-value attractive content: non-visitors who may be more interested than they know in your museum.
Actually, should we still be talking about digital? Digital should be integrated in every step of how your museum works: Hire people that are comfortable with digital tools and practices, train your teams (yes, even curators and experts) to use digital tools and adapt their research to new formats, give your digital team a real place in your organization chart and let everybody know what they are here for. Once digital transformation impacts part of your strategy and vision, it is naturally integrated to every project from its very beginning, making your whole strategy more coherent.
Actually, everybody should already have a say in what museums are right now. Museum should be filled with youth programmes like Tate Collectives, open discussions, spaces that actually let people discuss how they feel, not only about the museum but also about other social issues that are important to them. Be connected to your audiences and your community, empower them to tell you what they expect from you and take it as a starting point for your future experiences.
After the very moving inspiring talk by Julie Rokkjær Birch from the Women’s Museum in Aarhus about telling women’s history and gender history, a bigger conversation started. While a vast majority of We Are Museums speakers and attendees where women, most museum directors are men. In the US, museums with female directors tend to be smaller. And most artists exhibited in museums are still men. It is essential for museums to evolve and be more diverse up to the executive level to bring a different perspective, be more aligned with society and speak a more universal language, addressing issues that may have been forgotten or considered as shameful or trivial.
As our very first edition in Vilnius, Martijn Pronk – now Head of digital communication at the Van Gogh Museum – introduced us to the idea that releasing high-definition digitized artworks through the Rijksstudio would turn them into ambassadors of the Rijksmuseum. This year, Merete Sanderhoff told us about how the Statens Museum for Kunst actually makes a difference in people’s live by freely sharing their collection online. Whether it is to decorate a construction site or to let drug addicts add classical art to their safe injection site, releasing your collection will both empower people and educate them to art.
Museums are places where people meet, but until recently, the museum staff would decide how and when they meet. What if you followed the Wellcome collection and opened a space for your audience to create their own events? What if your museum was not centered exhibitions, but became a venue that blends into people’s social life, making them go from coffee to exhibitions? What it your visitors could decide what they want to talk about? Open up, empower your audiences, give them tools to make the museum their own.
Your local community reaches far beyond visitors. Startups and local companies are part of it, too. Give them a place to meet (a coworking space if you have enough space, but you can also set up a series of meetups), exchange expertise, get inspired by each other and by your collection. And most importantly, foster exchanges between those startups and your staff. Both will get more creative, making the museum’s work more groundbreaking and turning the museum into a resource for a creative and innovative society.
Speaking about startups, more and more startups at Tech Loves Culture provide services that connect museums to one another, allow them to benefit from a common visibility or to exchange skills. If you are already working with a startup to create VR or 360-degree experiences (Overly, Vividly, Ocean…) , you can also do it to attract audiences from other museums (Useum, Culturaliv, Mymu.se…) or have an easier access to outside experts (Vastari).
Design thinking, design sprints, agile methodologies, test and learn… All those new ways of working are incredibly popular in startups, why not make them your own? They will help you prototype ideas in a short amount of time and have quick proofs of what works and what should be improved (or even abandoned). Whether you are building a new website, creating a new area within your museum or offering new events, ideate, bring ideas into life and test them with your audience before investing too much in an idea that may not work. Moreover, consider your ideas as always in progress, test and release a project before it is fully perfected be open about it with your visitors: they will be understanding if you tell them that their feedback is needed for continuous improvement.
From that, we will work together on what will be the Museum of 2030, and until our next meeting in Paris in October, have a look to our Museum 2030 Manifesto!
As escape game centres seem to be flourishing in cities, escape games are also more and more implemented in museums – just as other game mechanics are. But how are museums relevant to build their own and what can they bring that other venues cannot?
What is an escape game?
It is a room in which a team of usually 2 to 6 people is locked and needs to solve a series of riddle to get out. They are often built in dedicated game centres, and players are immersed in different settings and atmospheres with strong storytelling features.
Museums obviously have a huge card in escape games: They are full of stories and setting up an escape game is a way to build an immersive experience around their story. While experiences like Meet Vincent by the Van Gogh Museum give visitors a choice to be involved or not, an escape game leaves no choice. Visitors know what they sign up for: a room in which they will explore, touch everything and become part of the story. In museum, escape games are a new way for museum to tell their story in a playful way, with an experience at the crossroads of fun and giving a superficial but engaging approach of a subject.
The fun factor definitely attracts new audiences and provides them with a strongly engaging experience as soon as they come in contact with the museum. Museums like the Villa Mondriaan have understood it and created escape rooms outside of their museum by partnering with local escape game experts. The room satisfies both Mondriaan newbies and players that already know the subject thanks to actual storytelling with a scientific and historical context – just as in the Augusta Museum of History, where players turn into detective looking for a KGB spy. As escape games require a compelling storyline to create strong emotions, some museums like the Niagara Military Museum even choose to work with Dramatic Arts and Interactive Arts and Science students.
Maybe a long-term escape game is not for every museum. But whether it is linked to a temporary exhibition or be set in stone, a museum escape game will attract a wide range of players thanks to the rewarding mix of playing and learning about the museum’s matter!
Museums are more and more community connectors and places for people to meet not only their friends, but also strangers… The Wellcome collection has achieved that by creating several event programmes that engage their audiences at different level. One of these programmes, Open Platform, will be explored by Rosie Stanbury, Head of the Live Programme at the Wellcome Collection, during her talk “Talking to Strangers” during the next edition of We Are Museums in Riga.
“Open Platform” is a way for the Wellcome Collection to give the keys of their Reading Room to their audience: anyone can submit a proposal for a one-hour event, discuss its feasibility with the museum’s Events Officer and maybe see it come to life. Selected events have to have a strong connection with the Reading Room – a space that invites audiences to dig into what it means to be human through books and artefacts –, focus on low-tech activities (poetry readings, drawing workshops, discussions…) and of course strongly involve their audience – that never exceeds 20 people. Successful events are participatory and encourage people engage with each other as well as with the Reading Room subject matter.
Open Platform is only a piece of the event programme of the Wellcome Collection, an experiential place directed to people that are 14 and older.
In Friday Late Spectaculars, visitors are invited to explore a subject – such as miniatures, the nose or elements – with artists, scientists, performers, writers, speakers and enthusiasts that they can meet in the whole building.
On a different scale, the Sick of The Fringe, that took place during an extended weekend in February, explored the body’s problems and possibilities with artists and scientists. It allowed audiences to reflect on their own bodies and selves through discussions, performances and installations such as We are the Latest Models of our Ancestry, that challenged perceptions of museum objects and what and who they belong to and what they say about us when put into a museum.
But Open Platform has a special place in the Wellcome Collection schedule. While it focuses on short events and small-scale, the programme also is a way for the museum audience to build their own events and to be community activators.
Attend We Are Museums on June 12 & 13 and let Rosie Stanbury tell you all about it!
Magdalena Gross grew up amongst the Warsaw intelligentsia. She used to make clay statues already while at school, studied sculpture, hosted the first exhibition of her works in 1926 and later on became famous as an animalier. During the war, she adopted the name Gościmska and did not move into the Warsaw ghetto. But as an artist who could had been recognized. Fearing denunciation, she asked the Żabiński family for help. The zoo director and his family hid Magdalena in their villa. They called her “the Starling”.
You can discover Magdalena Gross’s and many more stories on the website managed by POLIN – Museum of the History of Polish Jews and dedicated to people who helped Jews during the Holocaust, risking their own lives and the lives of their families.
The online portal “Polish Righteous – Recalling Forgotten History” started as a project by the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland and presents stories, places, pictures and interviews collected by the Museum throughout the years, but also allows users to add their own stories to the project.
The second world war and the Holocaust are no easy subjects and need to be handled with sensitivity, which makes them less than obvious candidates for an online platform directed at a very wide audience.
But with specialist and project manager Klara Jackl, POLIN has managed to expand the project way beyond its traditional exhibition that travels the world. Indeed, as she will show during her WAM17 workshop entitled Testimony, object, story: online projects as tools in civic and history education, the project has achieved to strike a balance between historical content, simplicity of the form and attractiveness of the message.
Considering that an online platform allows a different experience than a physical exhibition, Klara Jackl has chosen to make the most of it by creating online exhibitions, themed galleries, but also include educational resources. As for the stories themselves, they can be explored through different entry points: by names of the Righteous, names of the saved families and locations. Each story comes with context that does not distract the user from reading its core but provides powerful pictures, additional sources and bibliography, information about relationships between people. The website also highlights news and current events – and gives the opportunity to explore Poland by walking in the footsteps of the Righteous, showing the part of History they are focusing on is still relevant.
The platform really brings the Righteous and the Jews they saved a bit closer to the visitors by still creating a universe in which people who still haven’t shared their story feel safe to do so because it will be shared in a respectful way.
Register for WAM17 and attend Klara’s workshop, during which she will give you her best advice to create powerful experiences around History in a sensitive but impactful way that convey important messages.
A lot of museum workshops with young people are focused on art practices or the role of art and museums in society. Those events and apps for young audiences are mostly led by museum staff who bring in their target audience at given stages of the project to get feedback, but can sometimes be co-created by students who work hand in hand with the museum staff all through the project to design solutions that will really appeal to millennials.
Recently, the Louvre-Lens had an opportunity to work with students during the new edition of the WELL event in April, when it scheduled a whole weekend dedicated to students from local schools creating artistic performances, dancing and playing music for the audiences, as well as engaging them in workshops. For the museum’s team, it was a perfect way to see what means “museum mediation” for the young generation, what are their main interests and artistic expressions they decided to showcase.
It is also what happened at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris: At the beginning of the student year, a class from a Masters in Applied Arts and Multimedia Narration asked them if they could develop on innovative projects that would be tailored to their needs.
The museum had a say, but students – and their teachers – were project leaders, reporting regularly to the museum teams and adjusting their projects. Actually, the Fondation Vuitton defined the needs the student would work on: helping visitors find their way in Frank Gehry’s maze, creating content for an already planned app – Lucky Vibes, creating an app to engage teens throughout their visit…
It makes sense to have students work for your institution. Who can grasp the needs of digital natives better than digital natives themselves? Who would be better to design mobile-first apps and websites? By designing for young people, they of course strongly empathize with the target group – as they belong to it. Working with students helps finding way to attract and build loyalty within young audiences that will later on become regular museum visitors.
The Fondation got free consulting from future professionals, but it still required the staff to dedicate time to the students to make the most of their projects and obtain more insights on visitors’ behavior than through focus groups and data analysis.
Indeed, the time dedicated to the projects by the staff also is a way to better understand the digital needs and habits of their audiences – as well as to understand what is at stake when designing a digital project. If students learned a lot from working for a real institution, the Fondation Vuitton definitely learned about project management, UX design, and mobile-first experiences by having young people work with them.
After this first Day Of Facts and before we celebrate Earth Day with marches and teach-ins, we took time to speak with Mara Kurlandsky who looks back at the duo’s project, next initiatives in museum activism and how it feels to have your hashtag reused by the very content you are fighting against.
Kurlandsky did consider #dayoffcats a success as it emboldened publicly-funded institutions to raise their voice: ‘we saw tons of institutions sharing facts about climate change, stories about immigrants and refugees in their own communities and in history, artists that are working with “controversial topics,” primary source documentation about racism and slavery, stories about projects funded by federal agencies that expand access to science and art education to low-income communities.’, she recalls.
Institutions within and outside the US did successfully merge the concept with their own message, thus showing the need for a platform in the “post-fact” world, which signals a likely evolution towards more affirmation of the role of museums and knowledge-based institutions as fact-checkers and providers.
‘It was wonderful to see how different organizations embraced the concept and really made it their own, especially science organizations and libraries. For example, the Field Museum created a wonderful video with around 40 staff members, the European science organization Ecsite devoted a whole online magazine issue to communicating about science (…) and many libraries created guides and resources about how to find reliable sources and navigate information overload. In that sense, it was extremely successful, because they used #DayofFacts as a framework that organizations could use to authentically communicate their own mission.’
— Georgia MuseumofArt (@GMOA) 17 février 2017
Ironically enough, #dayoffacts” was used by alternative facts providers on Twitter, but that can only be good, right?
‘I’ll take it as a measure of success that the museums and institutions posted enough early in the day to get the tag trending, enough that lots of people started using it in ways we hadn’t intended. I’m not going to lie, it was hard going through all the tweets the day after and weeding out the bad ones—as you pointed out, many of the tweets were the exact kind of content we were trying to fight against, like conspiracy theories and really negative rhetoric. But given that the word “facts” has become politicized, I suppose it was inevitable.’
As for the future of #DayOfFacts, Kurlandsky and Hartley will have to give it some good thinking from the gathered experience and data of past February and continuing. However they do see #DayOfFacts as a very timely event. This maybe because being a part of the ongoing dialogue is not, in this time and age, an option anymore for museums.
‘we have a lot of contacts for enthusiastic organizations that we can call on for other actions. Alli and I have both been inspired by many different people who have been pushing museums towards being more social justice oriented, and we’re hoping to link the energy for #DayofFacts into work that’s already been done. For me, I would like to push beyond making facts the focus and into enabling museums to take more bold positions about issues that directly affect our visitors. I know a lot of museums have been holding panel discussions or events to talk about current events. Two recent examples: the Hammer Museum held an event about getting involved in activism, and the Brooklyn Museum held a panel to educate about immigrant rights, that I believe was attended by around 500 people. I’d love to see more of that. The next few years may get really scary for a lot of people, and I don’t think neutrality is an option anymore, for individuals or for institutions.’
After extensive experiments from the Cooper-Hewitt around chatbots, other museums have gone on with experimenting with this new way of engaging their audiences.
At the end of last month, two chatbots joined the small crew of museum-powered conversational tools to inform audience everywhere about History and art.
On Facebook, a natural place for chatbots, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam has launched a Messenger bot that allows users to discover the History of Anne Frank and her history on the one hand and find practical information about coming to the museum on the other hand.
On a historical level, the bot offers different conversation paths, allowing the users to choose between knowing more about different sides of Anne Frank’s story in bite-sized pieces that make it easy to grasp, from her diary to the World War II context it was written in. While the museum also allows visitors from the whole world to discover its on-site must-sees, it is also meant to help them understand the risks and effects of racism and discrimination that society is facing today.
While the Anne Frank House bot carries a strong social message, others are more strictly focused on the discovery of their collection. It is the case for the SFMOMA. Choosing a tech similar to the Cooper-Hewitt’s Object Phone by focusing on texting, the museum has been testing a service with which users send texts to their number with keywords and receive answers with a picture of a piece of the collection with its title, artist and year of creation. It is a way to make their artworks more accessible to users all around the world (although users outside of the US can be charged for texts to an American number), reaching out to different audiences as they did with their audioguide.
The project – called “Send me SFMOMA” – underwent a beta-test phase that is now over, but it could respond to anything from “Send me kite” to “Send me trucks”, sometimes answering with pictures that would miss the actual keyword. The testing phase is now over and the bot is momentarily not available to use, but we cannot wait to see how it evolves, maybe allowing more complex interactions, such as the access to more information about artworks or the ability to receive answers to more complex questions.
Museum traditionally are mostly dedicated to one sense: the sight. Even though there are concert halls and auditoriums within museums, and even though technology has allowed the integration of sound and smell into both art and scenography, no museum has been using and studying the effects of appealing to all five senses to create compelling experiences on the regular basis.
But a couple of weeks ago, the Peabody Essex Museum received a grant from the Barr Foundation for a very special mission: bring a neuroscience researcher on staff and add three neuroscientists to the museum as advisers. Those staff additions will allow the museum to study and understand how visitors’ brains reacts to art, how emotions are triggered and how they can make the most of it to engage their audiences with art. The idea of including neuroscience in the museum’s work is not new for the museum’s director Dan L. Monroe, who asked neuroscientist Bevil Conway to deliver a speech about neuroaestethics to the museum’s staff a few years ago. Ever since, he has been trying to put neuroscience findings to a good use by making museum more impactful as museum attendance is falling in the USA.
And while having a neuroscientist on staff to understand how the brain reacts to art and to use it to rethink the museum space is quite new, it does make sense: What are museums about if not about creating emotions, triggering emotions, leaving a mark in people’s lives?
The Peabody Essex Museum already did some changes in their exhibition spaces: smaller rooms with fewer works of art and asking questions instead of didactic labels are ways that engage people and activates the brain by giving visitors “an enhanced sense of exploration and discovery”, as Mr. Monroe said. Those best practices with probably many others will later on be published in a guide to be shared with all the museums.
If you are looking for best practices on how to use the power of the brain to engage audiences, there already is at least one book on the subject, entitled Hack the Experience: Tools for Artists from Cognitive Science. It is meant for artists but not only, taking a global approach of how to engage audiences in an artistic experience through senses, emotions, disorientation, socially-engaged practices…
These level and scale of blending art and science are unique, but the idea of studying the brain’s reactions in museums can easily be traced back to earlier experiences, even including responses of the brain… and the body to works of art depicting actions, like details of the Sistine Chapel and Degas’ ballerinas.
Experimenting with neurosciences and senses has also proven successful at several exhibitions, including the second edition of the IK Prize at Tate, when the Tate Sensorium immersive experience gave the visitors’ brains multi sensorial impulses in front of 4 chosen artworks from the Tate collections. And if you want to experience with your own brain right now, the Museum of New and Old Art in Tasmania explores with Brian Boyd the way cognitive signals have shaped art and helped us survive since the beginning of time in an exhibition that uses all kinds of patterns to engage with its audience.
After a few weeks of both articles wondering if the Met Museum was in decline and an article by Thomas P. Campbell reminding the importance of funding the arts, a big news shook up the museum world: Thomas P. Campbell, director of the largest museum in New York for 8 years, has resigned at the end of February. His resignation was announced after the stepping down of several senior staff members of the Met.
The main reason for this wave of departures and resignations seems to be financial: While the museum’s attendance has broken records during the last couple of years, Thomas P. Campbell leaves the museum with a multi-million deficit, partly caused by the opening of Met Breuer, a settlement around the admission charge, an expensive yet criticised change of logo and the decline of retail revenue.
But beyond the strictly financial management, some critics seem to believe a wider strategy issue is at stake. As the audience for arts is changing and needs museums to adapt to them, did the Met try hard enough? On a digital level, it did launch the successful Met MediaLab in 2013 and it used to be a space for museum staff, artists, students and other outside players to meet around tech and innovative project. The Met MediaLab is still considered a model experience in the museum field but closed at the end of September 2016. Then again, projects like the Met Museum app may not have been fully embraced by audiences (the app has 50,000 downloads on Android, which seems low compared to the more than 6 million annual visitors of the museum). Last month, the Met released its digitised artwork collection in a dedicated platform and make public domain artifacts free to use, but with no clear strategy or incentives for people to use and reuse the content.
Those projects are both obvious steps for a museum as big as the Met, but they still require guidance and direction to fit properly in the museum’s overall strategy and be presented to the audience as something bringing real added values to their on-site or online experience – which may not have been the case at the Met.
One reason for this may be the Met Museum decided to really invest in digital projects a bit late. Maybe even too late to stay on top of the trend and make digital and innovation into a real strong point of the museum’s strategy.
For several years, a range of major museums across the United States – the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles – have been studying effects of their teen programs, each one of them bringing diverse youth together with artists and museum staff around tailored activities and events.
Thanks to its length, the study Room to Rise has followed young people during several years to understand the short-term and long-term impact of museums, from right after the programs until their adult life. If you have ever wondered if teens really bring something home from their museum visit, the answer is yes. Even a single visit or field trip increases the ability to think critically about art and to understand how people from other time periods and world regions lived.
Of course, welcoming teens in museum also has effects on their own lives, in the way they build their own identity and self-awareness, the way their imagine their future and their career – with lower drop-out rates for example, the way they are engaged in their community.
In a time when the political role of museums is clearly reinvented, it is interesting to see that museums can actually shape future citizens of the world by finding the right way to engage with them – and that is also a way to build their own sustainability, through ensuring a lifelong relationship to museums and a worldview grounded in art, and even turning these teens into future museum professionals.
Museums are not only actors of their community, they can get young people to become (future) members of their community and neighbourhood.
But what makes a successful teen program? It can be an Art Party around a current exhibition as at the NGV, a collaborative art lab like at the SMK or even a program specifically aimed to LGBTQ youth as the one set up by MoMA.
For the Getty, success is as much about learning to make connections between artworks and between art and their own reality as it is about making the museum accessible. Indeed, when the cost of transportation is the first obstacle preventing a field trip, it is important to find a way to get the students physically inside of the museum.
Obstacles and expectations for the schools of your area may be different, but they need to be truly taken into account: each community has their own needs and specificities, don’t hesitate to both survey the teachers and the students to understand how you can build an offer that is really relevant and can echo their own experience. Providing a really compelling experience – like the also is a way to turn students into ambassadors of your museum in their own family, making them come back with their parents to share bits of what they saw and felt, or on their own to explore further, and maybe far enough to one day join your teams.