This past Saturday, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hosted “What are Museums For?” – a talk exploring the purpose of museums and their relationship with the communities around them.
The Gardner was a fitting place for this conversation – Isabella Gardner hoped museums would always be places where the public could experience art in a meaningful and personal way.
An innovator of her time known for her remarkable collection (and intellectual curiosity), Gardner believed in the transformative power of art and also noted the “greatest need in our country is art.” We can imagine that hosting an event like this in her museum is precisely the type of thing she intended it for.
The lecture featured voices from knowledgeable museum educators: Larissa Harris (Curator at Queens Museum), Sarah Schultz (former Director of Education & Curator of Public Practice at Walker Art Center) and was moderated by Peggy Burchenal (Curator of Education & Public Programs at ISGM)
Burchenal posed several questions regarding how museums expand their reach and continue to explore new ways to engage their audiences. The overarching themes of the discussion were:
- What are museums for?
- Who are museums for?
- How do museums stay relevant in the 21st century?
The speakers examined these questions and shared examples of programs that their museums have implemented. They emphasized how these broad questions have guided their thinking. Each speaker began by outlining what their museum has done go beyond the ordinary in order to answer the ultimate question: What are museums for?
Serving the Community
Both the Queens Museum and the Walker Art Center work extensively to engage the diverse communities around them.
Harris spoke of the Queens Museum’s expansion in 2013 to include a large open area. This allowed the museum transform into an inviting “public” space, allowing it to take a step towards complete transparency, both physically and metaphorically.
The Walker Art Center also places an emphasis on public space – its large open field and public sculpture garden. With these public areas they set out to create community space for sharing resources and ideas and a way to “imagine and reimagine the public and social function of the museum in the 21st century,” Schultz said. This notion drove the Walker to create Open Field.
Image via Walker Art Center
“Open Field tries to look in this venn diagram of where the public, where the artists, where the creative energies of the public, the creative interests of the artists and actually where the creative energy of the institution all come together.” - Sarah Schultz
By creating community-centric programs, museums are able to create a sense of complete fluidity between artists, visitors and the public.
Civic Minded Institutions
Museums must serve and address the needs of the community they inhabit. This often means offering a place to open a dialogue on social and political issues for their visitors.
The Queens Museum has frequently demonstrated its commitment to being civic minded (and is not afraid to show it!).
In 2014, the museum teamed up with the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD) t0 hold a performance entitled, “State of Incarceration.” This performance took place in a room filled wall-to-wall with prison beds, so the performers and audience members could experience it together in conditions like those held the California state prisons. This work sparked a dialogue about California’s penal systems and its effects on people and offered the museum a unique opportunity to ask its visitors, “do you want the cosmetic version or the real deal?” Not surprisingly, people opted for the latter.
“All museums must have some level of civic leadership involved. You have to ask yourself; How are you a neighbor? How are you interacting in dialogue in the city in which we live? These are the questions that are important to us now and are beginning to feed into our programming.” - Peggy Burchenal
Give the Audience a Voice & Role
One way museums advance as organizations is by seeking and reacting to the opinions and desires of their audiences. Museums must understand and respect their audiences, and as their audience changes, they must adapt as well.
Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse urban areas in the world. The neighborhood where the Queens Museum is located continues to experience large amounts of immigration, rendering the museum with a diverse and ever changing audience. In her introduction of the museum, Harris spoke of one of the collection’s most prized objects; the Panorama of the City of New York.
Image via Queens Museum
She said that this panorama reminds the museum to always be visitor centric. It “means that the notion of the city and all of its people have to be right in front of us all the time.”
The Walker Art Center’s Open Field also demonstrates this idea. In Open Field, it’s all about what they make together, stating that “everyone is encouraged to share their talents and interests, and to simply show up and join in.”
This gives the audience a voice and allows them to a play a role in the museum’s progress. “Museums really need to give audiences credit,” Schultz added to emphasize the ever-growing importance of the visitor.
- Museums need to be civic-minded.
- Gather, explore complexities, play together, come together and make things together.
- Build enough diversity within your museum so you are equipped to respond to the diversity of the world around you.
- Go beyond your own walls.
- Museums need to be open to people outside the museum’s ideas.
- Rethink what counts as a museum experience and who counts as an audience.
- There are no dead objects, only living ideas.
What are museums for?
This is potent question that is constantly examined by the museum community. Today’s museums are working to establish new relationships with their audiences and stepping outside the traditional realm to collaborate on new, innovative programs.
When Isabella Stewart Gardner founded her museum she declared that it was “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever.” That’s one timeless answer to an age-old question, Mrs. Gardner.