What is relevance?

Relevance. It’s one of those words that carry a lot of weight. In the museum sector it pops up along the lines of “Are museums relevant?” or “How can museums be/stay/become relevant?” Built in to these questions is an assumption: that we know, and agree on, what relevance actually is.

As problem-solvers we’re left scratching our heads: what do we mean by “relevant”? Do we have a common definition? Is it a measurement? A substitute for “engagement” (or just another buzzword)? This week we were browsing one of our favorite blogs and noticed “relevance” was one of the tags (is it a subject, then?). At Cuseum our vision is to transform the way people engage with art and culture at museums and beyond, so we’re fascinated by this question: What is relevance?

In a recent blog post Koven Smith said relevance “means nothing without further definition.” It can mean different things to different people (problematic!). In a 2014 blog post Nina Simon of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History identified relevance as an engagement goal and defined it: “Connected to compelling needs, assets, and interests in Santa Cruz County. Connected to our core content of contemporary art and regional history.”  “Compelling,” “connected”…we’re getting there. It’s interesting that in this definition relevance is a two-way street: connected to what the museum is doing as well as what’s happening in the community.


To swim a little further into the deep end we went where all good Google searches do: a TED talk. In this one speaker and author Phil Styrlund says, “To serve people we have to impact them and to impact them we have to be relevant.”

Relevancy is not an end in itself, but rather a step towards a greater, shared goal. Koven Smith again: “Relevance is problematic because we use it as a driver to achieving other means. And a driver that doesn’t force us to re-think the way we approach a problem, or to at least defining the problem in an accurate way, is a driver that just leads to us wasting even more time.” THERE we go. There’s no one answer to “what is relevance?” but if we ask ourselves what we really mean, are thoughtful about who we are really trying to serve and why, and consider different approaches we can move beyond the buzz to something greater – maybe even transformation.

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