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by • 4 Jul, 2010 • Thoughts about museumsComments (15)580

Creating Trustville – A museum as community centre for cultural and social development and activity

This is an article I wrote for the (recently launched) project Creating Trustville. This project is a place for ideation of new social structures and the conceptualisation of the institutions of the future, started by Vandejong.

Stanley Field Hall from balcony

What is a museum?

Over the course of history museums have had to reinvent themselves a couple of times. Once they housed the private collections of kings and other leaders. Their audience: the owner’s friends and enemies whom he wished to impress. Then museums became centres of research, romanticised in the late 20th century in movies such as Indiana Jones. In the meantime museums had discovered their public role, often housing elaborate educational and visitor programmes.

In the early 21st century, with the Internet and the 2.0 revolution, museums all over the world flirted with yet another meaning for themselves. Visitors became actors. The recently launched YouTube Play project of the Guggenheim museum in New York exemplifies this change. Online video artists have a chance to see their work displayed in one of the most renowned museums in the world. It is my strong believe that by the year 2020 this paradigm shift in thinking about museums and their role in society will have had a lasting impact on the sector.

So, what will a museum be in 2020?

I think we can distinguish three predominant changes in museums nowadays, that will shape the museum of 2020. The first is leaving the museum building and entering public space. The second is the changing relationship with the audience. The third, more awareness of the social responsibilities of an institution.

Play outside

In June 2010 the Netherlands Architecture Institute launched UAR, an Urban Augmented Reality app for the mobile phone. As they write on their website, “sometimes we feel that our four walls are a bit limiting.” The NAi has an amazing collection, but to live the full experience of architecture you need to go outside. UAR helps visitors to walk through the city and get additional information about what they see. It also allows visitors to see things that aren’t there anymore, or are not yet there.

For an architecture museum it might be an obvious choice to go outside of your museum and use the city as your exposition space. However, also other institutions have done the same. The Museum of London has the Street Museum, also an augmented reality app. The Museum of London is a history museum. Another example is the exposition Nieuwe Groeten Uit…, a cooperation between the Museum of National History, FOAM Photography Museum and the ANP Historical Archive, all from the Netherlands. Rather than choosing a traditional space in a museum for the final exposition of this crowd-sourced project, they used stores and advertisement space to display the art works.

In 2020 museums will have partly left their buildings and gone out to reach their audiences in other places. Museums will look for their audiences and be there, where they can best reach people. The building will become a hub for the museum’s activities indoors and elsewhere.

The participatory and community museum

Going outside the museum walls in search for the audience elsewhere redefines a museum’s relationship with its visitors. This change goes further, though. I’ve already mentioned Guggenheim’s YouTube Play and Nieuwe Groeten Uit…, both expositions in which the audience produces the exposition. In her book The Participatory Museum Nina Simon explores numerous ways in which museums can change their attitude to visitors, from passive consumers of expositions to active producers of experiences.

A traditional museum is a teacher and its audience the students. Often the relationship is one-directional. A modern museum looks for ways to engage its audience in ever surprising ways. The 2008 For the Love of God exposition by Damien Hirst in the Rijksmuseum is probably the best-documented example of this new approach in Holland. Visitors to the exposition became a part of the art by leaving their impressions on the work online.

The new relationship of museums to their audience goes beyond crowd-sourced and participatory expositions. More museums try to build active communities and organise un-museum-alike activities to reach new audiences. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is open till 10pm every Friday with a full programme of music, DJs, video shows and drinks and by doing so becomes relevant to a whole new group of visitors: young locals looking for a cultural night out.

In 2020 we will see museums as community centres, where visitors both contribute and consume. They’re places where you can meet like-minded people and discuss arts, culture and history. Both seriously and relaxed, with a good coffee or cocktail and thrilling debates, dance nights and other social events.

Social responsibility

If the museum of 2020 is a community centre with influence within its walls as well as outside of them, it automatically takes on a function in society. I believe a museum has and should have a responsible position in culture, art and heritage and also in society in general.

MoMA’s Alzheimer Project Meet Me is part of the MoMA’s art and dementia programs. The outcomes of the project clearly indicate the project has a positive social and intellectual impact on people with dementia. The ‘Verhalentafel’ (Story table) developed by the Waag Society similarly helps elderly in reminiscence programmes. StoryCorps in the USA stimulates conversation between people and stores their sometimes-beautiful stories for generations to come.

All over the world museums experiment with projects that have a positive impact not only on culture, arts and heritage, but also on society as a whole. In 2020 museums will be one of the core institutions in society to close the gaps between people from different generations, backgrounds and social-economic status. Museums will be leading institutions in the public debate about difficult issues.

Once a museum was a place where the rich and powerful showed artefacts they had conquered, stolen or looted from other cultures. Or the museum was stuffed with difficult-to-understand art and objects that had lost their practical value. In 2020 a museum will be the beating heart of a living culture, easily accessible to all people and of true value to society.

At least, let’s hope so.

National Concert of the Museum of National History

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  • http://twitoaster.com/country-nl/jaspervisser/ jaspervisser

    @PaulvanFabrique Dank! Dat wordt gewaardeerd;-)

  • http://twitoaster.com/country-nl/jaspervisser/ jaspervisser

    @PaulvanFabrique Dank! Dat wordt gewaardeerd;-)

  • PaulvanFabrique

    @jaspervisser fijn artikel!

  • PaulvanFabrique

    @jaspervisser fijn artikel!

  • http://www.twitter.com/AASLH Bob Beatty

    I have been fascinated by this topic of museums and social responsibility since I researched it for my Master’s thesis 10 years aog. I also have a distinctively American view of this topic.

    I agree with you about the timeline of the purpose of museums. To add some context, I found that the earliest museums were more like today’s universities, with European museums originating as you said,

    I concluded that American museums have an ultimate social responsibility from the very beginning of the republic. This is a thread that is woven from Charles Willson Peale, through the Victorians (the great museum builders), the Great Depression, and later into the social tumult of the 1960s.

    By the 90s, it became de riguer museum practice in the States, although we’re all still grappling with exactly what community service/engagement and social responsibility looks and acts like. And while I argue it’s our historical mission in America, many fall way short.

    Mind you, this is not an indictment on museum practice elsewhere, I simply didn’t do any research beyond what you have in your original post (and I’ve typed above) about European, or any other global institution. My only experience has been as a museum-goer in some other parts of the world.

    One tract you might want to look up is Theodore Low’s /The Museum as a Social Instrument/ from the 40s.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AASLH Bob Beatty

    I have been fascinated by this topic of museums and social responsibility since I researched it for my Master’s thesis 10 years aog. I also have a distinctively American view of this topic.

    I agree with you about the timeline of the purpose of museums. To add some context, I found that the earliest museums were more like today’s universities, with European museums originating as you said,

    I concluded that American museums have an ultimate social responsibility from the very beginning of the republic. This is a thread that is woven from Charles Willson Peale, through the Victorians (the great museum builders), the Great Depression, and later into the social tumult of the 1960s.

    By the 90s, it became de riguer museum practice in the States, although we’re all still grappling with exactly what community service/engagement and social responsibility looks and acts like. And while I argue it’s our historical mission in America, many fall way short.

    Mind you, this is not an indictment on museum practice elsewhere, I simply didn’t do any research beyond what you have in your original post (and I’ve typed above) about European, or any other global institution. My only experience has been as a museum-goer in some other parts of the world.

    One tract you might want to look up is Theodore Low’s /The Museum as a Social Instrument/ from the 40s.

  • http://themuseumofthefuture.com Jasper Visser

    Hi Bob, thanks for your elaborate reply. I don’t know if the social responsibility of museums is more of a dream I have, or reality. I’m happy to see more and more museum doing community work, but also realize this must have been around for a long time. I will try to get my hands on Theodore Low’s book. Any chance you (are anybody else) know of a more recent publication about the social responsibilities of museums? Thanks!

  • http://themuseumofthefuture.com Jasper Visser

    Hi Bob, thanks for your elaborate reply. I don’t know if the social responsibility of museums is more of a dream I have, or reality. I’m happy to see more and more museum doing community work, but also realize this must have been around for a long time. I will try to get my hands on Theodore Low’s book. Any chance you (are anybody else) know of a more recent publication about the social responsibilities of museums? Thanks!

  • http://www.twitter.com/AASLH Bob Beatty

    There are two publications that immediately come to mind. The first is Excellence and Equity, a pamphlet-size book published by AAM http://www.aam-us.org/sp/exc-eq.cfm. It was a major part of my thesis argument.

    Here’s a link to another article from AASLH’s History News publication (and I’ll find another and post or send your way). This is more on how to engage with audiences. http://aaslh.org/documents/GoldenAgeHNSummer07.pdf

    And here’s a link to AASLH’s nascent online community based on the concept of Radical Trust and user-generated content http://aaslhcommunity.org/historynews/

  • http://modestoartmuseum.org Bob Barzan

    You mention three ways that museums are changing: the first is leaving the museum building and entering public space. The second is the changing relationship with the audience. The third, more awareness of the social responsibilities of an institution.

    The Modesto Art Museum in Modesto, California is very much involved in all three. First, we have never had a building, so we don’t have to leave one. We bring art into the community using all types of venues, public and private, indoors and outdoors to for our art events and exhibitions.

    Second, we are deliberately blurring the lines between curator, artist, and viewers, inviting everyone into a creative dialogue. For example, at a recent mail art event, we encouraged and facilitated viewers creating their own piece of mail art in response to the mail art they saw on the wall and then sending it to the artist. In several cases, the artist responded by sending a personal piece of mail art to the viewer. Many of our events are participatory. Anyone can submit photos to our flickr site or art to various exhibits.

    Third, we are actively engaged with the community. In the first place, we do no activity without community partners. Those could be schools, other museums, cafes, public or private organziations. Also, when deciding what to exhibit, we not only poll our community, we also look at community needs. Recently Modesto was ranked least livable city in the county. We asked ourselves what responsibility does a museum have in such a community and togther with several partners we came up with Building a Better Modesto, a program to explore the place of the visual arts in creating a more livable Modesto. In particular we will explore architecture, landscape, and urban design through exhibits, talks, tours, online resources, and movies.

  • http://themuseumofthefuture.com Jasper Visser

    @ Bob Beatty, thanks for the publications. I’ll be taking them with my on my holidays to read them.

    @ Bob Barzan, I wasn’t aware of the Modesto Art Museum, but your approach and vision very much appeal to me. You may or may not know that the museum I’m working for does not (yet) have a building. Therefor we do focus on the things you mention the Modesto Art Museum does, amongst others. It’s interesting to learn from your experiences and best practices and I’ll be keeping a close watch on your activities.

    Does the Modesto Art Museum do something more than the 3 things I mentioned, which you believe is part of museums in the future? I’m very curious to hear other thoughts on the subject.

  • http://modestoartmuseum.org Bob Barzan

    Jasper, yes, we are also engaged in teaching people how to experience art. According to a Wallace Foundation study, Cultivating Demand for the Arts, (it is available on their web site), the biggest need in the arts now is teaching people how to experience them. In the States, a huge number of people no longer know how to listen to a concert, watch a dance performance, enjoy a sculpture, or look at a painting. We are planning now for a series of events that will address this issue. Our first adventure into this task was with architecture, and we’ve had a positive response. People are claiming, after attending one of our talks and tours, that they are seeing the built world around them differently. They are noticing architecture. It’s unfortunate that we are at such basic levels, but after generations of disvaluing the arts, that is where we are as a society. We recently changed our mission statement to reflect this change in our mission.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AASLH Bob Beatty

    There are two publications that immediately come to mind. The first is Excellence and Equity, a pamphlet-size book published by AAM http://www.aam-us.org/sp/exc-eq.cfm. It was a major part of my thesis argument.

    Here’s a link to another article from AASLH’s History News publication (and I’ll find another and post or send your way). This is more on how to engage with audiences. http://aaslh.org/documents/GoldenAgeHNSummer07.pdf

    And here’s a link to AASLH’s nascent online community based on the concept of Radical Trust and user-generated content http://aaslhcommunity.org/historynews/

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