Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Visitor participation in museums

The wonderful Musee d’Orsay post-impressionism exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Australia really is a must-see experience, even for those who have seen the paintings in their home venue in Paris. Apart from so many iconic paintings being in one place at one time in Australia (apparently one wall alone has over $1 billion of artwork on it), one thing that stood out for me was the lighting. It is absolutely beautifully lit. None of that fried-egg-bright–painting-against-a-dark-background stuff. The walls are all washed with light and then the paintings themselves subtly picked out. It is all very unobtrusive until one realises how alive they all seem – apparently the director of the Musee d’Orsay commented on the fact himself. And a tip - go late on Friday or Saturday night as the exhibition remains open to 7pm after the main Gallery closes at 5pm and the crowds are much less.

The Director, Serge Lemoine, also praised the children’s room, saying that he really liked such an approach but it would be frowned upon in Paris as dumbing down the art. Developed by the head of education and public programs at the National Gallery, Peter Naumann, it has been a run-away success. Essentially he has reproduced (some in his own hand) various of the paintings such as the Van Gogh self portrait and Starry Night, and then encouraged children to have a go themselves. So they might create their own portrait, which then gets put in frame alongside the Van Gogh or collage more stars to put in the massively blown up starry night covering one wall. It has a great vitality to it!

And it led me to consider an interesting posting on Nina Simon’s blog on participation in museums. Nina has divided the museum sector into four, History museums, Art museums, Science centres and Children’s museums, and looked at what opportunities and challenges there are for participation. It is worth summarising, as it broadly ties in with my perceptions of such:

History museums
- Opportunities – best of the four for participatory projects such as story telling and crowd sourced collecting. Given the incredible popularity of genealogy also great places for visitor generated projects. And given their social content also good places for community dialogue.
- Challenges – validating visitor stories to ensure they are authentic and do not contain offensive views, and maintaining a narrative thread that is intelligible and enjoyable to visitors.

Art museums
- Opportunities – inspiring visitors to create their own art in response to what is on display (see NGA above). Providing participatory projects led by artists to encourage active social participation.
- Challenges – most art museums suffer from more separation between curatorial and education/public program departments than other forms of museums. Most curators do not want educational/participatory events included as they might distract from the aesthetic experience (see Lemoine’s response to what his French colleague would say above).

Science centres
- Opportunities – subject matter ideal for participatory projects and long history of interactivity, as well as widespread use by school groups as learning places.
- Challenges – can be lack of multiple perspectives offered, and controversial or complicated topics avoided as difficult to ensure they can be fun.

Children’s museums
- Opportunities – generally highly interactive and encouraging of participation to explore new ideas and narratives.
- Challenges – big issues around privacy concerns, taking photos and asking for personal data.

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