Global, local, and the visitor we can’t see.

This weekend, the Tufts Museum Studies blog will be joining the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Leaders in a global discussion. This 5-day conference brings together 50 young leaders from across the arts (dance, theater, and museum) to meet with experts. Three of the questions on the table have been sent out for bloggers in the field to tackle in advance. Phillippa Pitts, an MA in Art History and Museum Studies and this blog’s editor, tackles their second question: “Glocal” – What is Global and Local in Today’s World?

 

Museums today are visitor-oriented. We study our visitors, survey them, collect zipcodes, IP addresses, research demographics, tailor tours to state curriculum standards… We create interpretive experiences in multiple languages, for any number of age groups or visitor-types. We are desperate to discover and identify our visitor and their needs. Yet, somehow, we are still failing. Why?

 

Part of it is the growing diversity of our audience. Whether the visitor comes to us as a tourist, or the exhibition travels to them (in physical or virtual form), we are now in the business of translation. And translation requires more than simply offering the display in several languages. Content must be rethought with an eye for what we take as given, but is completely opaque to someone with a different set of experiences.

 

Take, for example, a photograph of a family preparing breakfast with fresh fruits, maple syrup, a stack of waffles and a waffle iron. To the average American, this requires little explanation, and one can run right into interpretation. Imagine though, if you were a visitor who had never had a waffle before. You would miss so many cues: that this is likely breakfast, that the mechanical gadget makes the odd lattice-patterned food, that the bowl of tan liquid is not soup but batter, and so on. Google Norman Rockwell and just browse through with an eye to how much they rely on these cultural cues: a police officer’s uniform, iconic diner stools, and more.

 

Museums have recognized and taken strides to address this. Exhibition text is altered before it travels or the Chinese language track on the audio tour includes a one-sentence history of the waffle. We know that we’re not quite hitting the mark, though, because visitors have multiple identities. Best example? In a museum which offers tours in five languages, for families, or for seniors… which tour should a German family take? The family tour or the German one? When museums then mourn the lack of resources to create an extra five or ten tours, for senior Spaniards and Italian children, they are reinforcing this visitor demographic obsessed mindset, and locking themselves into inevitable failure.

 

Why? Because the new global/local proximity is not only changing which visitors we encounter, it is exercising change on the visitors themselves. The answer we are searching for in our visitor research no longer exists: Take Rachel, a visitor to a small college art museum in Vermont where she was accepted for graduate school. Rachel currently teaches abroad in France, but is originally from Alaska. However, her most recent US address was in California, where she completed undergrad. Where is she from? What can we assume about her base knowledge, context, or needs?

 

As the general population becomes more migratory, the problem only magnifies. How many of us attend college outside of our own state? Study abroad? Visit friends who live in another country? Are first generation citizens raised between two cultures? Teach abroad after college? Our addresses, names, races, even ages no longer signify what we have learned or who we have learned it from. For myself, I outwardly look and sound American, having lived in this country on and off since the age of four. My formal education is largely American, down to the state history of Michigan, yet until I became a citizen at age 17, I declined to say the Pledge of Allegiance and my sister refused to check boxes that identified her race as “Caucasian American.” When I return to England, where I am a citizen, it is even more muddled: I know that Shrove Tuesday is pancake day but couldn’t find Leeds on a map to save my life. I could continue with scores of language barriers within a single language, but the point comes across. As visitors become increasingly global, our old concepts of demographics will become ever more obsolete. We are researching a problem without an answer.

 

So what is the solution? How can we be visitor-oriented when we cannot know our visitor?

 

Fortunately there are good models out there. We can learn from Wikipedia. Their page on Paul Klee is no different for an art historian than it is for a child. Visitors scaffold their experience as they need or wish to by browsing between articles. All links are equal: there is no path which is fifth-grade or American, remedial or advanced. We can learn from why StumbleUpon was so successful by asking visitors to choose subjects of interest. How do the levels and demonstrated mastery mechanisms of a game play into this equation? The how is as of yet very much unknown. But it is clear that it must begin by reframing the question, understanding that the local/global shift has thrown our demographic categories out the window. After that, my money is on universal design.

Guest blog: The Role of Arts Organizations in Civil Society

This weekend, the Tufts Museum Studies blog will be joining the Salzburg Global Forum for Young Cultural Leaders in a global discussion. This 5-day conference brings together 50 young leaders from across the arts (dance, theater, and museum) to meet with experts. Three of the questions on the table have been sent out for bloggers in the field to tackle in advance. Laura Beshears, an MA in Art History and Museum Studies, tackles their first question: What is the role of arts organizations in society & their place in the community?

 

Art plays many roles in society and, at different times, can speak to issues in areas such as religion, science, politics, and history. Whether introducing an international form of movement to the dance scene, putting a modern spin on Mozart or Bach, or providing a visual interpretation of the effects of war, the arts can provide thought-provoking commentary and innovative perspectives on a vast array of global ideas. Arts organizations should, therefore, play the part of illuminator, conveying the power of art in the discourse of complex subjects. In doing so, arts organizations can exist to broaden the horizons of their communities by encouraging analytical thinking and fostering understanding of different opinions and ideas. Moreover, arts organizations can be more participatory in their own communities by bringing art into the public.

People often forget the significance of art in the discourse of social, cultural, and global concerns. Arts organizations need to emphasize art’s contribution to, and its relevance in, civil society. In calling attention to censorship in the arts, for example, arts organizations can lead communities to understand the persuasive power of art throughout time. Many movements throughout history have sought to destroy subversive or scandalous art or use art to further different religious or political agendas. The iconoclasm enforced by Byzantine authorities prevented artists from creating representations of religious figures. Hitler not only destroyed modern art, which he found to be degenerate and threatening, but also used visual images, including documentary film, as propaganda for Nazism. As a recent example, the Chinese government detained the contemporary artist Ai Weiwei for tax evasion, although the real reason is believed to be that Ai’s politically charged art criticized Chinese authority. Ironically, these attempts to squash the arts have merely shown that art reflects the deeper preoccupations of its society. Past and present authorities have perceived the arts as threats since the arts clearly have the power to spark ideas and challenge prevailing opinions. It is the role of arts organizations to maximize their potential as a source of influence in society.

Arts organizations can assume the role of illuminator through various means. In keeping with the theme of educating the public about censorship, art institutions can stage previously banned dance performances, hold a concert of music that has historically been considered too radical, or exhibit works of art that at one time had instigated controversy.  The presentation of this kind of art invites audiences to think about what qualities of the art may have been contentious and why. Viewing the art of Robert Mapplethorpe, for instance, and questioning why the Corcoran Gallery of Art banned an exhibition of his works in 1989, the public might understand that Mapplethorpe’s overtly sexual depictions caused a stir and made people uncomfortable. In seeing Marcel Duchamp’s “The Fountain,” even though many people may not be as shocked to see something like this in a museum today, the public may realize that the idea of the ready-made and the absence of the artist’s touch scandalized people in the early 20th century. Moreover, this kind of provocation forces the audience to understand that art does not exist in a vacuum and is indeed reflective of its society. By reflecting on history, government, civil rights, feminism, sexual liberation, and countless other socially pertinent matters, art can cause controversy and, at the same time, expose people in communities to various viewpoints. Arts organizations can prove that both art and their own institutions are relevant in society.

While they should invite their communities to think about the significance of the arts and encourage them to broaden their perspectives on social matters, arts organizations should also strive to do this in a way that best engages their audiences. They can achieve this by playing a participatory role in their communities and bringing the arts into the public. In addition to utilizing their own spaces, whether white-walled galleries or large music halls, arts organizations should extend the arts beyond these boundaries. Performing plays in parks, installing outdoor sculptures, or even creating exhibitions for airport lobbies, arts organizations can be on an equal ground with their communities by sharing physical spaces. Furthermore, encountering a piece of art in a familiar setting might make audiences feel more at ease. In other words, art becomes approachable and digestible in a comfortable environment. Members of a community may even find it easier to be captivated by the messages expressed by an arts organization.

The role of arts organizations in civil society is constantly evolving. However, in order to be significant in today’s world, arts organizations need to invite their communities to think about the arts and their relevance to social issues in a broader, more global perspective. In this way, arts organizations can both bolster the importance of the arts and assert their own relevance in society.

 

Museums in the News

Unmissable story this week: The theft of  7 major works from the Kunsthal  Museum in Rotterdam including a Gauguin, Matisse, Freud, Monet and a Picasso! Read the NYT article here, or search for others to follow the case!

And then, we’re back to our weekly round-up of our favorite things that were said about museums this week: the good, the bad, and the really quite strange!

Enjoy!