Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Flowers Through Facebook: Reuniting 5 of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”

Can you think of a flower that better depicts a warm, late-summer afternoon than a sunflower? The curators of museums in Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam, Munich, and Tokyo didn’t think so this past Monday, August 14, when they decided to host a live social media event that brought together five of Vincent Van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers.”

A curator from each  of the 5 museums museum gave a 15 minute speech on the “Sunflowers” piece in their collections through Facebook live. The event began in London at 12:50 pm and then continued to Amsterdam, Munich, Philadelphia, and concluded in Tokyo.

The speeches among the curators were not solely lecture based. They prompted dialogue between the curators across the globe. For example, in the Munich segment, the curator prompted a question for the Philadelphia curator, asking how the “Sunflowers” in Munich relate to the “Sunflowers” in Philadelphia. The answer here was that both the Munich and Philadelphia versions have blue backgrounds, and the exact same arrangement of 14 flowers. Jennifer Thompson, the Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art noted that the Philadelphia painting has more poignant colors than the Munich painting, and the vase of the Philadelphia painting is darker than the vases found in the other four “Sunflowers.”

With all that considered, you could say, social media does it again! Bringing together a virtual experience that encompassed 5 of Van Gogh’s most famous works. Obviously this type of virtual exhibit and collaboration makes the information and presentation of the pieces more accessible to an array of audiences. Yet there were some improvements that could have been made to make this event more easily available to the public.

  1. Rather than using  individual Facebook streams for each museum, perhaps provide one consistent video or stream, rather than having to hop around to 5 different museum Facebook sites.
  2. Provide the public with specific links to watch the talks and the virtual gallery with the five paintings.
  3. Offer an outlet besides Facebook to post the videos so that those individuals without Facebook can also be a part of the conversation.
  4.  Initiate outlet or forum for audience members to ask questions and engage in the discussion.

Despite these recommendations, the idea of bringing together such iconic artwork is novel, innovative, and creative. If these five museums decide to team up again, or if other museums decide to try this type of virtual tour and lecture inth efuture, I am sure they can continually improve on this virtual experience to make it more accessible and participatory for audiences.

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Rethinking Relevance

Be relevant. Is there a phrase we’ve recently heard more often than this one in the museum field? It’s tossed around a lot. So much so, in fact, that I’m getting kind of tired of it. But these past few months I’ve had multiple conversations and experiences that have led me to reflect on relevance even more, and I’ve realized that maybe the reason it’s the subjects of so many conferences, books, and blog posts is because:

  1. It’s super important, especially for public institutions such as museums
  2. It can take a LOT of effort and skill to implement well
  3. It’s more complex than it seems at first

So, if you can bear yet another voice on this subject, let me share a few words about my recent reflections. And in light of it’s complexity, let me start with the simple definition, put forth by Merriam-Webster, that relevance is something with a “practical and especially social applicability.”

That’s a pretty broad definition, but it speaks to our conversations around relevance that almost all speak to the ‘applicability’ part. Whenever I hear conversations about relevance, they seem to focus on specific techniques but only briefly, if at all, mention why these practices matter. While techniques are critical, I think we’re selling ourselves, and our communities, short if we gloss over our reasons for implementing them. Motivation and technique always go hand in hand when implementing and practicing values.

Three motivations that I see are a:

  • Drive for numbers: Some museums see relevance as a tool to increase the number of visitors at the museum. The American Alliance of Museums’ (AAM) blog has a section titled “Building Cultural Audiences” devoted to conversations about expanding visitors through better understanding of their preferences and organizational adjustments.
  • Drive to serve: Other museums put the emphasis on their role as an institution in service to their community, as outlined in ICOM’s 2007 definition of a museum.
  • Drive to collaborate: Nina Simon discusses in her book The Art of Relevance the concept of an assets-based focus in which museums work with their community’s assets and collaborate rather than serve.

While a museum can be motivated by each of these, they will at times be faced with a choice that does not accommodate all – and then which will they choose?

Motivation aside, there are many different techniques to increasing relevance. But they seem to fall into two categories:

  • Situational relevant techniques include programs that capitalize on time, anniversaries, or trends – high interest areas that increase visitors. Think blockbuster exhibits, exhibits and programs commemorating an event, or trends in technology. However, each such program is temporary and so begs the questions: do the additional visitors stay engaged with the institution for a long duration? If not, does this count as relevance?
  • The flip side of situational relevance is engagement integrated into the institution. Museums that follow this method demonstrate a long-term commitment to relevance in their community through outside partnerships and the institutional culture. It often involves strong mission-based programming, listening to the community, long-term commitments, and focusing on assets.

While reflecting on these different motivations and techniques, I at first thought that integrated techniques motivated by a desire to serve or collaborate were better. But then I thought about the diversity of museums and began questioning whether relevance does, or should, look the same at all of them. Is there one standard that all museums need to reach in order to be considered ‘relevant?’

Characteristics such as size and location of a museum and their audience do not need to change the motivation, but they sure have an impact on the techniques. Does one technique denote more or less relevance than another? And therefore, are some museums positioned better to be relevant than others?

Many large institutions fall into the situational category with large exhibits and programs, while smaller institutions may find it harder to accommodate trends but easier to integrate a new value into their entire staff. To compensate for such differences, large museums could create advisory teams to work more closely with specific communities and small museums could find smaller/cheaper ways to integrate situational techniques.

It’s easy to see a few programs a museum is doing and walk away critiquing their level of relevance. But of course there are many actions and conversations we don’t see if we don’t work there. And we also need to recognize that most museums are on a path towards increased relevance and these journeys may look different for different museums. What would it look like for our field to encourage one another along this process, while holding each other accountable, rather than judge from afar?

Thoughts on the Berkshire Museum’s Proposal to Sell 40 Pieces.

In recent weeks, the museum world media has been inundated with the articles regarding the Berkshire Museum’s plan to auction off 40 pieces of art in its collections to support a $60 million renovation and expansion. As expected, the auction proposal was met with criticism from museum professionals, institutions, and the American Alliance of Museums.

According to an article published last week by NPR, The Berkshire museum, located in Pittsfield, MA has faced an annual budget deficit surpassing $1million annually for the past 10 years. Van Shields, the executive director of the museum, claims that the institution has no choice but to sell a portion of its collection, or die out as an institution. AAM fired back urging The Berkshire to reconsider its funding plan, because this sale of art breaks the public trust and ownership of non-profit museum collections. Collections, said AAM, should not be treated as a financial asset.

This situation leave the Berkshire Museum between a rock and a hard place. How can they otherwise fund raise, and remain a museum at all, while facing extreme financial deficits? Grants alone are unlikely to provide millions, and dependency on a large donor seems unrealistic. They would most likely need to restructure their entire campaign, which could be possible, but could also take years that the museum may not have to meet its annual expenses. However,  the backlash from the museum world if the Berkshire continues with the auction plans (said to be set within the next 6 months) could be detrimental to the museum, and could result in measures such as a ban on loans from other museums, and loss of accreditation.

Looking at the Berkshire Museum’s mission statement below sheds a little light on the place for auction sales within the mission of the museum, and the truth is, the collection is not mentioned:

Berkshire Museum’s mission statement:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           “Bringing people together for experiences that spark creativity and innovative thinking by making inspiring educational connections among art, history, and natural science.”

Very technically speaking, an auction of 40 pieces of artwork, expected to sell for at least $50 million,  could expand the progression of the mission, because without funds, the museum would not be able to exist or spark creativity and innovative thinking without the financial means to do so as an institution. Nowhere in the mission is there mention of preserving, collecting, or hoarding a massive amount of objects.

Yet if one of the purposes of a museum is to serve the public in good trust, then the Berkshire Museum’s decision to auction off art is not in good ethical standing. For example, two of the pieces to be auctioned are Norman Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop” and “Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop.” Rockwell spent the last 25 years of his like in Pittsfield, and gifted these works to the community for public enjoyment and appreciation. The auction of these pieces does not present the good of the public interest. Perhaps selling more pieces of lesser value than a Rockwell would better serve the public interest, but then again, that could place objective value on art which is meant to be subjective to the beholder. The situation is not an easy one.

As museum staff structures themselves move toward more business like models (the number of Executive Directors with MBAs is on the rise) where do collections fit in? Are they permitted to be on the free market for the very survival of an institution? Or do they still rest in the untouchable public domain?

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