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:
- It’s super important, especially for public institutions such as museums
- It can take a LOT of effort and skill to implement well
- 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?