This is Part 3 of a five part conversation with Holly Sidford. Please see the Archives to access the other parts.
Robin: Science centers have been cultivating students for much longer than art museums have, in part because science is always part of the curriculum. Schools and art and history museums have only recently begun to see each other as natural partners.
Holly: Our culture values science, and we value the uncertainties of science. We believe that inquiring about the unknown – at least in the sciences – will produce something of value. We know that science is being made every day, and it’s “bringing good things to our lives.” We don’t have that idea about art and history. We don’t think: “There are historians out there creating history and what they make will be valuable to us,” or “There are artists out there asking questions and making us see things in new and unexpected ways and that will add essential value to my life.” In my view, the curators and the museums that do convey that sense of discovery and engaging value really stand out from the rest.
Robin: But also most people don’t see a connection between themselves and these subjects – science, history and art. And when they go out to spend their time and money they’re looking for places where they can make a connection, have fun, be entertained. And if they can’t find those things at museums they’ll go to other places, or stay home and choose from a zillion choices offered to them by Netflix, the web or TV – the phenomenon known as “cocooning.” So, what’s a museum to do?
Holly: Well, look at the the Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturdays. They’ve become one of the hottest things happening that night. These events are wildly popular with people of diverse economic and cultural backgrounds. The museum has initiated “meet ups” and social networking strategies, Web 2.0, etc. They’ve developed a range of mechanisms for getting groups of young people in their 20s to think of the museum as the place to socialize. People want to have novel experiences, they want to meet their friends, they want to do things that are fun. The more museums understand that phenomenon and develop strategies to meet different cohorts’ needs, the more successful they will be. What you and I want to do is different from what our teenagers want to do, but we could both do it in a museum if that institution were sensitive to the varieties of experience that all of us want. But doing that is really tough.
Robin: But not impossible. And museums can provide experiences an opportunities that are absolutely unique. Actually, this summer the Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art in Vienna opened Museum inside out where they literally brought the work of the museum – registering, digitizing, evaluating objects from their collection – into the galleries so visitors could see what staff do, and ask questions. And they did it as an experiment to create a dialogue between experts and visitors. Like the Cantor Center show we were talking about in the Using Blog post, it’s a unique opportunity for visitors to interact with museum staff, to observe, ask, share, learn and increase their appreciation of the art and the work of the museum. Plus, it’s a reason to go there – you get to have an experience you can’t have anywhere else.
The American Museum of Natural History, used to do something wonderful once or twice a year: they’d invite people to bring in bones, rocks and other stuff they’ve found and show it to a curator who would identify – hopefully – what it was. One year we brought a little skull we’d found in Quemado, NM. My son was six at the time. And he was so excited to show it to a real scientist. Of course it turned out to be a rabbit skull instead of a little dinosaur head. But it was so cool to have a conversation with an expert about something that was important to us.
Holly: Everybody wants to be in on a secret. The Austrian Museum certainly understood that. All these institutions have tremendous mysteries to share, whether it’s how you conserve a painting or prove it’s not a fake, or how you put a show together and discover connections between one artistic tradition and another. Let people in on the magic! Videotape and other media offer great ways to allow a lot of people “behind the scenes” without actually having them traipse through the Conservation Department. And why does it only have to be just one day a year? If you do it on a regular basis more people hear about it, more people get involved. You have to start where people are – and cross the river where it’s narrowest.
Robin: Sure – meet the curator, meet the conservator etc. Mystic Seaport has produced video podcasts like that – available for download from iTunes. Another theme is “behind the scenes in history” the story of how something really happened. For example, we recently produced a series of video podcasts for the American Federation of Arts to accompany their traveling exhibition “Color As Field: American Painting 1955-1975.” It’s at The Denver Museum of Art now. We recorded a conversation between the exhibition curator, Karen Wilkin, and the artist Larry Poons. He describes very vividly the behind the scenes relationships between the artists, critics and dealers, and as a result you get a sense of what it was like to be part of that intense ’60s art scene and you think about the paintings differently, even if you don’t get to see the show itself.
Podcasting is relatively easy to do and many museums are interested in it, so I’ll be doing two Video Podcasting Tutorials at the AAM Conference in Denver in April.