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Museums' new mantra: Connect with community

Relevance, responsiveness, interactivity is the new road map to success.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 21, 2009

California’s Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger points to an artist’s rendering of the future Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

John Decker/ Sacramento Bee/ Newscom

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From San Francisco to Jerusalem, museums are bustling with new construction – and new visions, strategic plans, and ambitious initiatives, not to mention visitors. This attendance surge is fueled somewhat by the attractively low entrance fees in these tough times.

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But the boom in reinvention is powered in larger part by a profound and permanent change going on between museums and their constituents, say directors, educators, and curators. The graying of the traditional museum patron, the shifting global demographic mix, and the new cultural consumption habits of a younger generation are forcing most museums to make fundamental and not always comfortable changes – refashioning themselves from bastions of remote culture into social centers and community hubs.

"It's not about the collections anymore," says strategist James Chung of ReachAdvisors, who consults for cultural institutions around the globe. "It's about community."

Whether it is the impending, state-of-the-art Museum of Tolerance rising in Jerusalem (geared toward unifying a fractured city) or a new museum in the heart of strife-racked Colombia (aimed at helping the town of Medellín heal after years of narco-warfare), community relevance is the new museum mantra.

"We did not want to be just static artifacts from the past," says Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center behind the Israeli project, which will feature participatory, constantly updating exhibits, as well as a conference center where the community can gather to address current issues. "Museums must deal with yesterday, but today and tomorrow as well."

With the rise of powerful social-network tools on the Internet and a generation weaned on collective participation and decisionmaking, institutions must adapt or die, says Emlyn Koster, president of New Jersey's Liberty Science Center, which just completed a $109 million renovation to increase its communitywide value.

"This generation is about social relevance and global connection," says Mr. Koster, who calls this the third stage in modern museum evolution, following the 19th-century model of the curio cabinet guarded by experts, which gave way to an emphasis on interactivity in the 1960s.

Few museums have the luxury of a total shutdown to reorient, points out Elizabeth Merritt, director of the newly created Center for the Future of the Museum at the American Association of Museums in Washington. The center was founded as a think tank for the roughly 17,500 museums in the United States (only 3,000 of which are members of the AAM). It grew out of the group's centennial celebration in 2006 at which "we realized the pace of change has accelerated much more rapidly than most museums are able to adapt." The message, she says, is that museums must think holistically, with attention to social, political, and environmental factors.