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Museums' new mantra: Connect with community

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

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Museums worldwide have taken a page from this new operating manual. Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum of Wales is part of Stories of the World (SOTW) – a major project for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. This unites 59 museums, libraries, and archives across the United Kingdom to create more than 35 exhibitions for 2011-12 that will reconnect museum collections with the people and communities from which they came. The SOTW project in Wales, "Bling," which examines the history of precious metals, draws on disadvantaged youths from all over the region to take the lead in creating the show. They will create connections between artifacts around the world and modern fashions.

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While community disengagement affects the small or mid-size museum more immediately, even singular, encyclopedic destinations such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art are not immune, says director Thomas Campbell. Noting the problems inherent in making a collection of well over 2 million objects in some 20 databases accessible and engaging to every type of visitor, Mr. Campbell says the Met has just launched a two-year initiative to redesign its website to, among other things, allow users to "tag" and create dialogues around individual pieces in the museum. "We're working hard to appeal not just to the sophisticated museum visitor, but the beginner as well," he adds.

Engaged participation, the key to developing community, is a lesson that is now tumbling from the education wings of many museums into mainstream curatorial practices, says Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) curator Charlotte Cotton. "Our education wings have always known the importance of hands-on learning because they deal with schoolchildren," says Ms. Cotton, but now "the larger museum world is seeing that we're all dealing with education with a soft 'e.' "

The new LACMA mandate is to be seen as a "town center," she says, a locale in which every segment of the city's population plays a part. She points to last November's Machine Project event as a tipping point in the museum's journey to a new relationship with the town. It was a day-long "art happening," in which artists traipsed through galleries filled with more than 5,000 visitors, inventing as they progressed.

"There were a lot of concerns from people within the museum about vandalism and damage, but it turned out wonderfully, and nothing was hurt," Cotton says. She actively seeks ways to incorporate community input as part of the curatorial message of a show. This past year, she oversaw "Urban Light," a permanent installation of 202 vintage streetlamps along the museum's facade. Angelenos began photographing the lamps, and soon LACMA realized it had an event on its hands and organized an online competition. The best photos subsequently were compiled into a print-on-demand book, still available online.

Cotton's next show pushes the vision of shared curatorial input even further. "Eat LACMA," which launches next spring, will invite groups citywide to create food diaries to be used to create an art event drawing on food themes in the museum's collections. "Eat" will culminate with a harvest festival in October.