The changing shape of learning in museums

Art Gallery of Ontario hosted a conversation with two women who have impacted the share of learning in museums in recent years – Wendy Woon, Deputy Director for Education at MoMA, and Anna Cutler, Director of Learning and Research at Tate. They significantly influenced how museums work with practitioners and the public to build dialogues and opportunities to connect art and society and the broader issues society faces today. 

They discussed their roles and approaches as well as how the museum’s role is changing in a time when people are impacted or traumatised by the pandemic, and museums are under more scrutiny in relation to decolonisation. 

The conversation circled around questions about the museum’s role today when communities are as central as objects, and how museums can become more part of their local community, or, as Anna Cutler suggested, at Tate “our local can be international.” They spoke about the importance of providing a civic space – a physical or digital meeting place where people bring their knowledge, feel being heard and acknowledged. 

Among the challenges discussed is “the desire of museum people to tell people”. There is a need to hold back and let others in, to move from telling to an exchange, and rather than getting rid of the expert it is about approaching education as facilitation. 

They acknowledged the challenge of decolonisation when the concept of a museum is a colonial enterprise in itself. Building on Stuart Hall (you can’t decolonise, you need to rethink it) they see an opportunity to rethink and relook at why we do what we do and for whom, and what narratives are not being heard. 

Touching on the power of digital, they recognised that a certain digital saturation and fatigue are setting in, which requires museums to use digital more inventively and better interlink it with analogue experiences. 

Now that their museums are reopening, both see an opportunity to fully understand the impact of this moment in time and if/how art and museums can add value to people’s lives. Anna Cutler wondered whether we can set out with genuine questions we don’t know the answers to. What is really important? What do we have to change and what do we want to change? 

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A bold strategic move

Ben Uri Gallery and Museum transforms to “a fully virtual museum with a physical presence”

The Ben Uri Gallery and Museum is a small museum in London that “celebrates, researches and records the rich Jewish and immigrant experience in the visual arts since 1900”. It made a bold strategic move and amid financial pressures decided that transforming its operational model to a fully virtual museum with a physical presence is the way forward to being a sustainable organisation and delivering its mission. And adding another bold move, it funds the transformation by deaccessioning some of its collection. In the first 3 months after the soft-launch of engagement numbers have exceeded budgets and expectations, so they seem to be well on track despite (because of?) the difficult pandemic times in the UK. Chair David Glasser explains the move in a video and in an ArtsProfessional article

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A Manifesto for Museum Learning and Engagement

For the Museum Association in the UK, the combination of the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis “makes it imperative that we make a transformational change to the role of museums in society. This is a time that requires radical social innovation.” This has led them to publish a Manifesto for Museum Learning and Engagement. Built on two years of research and consultation with museums, it wants to provide a framework for museums to reflect on their purpose and develop their practice.

Image: Museum Association

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Money, Morals and Metrics: How Should We Measure the Success of Museums?

Why attendance is too crude a measure

Thought-provoking article with a variety of views from international museum directors about measuring the success of museums and why attendance is not enough on in other words.

Some highlights:

  • “…how do you measure ‘quality’ in numbers? It’s much easier to track attendance than to try to answer that question.” (Emilie Gordenker, director The Mauritshuis, the Hague)
  • Attendance can “act as an ‘index of relevance’, but the numbers should be tempered with a “kind of high-level of responsibility towards … society at large, in saying: ‘Are we doing something together that will make us as a people more intelligent, maybe more tolerant and certainly more visually acute?’” (Richard Armstrong, Director Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation)
  • “Museums should be ‘of the people and for the people’ by generating debate” (Taco Dibbits, director Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
  • A more interesting measure … is stickiness: do people want to visit more frequently and spend more time at the museum looking and thinking about art?” (Glenn Lowry, director Museum of Modern Art, New York)
  • “You can very well as a museum decide you want to attract a different group of visitors, which might lead to a decline in numbers, but that will have achieved the objective that you set. … Attendance on its own is simply too rough a measure to be meaningful.” (Emilie Gordenker, director the Mauritshuis, the Hague)