Ai Weiwei using Lego to draw attention to issues of social justice.
Entry to Ai Wei Wewi’s Lego installation at NGV
Inside the Lego installation – studying the comments made by various activisits in Australia.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Lego. It is a wonderful creative tool with endless possibilities but I am so sick of seeing it in museums and galleries as the main attraction.
Audience engagement is something that I’m passionate about. I don’t think that the museum sector can just sit back and wait for visitors to come through their doors because of a single exhibition or a Lego attraction. They need to build on relationships with their local communities and develop a substantial membership base, offering reasons for members to visit frequently. They need to be creative and flexible with their collections, providing a great package for tourists who may only physically visit the museum once in their lifetime and also for the “not so local” visitor to give them a “taste” of what’s on offer. Realistically, a “taste” (and an entry price) which makes the visitor want to return to the museum the next time that they’re in town.
I don’t begrudge National Galleries Victoria (NGV) for harnessing Ai Weiwei’s talent to create a major new installation using Lego for the recent NGV Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei blockbuster exhibition (December 2015 April 2016). Weiwei’s crowd-sourced Lego work focused on Australian activists, advocates and champions of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of information and the internet and highlighted many of the current social justice issues facing all Australians. But seriously, everyone else needs to give Lego a miss for a while and work harder to attract visitors, particularly families, with innovative exhibitions and galleries using their own unique collections or borrowed works from other places which are in line with the stated vision and purpose of their space.
Call me old fashioned but I don’t like to see people eating and drinking as they wander around the museum – it isn’t really good practice, particularly when there are touch screens and objects on display which will be handled by thousands of hands. I guess when museum staff are so brainwashed about the correct procedures for caring for collections, it is not helpful having mixed messages within the museum or art gallery space.
I’m not saying that visitors should have to buy food from the Museum Cafe, but surely most large museums have appropriate designated spaces set up for visitors to eat (preferably near a handwashing facility or bathroom) which can accommodate families and ensure that objects in the galleries have greater protection and longevity.
In addition, there are risks and/or OH and S concerns around having food near the objects. Some examples that come to mind are:
The risk of spills and wet patches being hazardous to other visitors or damaging electronic equipment or the objects on display.
Consider the risk of a visitor bringing peanuts/or peanut butter sandwiches (or any allergen) into the gallery space triggering an anaphylactic reaction in an “at risk” visitor who touches the same screen or object.
The diminished aesthetic value of the museum space when rubbish generated by visitors is left behind in the galleries.
The implications for pest management in the galleries which is already an issue in many museums.
A quick Google search of websites of some of the most popular museums in the US and UK shows most have stated clearly that “no food or drink” can be taken into the museum. To assist visitors, museum websites should clearly state their policy on eating and drinking in the museum. This can be reinforced by front of house staff as visitors arrive. It’s important to make things easy for visitors – telling them about onsite cafes and nearby food outlets and pointing out the designated eating areas onsite which do not include the galleries themselves.
One of the most interesting facts that I have learned from visitor studies at the Australian Museum, Sydney, was that many “inner city dwellers” use the museum as their backyard (metaphorically speaking of course).
I found that a number of families live in apartments in the inner city and have taken out membership to several cultural institutions and that they regularly bring children to come and play at the Australian Museum. I don’t mean running around kind of play but definitely spending hours at the museum (to escape their apartments) in the Search and Discover section of the museum or participating in craft activities (when available) at Kids Space. This was quite a revelation to me because I’ve never lived in a small flat with children. My four kids were brought up in the suburbs, 20 kilometres away from the city and had access to a backyard, local parks and plenty of local group activities nearby. We would often travel to the city for a museum visit but would not visit regularly.
This is an interesting discovery for any city based cultural institutions. Most museums want to grow their memberships and attract repeat visitors and be known as being family friendly. If city dwellers are visiting often with children, particularly the preschool age group – are museums doing enough to keep those families and children interested? The usual museum approach would be to develop the Summer Blockbuster exhibition and limit most of the child focussed activities to school holidays but perhaps there are a number of children not at school who could benefit from some permanent free play spaces and child focussed exhibits all year round. Such spaces need not be underutilised and would be attractive to interstate and international visitors as well as school groups on excursions all year round. I have noticed that there are large numbers of European tourists visiting Sydney in the northern hemisphere’s Summer months and it would be interesting to look at the statistics on China and South-East Asia as well as visitors from North America travelling with children.
At any time of year I would recommend that cultural institutions help families to plan their visit by providing a link on their websites. For example the Smithsonian Top 10 Kid’s Tips or ensuring that your museum is mentioned in an article like The 10 best Family Friendly Galleries in London. Many museums, libraries and galleries do offer programs for families and put a lot of thought into being “family friendly” but they may not have thought about satisfying the frequent visitor or tourist that might not visit during school holidays or on weekends when most of these programs are available?