Tag Archives: exhibitions

On Australia Day – how museums can use the power of interpretation? Bungaree -the exhibition in my head.

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Bungaree’s breastplate from http://budawagroup.com/history/

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blogpost may contain images or names of people who have since passed away.”

Before Australia Day, there is always discussion about the date, 26th January, what it means to every Australian and the conversations are quite thought provoking. I don’t believe that you can change history, but you can certainly change the way you look at the facts and think more critically about them. Australia was not the only country to be colonised by the British. I am certain that had it not been the British, it would have been the Dutch, French or Portuguese who were all active on our coastline at that time. I believe that the outcome for Indigenous Australians would have still been quite bleak.

We may not be able to change history but museums have the power to revisit and reinterpret the facts. Australians still have much to learn about our nation’s history and perhaps learning  new things can help all of us to build on our cultural heritage and celebrate the contribution of Indigenous Australians to our country and to resolve the issue of January 26th as a contested date for Australia Day.

A few years ago, I saw a great art exhibition of works on paper about Bungaree: First Australian at Mosman Art Gallery (in Sydney), which made me think about the man, his place in Australian history and the way that these artists created works that acknowledged and critically re-interpreted the story of Bungaree – an important Indigenous figure in the colonial Sydney era. Bungaree’s story would fit well into the vision and exhibition strategy of museums such as the Australian National Maritime Museum, Australian Museum or the National Museum of Australia.

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Merve Bishop Bungaree: The showman 2012, digital photography, Giclee on archival pigment, 100 x 200 cm. From an exhibition curated by Djon Mundine at Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney          1 September – 25 November 2012

The man

King Bungaree (c1775-1830) was well respected by the Indigenous Australian community and developed a reputation as a negotiator between Aboriginal and European cultures during his lifetime. He accompanied Matthew Flinders on several journeys in 1798, 1799, 1801 and 1802-03 where he acted as interpreter and intermediary, a role which he undertook several times for European explorers in Australia.  Bungaree was the first Indigenous person to circumnavigate Australia and contribute to the mapping of the Australian coastline and yet more is known about “Trim”, Matthew Flinders’ “sea-faring” cat than the man Flinders described as having “a good disposition and open and manly conduct that attracted my esteem”[1]. I have often thought that the life of King Bungaree would make a wonderful museum exhibition – to rediscover the voyages undertaken by Bungaree with Matthew Flinders, and in particular the circumnavigation of Australia but with more emphasis on Bungaree – his character, his family and his exchanges with other indigenous people during those journeys.

A great deal is known about Australia’s maritime heritage but this would be an opportunity to engage with a different audience, reinterpret the existing historical record and to be more “inclusive”  of an indigenous audience with a more meaningful dialogue about the place of King Bungaree in Australian history[2]. This indigenous man was well respected by the Governors and officials in colonial Sydney. He was not only known in NSW but his fame spread to nineteenth century Europe both in artworks inspired by colonial Australia and in the journals of men that he sailed with. Considering that “Reconciliation” is an important theme for Australian museum projects recently, then public learning and collaboration with indigenous communities offers a museum the opportunity to become a driver for social change and inclusion[3]. It is a chance to research and communicate factual information to visitors about some of the relationships formed between the newly arrived colonial settlers and the indigenous population at that time.

The Exhibition

In the past, most exhibitions on the exploration of Australia tend to be Eurocentric, and yet here is a perfect opportunity to develop a more “inclusive” exhibition for the public with an opportunity to reinterpret Australian history so that more is known about the man who contributed much to the exploration and development of our nation. The following themes could be examined:

  • Bungaree the man – with paintings, prints and writings about Bungaree. Bungaree was a tribal chief who had the ability to straddle both the indigenous and colonial worlds. Bungaree spoke English well and his sense of humour was well noted[4]. There are several portraits and writings about Bungaree available to assist in developing a picture of his character, his family and his contribution to the circumnavigation and mapping of Australia with Matthew Flinders and Phillip King. He was the subject of at least 17 portraits during his life time and several more after his death – many by well known artists (The National Library of Australia[5] collection has portraits by Augustus Earle, Charles Pye, Charles Rodius, and W.H. Fernyhough).

The Journals of Flinders and King – There are original documents written about Bungaree and his family members. Matthew Flinders’[6] and Phillip King’s[7] comments on Bungaree in their daily journals. (National Library of Australia and State Library of NSW collections). A clever mimic, Bungaree could imitate the walk, gestures and expressions of past Governors of New South Wales. Like Shakespeare’s clown in Twelfth Night, he was ‘wise enough to play the fool’ and used his humorous talents to obtain clothes, tea, tobacco, bread, sugar and rum for himself and his people. As author and historian Geoffrey Dutton commented: ‘He mocked the white men by mocking himself[8]’. When in town, Bungaree was known to wear cast off uniforms and a tricorn hat given to him by the NSW Governors of the period and officers in the regiment. This period clothing should be researched and replica uniforms and hats produced as accurately as possible from illustrations and historical knowledge of the dress at that time. The breastplates of King Bungaree and Queen Gooseberry awarded by Governor Macquarie in 1815 are held in the Mitchell Library Collection, State Library NSW.

  • Bungaree’s Family Tree (This would be require significant research because he supported 5 wives and many descendants).The existing family tree for Bungaree and his wives is quite complex. His first wife was Matora, followed by three other women, Gooseberry (Cora), Charlotte Ashby and Biddy Salamander. There are many descendants of Bungaree and his wives identified in the literature which also details the places that they lived. Research may extract further evidence about the number of wives he had and about his known descendants which could be presented using an interactive display. This would assist existing and new descendants to find out more information about the family tree. Such a display could include some web links for searching Bungaree’s family history.
  • Indigenous Languages – A study of Indigenous dialects/lifestyles in the early 1800s. Bungaree was a Kuringgai man from the Broken Bay area along the Hawkesbury River and would have been quite unfamiliar with the languages and types of housing in other parts of Australia – contrary to the incorrect European view that all Indigenous Australians were the same and had no cultural heritage to speak of. In the early 1800s there were an estimated 300 distinct indigenous languages in Australia[9]. Currently there are 145 languages still spoken but of these 110 are critically endangered which is the largest and most rapid loss of languages in the world. In this display, show the spread of aboriginal dialects, comparing 1800s to today. Use audio examples of a couple of words to compare the different dialects. Bungaree was taken as a translator on these sea voyages which showed that early settlers had no idea that the culture and language of indigenous settlements was extremely variable in different parts of Australia. Discuss “terra nullius” presumption and note all the places that they anchored on the voyage.
  • Map making – Present a series of maps of Australia from Bungaree’s time including discussion about mapping instruments and techniques used to map the coastline – something which we take for granted in modern times. Demonstrate the navigational feat of the Matthew Flinders’ expeditions using audio visual support to show a map of Australia during Cook’s time and how that map changed after each of Flinders’ journeys with Bungaree and including the final circumnavigation aboard the HMS Investigator. Discuss the fact that it was Flinders who named Australia.
  • Indigenous Australia in Bungaree’s time – How did Indigenous people travel  Australia via the ocean and waterways? How did they use the stars to navigate? How did they use Songlines to travel and to pass information down through the generations? Compare the knowledge of  Indigenous Australians with the instruments used in early 1800s for navigation and mapping. Demonstrate how Australia would be mapped today -(showing modern photographic and satellite techniques. (Maps and instruments to be sourced from the ANMM collection and the National and State libraries).
  • HMS Investigator – Look at the history of HMS Investigator and the other vessels which Bungaree sailed on to Norfolk Island, Bribie Island and Hervey Bay before the circumnavigation of Australia with Flinders. The Investigator carried a crew of 88. He also made other expeditions with Philip Parker King.  Use diagrams and refer to the HMS Investigator using a scaled model such as the model – 1:48 inches with decking, rigging and fine detail (Object D 7835 sourced from State Library of SA). Also discuss the fact that there were nine different HMS Investigators in British naval history showing the lifespan of each ship on a historical timeline.
  • Trim and Bungaree. Finally the story of “Trim” and Bungaree and including the place of ship’s cats on these exploration vessels using a text panel discussing the role of ship’s cats in colonial times. There should be a reference to Bungaree and Trim. Bungaree first met when Trim was the rat catcher aboard HMS Norfolk in the 1790s. Trim and Bungaree are often mentioned in Flinders’ daily journal entries and both were present during the circumnavigation of Australia in the HMS Investigator in 1801-1803. Sadly Trim was killed in Mauritius in 1804. Sculptor John Cornwall created a statue of Trim which is located on the ledge of the Mitchell Library wing at the State Library of NSW.

The ideal Visitor Experience

Visitors will come to the exhibition with their own knowledge, thoughts and motivation – hopefully curious and asking “Who was King Bungaree?” The exhibition could be factual about the “first contact” between Indigenous Australians and colonial settlers through the eyes of Bungaree, a well-known Sydney character and identity. By wandering through the exhibition and interacting with its components, more could be understood about Bungaree’s place in history.

The audience will learn how little the British colonials knew about the Australian Aborigines, their culture and diversity of language and begin to understand how the divide between them came about. A point of interest is that the High Court’s Mabo judgment in 1992 overturned the terra nullius fiction. In the same judgment, however, the High Court accepted the British assertion of sovereignty in 1788, and held that from that time there was only one sovereign power and one system of law in Australia.

The exhibition content should fit within the context of the National curriculum particularly into the areas of Australian History, Geography, Civics and citizenship, Indigenous content and cross cultural perspectives as well as for Visual Arts and design.

Public programs could include storytelling, canoe building, dance and art workshops to explore aspects of country and culture (Bungaree used dance to communicate with other tribes when he did not know their language). Preparation should be carried out in consultation with members of Bungaree’s Kuringai (Guringai) clan from Broken Bay, Sydney.

Footnotes

[1] Matthew Flinders, A Voyage to Terra Australis, W Nicol, London, 1814, p cxciv

[2] Simpson, M.G. 1996, Making representations: museums in the post-colonial era/Moira G. Simpson Routledge London; New York

[3] Kelly, L. and Gordon, P.2002. Chapter 11. Developing a community of practice: museums and reconciliation in Australia. Richard Sandell (Ed).pp 153 -174 in Museums Society and Inequality.

[4] McCarthy, F.D.1966. Bungaree (?-1830) in Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University at http:adb.anu.edu.au/biography/Bungaree-1848/text2141, published hardcopy 1966, accessed online 26 March 2014.

[5] National Library of Australia collections database at http:// www.nla.gov.au/collections accessed online 26 March 2014

[6] Flinders, M. A voyage to Terra Australis (Volumes 1 and 2) London 1814

[7] King, P. Narrative of a survey of the Intertropical and Western Coasts of Australia (Volumes 1 and 2) London 1827.

[8] William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act 111, Scene 1; Geoffrey Dutton, White on Black: The Australian Aborigine portrayed in art, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1974, pp 28–31

[9] Schmidt, A. (1990). The loss of Australia’s aboriginal language heritage. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

 

 

References

Smith, K. (1992).King Bungaree: A Sydney Aborigine meets the Great South Pacific Explorers, 1799-1830.Kenthurst, NSW: Kangaroo Press.

Simon, N. (2010) The Participatory Museum. California: Santa Cruz. Museum 2.0 pp 139-152

Weil, S.E. (2002) “From being about Something to being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum” in Making Museums Matter. Washington Smithsonian Institution. pp 28-53.

https://australianmuseum.net.au/bungaree

 

 

Audience Research 101

Why should cultural institutions do audience research?

Competition in the “museum world” is tough. It doesn’t matter how exclusive your collection is, or how famous your brand, there is competition from other cultural institutions, big and small, as well as any number of other distractions (sport, relaxation, leisure pursuits) competing for a share of potential visitors and even the most committed members’  valuable time. Face to face audience research into visitor experiences within the museum provides useful information that can be fed back into program development, museum policy and strategic planning for the future.

The front foyer of the newly rebranded MU-SEA-UM (Australian National Maritime Museum) at Darling Harbour

It is not enough to just happily count numbers of visitors through the door. Numbers on their own can be quite misleading without the qualitative data supporting visitor behaviour (including  visitor observation and tracking – see  separate post) during the  visit and feedback from visitors about their personal experiences inside your cultural institution and why they may or may not come back in the future.

Impressionists from Monet to Cezanne at Palazzo degli Esami in Rome

Visitor Feedback Surveys

Certainly, visitor feedback is key to keeping audiences engaged with your museum and your brand. If you welcome feedback, audiences feel appreciated and valued, whether it’s about the collection, upcoming or current exhibitions, kids activities, programs, eating spaces  or the state of the bathrooms!

Once you have direct communication with visitors, you can benefit enormously from their feedback (both positive and negative), but firstly, the organisation needs to be specific as possible about  what it wants to know in order for the feedback to be beneficial.

Preparing  your audience research objective

Modern Masters from The Hermitage at the Art Gallery of NSW

Feedback survey questions usually require a brainstorming session in order to define the aims of the survey. Once the aims have been determined, it becomes easier to write the survey questions. It’s impossible to retrieve and analyse data that has not been collected and there is no point in collecting data that staff have no use for.  Think carefully –

  • How will the information be used?
  • What do staff want to find out about their visitors?

Visitor feedback  survey objectives need to be clearly defined. Keep them simple and specific. Try to minimise bias in the questions.  Visitor surveys are research. Research on museum visitors can determine specifics such as:

  • Where are your visitors from? Are they alone or with friends/ family?
  • Are they likely to return to your institution – this may be affected by accessibility. Are visitors local or from overseas/interstate? Are they already members, repeat visitors or first timers?
  • What are their interests? These may be specific to your museum collection, a particular exhibition or just a family outing?
  • What do people like or dislike about your museum collection, exhibitions, program and activities? Embrace both sides as an opportunity to think critically about what you offer and the way you offer it.

Also be conscious that research on people who do not visit the museum can be useful  to determine why people don’t come, particularly the local community on your doorstep.

Using results

Constant self-reflection and improvement will  encourage more visitors through the door. Use the findings from visitor feedback surveys to help with the planning and implementation of improvements to the “people interface” –  Front of House, museum spaces and services (including facilities, cafe, museum shop etc.). Listening to and responding to the feedback findings will ensure the success of future marketing, promotional and public relations campaigns.

The solid evidence produced by analysing survey results will add credibility to your case when pitching to potential sponsors or funding sources to support future projects.

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Clip boards at the ready. Many museums choose iPads for surveying. The importance thing is to use tools which allow engagement with the visitor. You may learn something extra during the exchange.

Tips  for Survey staff on real time Surveying of Visitors

  • Take time to absorb the museum atmosphere on the day. Move around the museum spaces and work out the best spots  to catch people.
  • Choose people carefully. There is no point in asking a parent with a screaming child or people preoccupied with something inside the museum where they are unlikely to want to be disturbed.
  • Introduce yourself to visitors being surveyed and tell them what you are doing emphasising that the museum needs their feedback to try to improve or find out their opinion on “(whatever)” depending upon the survey aim – ticket pricing, accessibility, current exhibition content and future exhibition topics ……..
  • Encourage each visitor to fill out the form themselves if possible but try to ensure that all pages are filled out
  • Add “in-house” predetermined requirements such as completion time, date etc. to each survey
  • Try to sample broadly
  • Don’t worry about knockbacks, if you are friendly then visitors might participate next time or at another cultural institution when they have more time.
  • Write down anecdotal comments which you think may add value to the survey being carried out even if  the feedback isn’t relevant to the questions
  • Set yourself a target based on past experience – some days are better than others depending on the flow and mood of the museum visitors on the day in question and on the length of the survey.
  • Offer an incentive for their time. e.g. a coffee voucher, discount for next visit or even a voucher for the museum shop.
  • Thank them for their participation

Further reading for those people thinking about visitors to cultural institutions – what visitors think and why they may or may not visit our cultural institutions.

  • Potential visitors to cultural institutions are spending more time on the couch instead

https://www.colleendilen.com/2018/09/19/potential-visitors-cultural-entities-spending-time-couch-instead-data-update/

  • Couch potatoes, Television Consumption and Museum Visitation

https://musdigi.wordpress.com/

  • Are we asking the right questions?

https://musdigi.wordpress.com/2018/09/07/are-we-asking-the-right-questions-compassconference-day-one-reflections/

  • 10 reasons to visit a museum

https://www.colleendilen.com/2009/07/31/10-reasons-to-visit-a-museum/

  • 21 Reasons why I hate Museums

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/lists/21-reasons-why-I-hate-museums/

  • Why don’t people visit museums more often?

https://rereeti.wordpress.com/2015/02/03/why-dont-people-visit-museums-more-often/

  • How to encourage people to visit museums more often

https://medium.com/@miaeveliina/how-can-we-encourage-those-who-rarely-visit-museums-to-do-so-more-often-441c27cf4770

  • The drop in museum visitors reveals a nation without aspiration or hope

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2017/feb/02/drop-uk-museum-attendance

  • Audience Research 101 – #museumeval

https://musdigi.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/audience-research-101-museumeval/

  • Visitor research at Te Papa

https://www.tepapa.govt.nz/sites/default/files/4-visitors-survey_0.pdf

 

Group tour of Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli outside Rome. UNESCO World Heritage site.

The NGV Triennial Giving Art to the People

Pae White’s colourful installation drawing in all ages

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is Australia’s oldest and possibly most well loved museum of art, founded in 1861. Its mission statement  – “To illuminate life by collecting, preserving and presenting great art” and perhaps the unwritten mission of “giving it to the people”.

NGV Triennial 15 December 2017-15 April 2018

In 2016 the NGV was the 19th most popular art gallery in the world with more than 2.6 million visitors across its two campuses. The ranking places the gallery in the company of Paris’s Musee d’Orsay and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Visitors flock to the NGV Triennial in Melbourne

The NGV is not only Australia’s most popular art gallery, but one of the top 20 most visited art museums worldwide as revealed by the U.K’s  The Art Newspaper in its latest survey of global art museum attendance. Not a bad effort for a small country on the world stage. Australia’s population is around 24.8 million compared with the U.S.A.’s 326.8 million and U.K.’s  66.6 million people. This ranking was based on visitation to “Van Gogh and the seasons” from the 2017 Winter exhibition. (Note that another Australian art museum on the list was the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art with its 2016/17 Summer exhibition – Sugar spin: You, me, art and Everything.)

Yayoi Kusama’s Obliteration Rooms are always popular with visitors

The NGV held forty-nine exhibitions during 2016-17, including major retrospectives of international and Australian artists and designers, as well as focused displays of works in the NGV collection. The quality and variety of audience engagement initiatives presented in support of these exhibitions was extensive. They offered guided tours, audio tours, mobile phone apps, talks, lecture series and workshops as well as social events – such as the Friday Night events (aimed at capturing more of the younger audiences after work), the Summer Sundays music series and the NGV Kids Summer festival and supporting Kids spaces for some of the major exhibitions. For example – as part of the exhibition Andy Warhol / Ai Weiwei (2015-2016), NGV Kids presented Studio Cats, a large-scale installation especially for children and families to draw upon creative connections between the two artists and their mutual love of cats.

The Gallery aims to present programmes that engage visitors in meaningful cultural experiences and to keep them coming back.

According to their audience research data, The National Gallery of Victoria enjoys one of the highest community participation rates in the world. 70% of their visitors are local from Melbourne and regional Victoria unlike many other international art museums where the majority of visitors are incoming tourists. This also indicates that the locals keep coming back which is what every cultural institution needs to strive for. This is what Nina Simon talks about most recently in The Art of Relevance but also in The Participatory Museum and her Museum 2.0 Blog.

For any Cultural Institution, the collection remains  fundamental to the audience engagement and education strategy. The thoughtful curation and presentation of historical and contemporary collections is a key museum management strategy for continuing and ongoing audience engagement. Colleen Dilenschneider regularly writes about this in her Know Your Own Bone Blog (most recently in Special Exhibits vs. Permanent Collections (DATA) and previously in Death by Curation).The NGV strategy is to ensure that its collection is accessible to the widest possible audience who may be unable to visit the museum through the ongoing work of the NGV Digitisation Project which is still progressing.

I have to disclose that I am already a big fan of the NGV and the way that they design their spaces. I visit the NGV each time that I am in Melbourne, so over many years have enjoyed both Summer and Winter exhibitions as well as taking time to learn about the permanent collection shown across both campuses (St Kilda Road and the Ian Potter Centre in Federation Square). On my recent visit I took in the inaugural Triennial at the National Gallery Victoria which on the surface (without actual audience data analysis) appears to be a great success. What I enjoyed most about this free experience was seeing the diversity of visitors attending the exhibition and the way that the work of 100 contemporary artists, architects and designers from 32 countries was juxtaposed against the existing works from the collection – which was great exposure.

Audience engagement with the art at NGV Triennial

I think that there is currently a cultural revival happening worldwide despite Government funding cuts trying to choke the Arts into submission. Creativity and cultural heritage feed the soul when so much about modern life seems to do the opposite. Now is a better time than ever for cultural institutions to offer their prospective audiences something new and different, to  re-energise and maybe even reinterpret their collections to be more inclusive, to build community and feed the souls that are weary of modern life and meaningless 24 hour connectedness to media, social media and globalised sameness. Keep leading the way National Gallery of Victoria and hopefully other cultural institutions in Australia will follow or at least just lift their game a notch.

Interesting reading:

Cultural Heritage and the City

Cultural heritage as a driver of economic growth and social inclusion

Creative Country

The value of culture

Change and grow 21st century museum audiences.

The good thing about not working for a single museum (and believe me there are not many advantages to being a contract or casual worker) is that you get to see things as an outsider and are well placed to think critically about cultural institutions that don’t employ you. As an onlooker, I am always thinking about audience engagement at the museums, art galleries and heritage spaces that I visit (particularly the ones for which I have a paid yearly membership). In my paid employment, I have been lucky to have been supervised by one of the best – Dr Lynda Kelly (CEO Lynda Kelly Networks and formerly Head of Learning at The Australian National Maritime Museum) who embraces digital engagement in cultural spaces and advocates the importance of evaluating the museum audience experience at every point of contact – before, during and after the visit. I am also a big fan of Colleen Dilenschneider and her blog (and new website), “Know Your Own Bone” and 3 minute YouTube videos  (for those who don’t have time to read) which give tremendous insight into cultural organisations, their audiences and their markets. Kelly and Dilenschneider really make you think about museums in the 21st century and how they will grow their actual and online  visitor numbers to protect the future of their cultural organisations.

Image result for knowyourownbone

There are some current “disruptive techniques” available for the marketing and presentation of new experiences to keep current visitors actively involved in cultural organisations whilst growing new audiences and developing new community relationships. The MuseumNext  conference held in Melbourne, Australia earlier this year had speakers from all over the globe sharing their knowledge and experience with participants. The main topic for discussion was “risk”. Museums, like other cultural organisations, need to take more risks if they want to grow their audiences. This is not about putting collections or staff in any danger, but about “thinking outside the box” and doing things a little differently. It is also not about cutting staff and  handing over the reigns to an external consultant who really doesn’t know the museum or the value of specific collections let alone understand the overworked  back of house functions (curatorial, education, conservation, research and volunteers). It is about best practice and the collective future for museums and better ways to interpret and present collections, by engaging and changing the perception of existing audiences, creating new audiences in the physical museum space and online, embracing technology, encouraging visitor participation and fostering innovation within cultural institutions worldwide.

Taking calculated risks can also be interpreted as “disruption” in cultural institutions. Organisations like to think that they have a “vision” and strategic plan for the future but 

  • are activities being done the way that they were always done?
  • are audiences the same as they always were?
  • are the needs of the staff more important, equal to or less important than those of the audiences?
  • is the marketing function bringing superficial numbers through the door more important than the curatorial and back of house functions who maintain collections, design exhibitions, create educational programs and digital content behind the scenes?
  • Is the team behind the scenes as harmonious and cohesive as the face being presented to the public?
  • is the institution well funded and well managed with strong leadership and direction?

There are so many issues to consider and the issues will vary depending upon the size of the organisation, the collection involved, the existing membership base and the statutory and funding model for the cultural institution in question.

For the 21st Century Museum engaging new and different audiences is critical. How does an organisation like Museum Hack become a “disruptive force” in an established cultural institution? They look with new eyes. They work with organisations “to create new content, strengthen existing programs, build social media prowess, reach new audiences, and increase relevance and engagement”. They set out to engage new audiences and increase audience diversity by thinking outside the box – encouraging a new relationship between visitors and the collections in the museum space and for this interaction to be about learning and fun.

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It could be argued that many museums put time and effort into curating their spaces and educating the public but unless the output is measured and analysed then the “facts and figures” may be misleading. Counting numbers through the door and anecdotal observations are not sufficient in comparison to quantitative results from well orchestrated visitor studies and qualitative reports gleaned from well designed visitor feedback surveys. Ceri Jones’s review article on “Enhancing our understanding of museum audiences: visitor studies in the 21st century” quotes David Fleming as saying  that “ if museums are to be serious about their social role, understanding the needs, motivations and expectations of visitors (and non-visitors) is critical to their mission, values and decision-making processes (Fleming 2012)”.

While academics in the museum industry may not like the style of Nina Simon’s new book, Art Of Relevance, I love the way she writes about cultural institutions and the need for them to remain relevant with audiences into the future if they want to survive. I particularly like the way she looks at “insiders” and “outsiders”, which is what Michelle Obama spoke about at the opening of the new Whitney Museum extension that I mentioned in my previous post. Obama spoke about the way that some sectors of the community feel that they don’t belong or wouldn’t be represented in their local cultural institutions and Simon speaks about finding “new doors” to open which makes people feel welcome rather than left outside.

In 2016, Chloe Hodge wrote an editorial for Artsy, “As Attention Spans Dwindle, How Does a Museum Capture New Audiences?” which gives examples of three museums adopting new approaches to engaging new audiences and building relationships with the local community. Panama’s Biomuseo has used architecture and design to try to draw in the locals to engage with the biodiversity of their environment in a country without any true museum culture. The environmentally sustainable building aims to reconnect locals with the outdoors and encourages visitors to act on their social conscience by protecting their plant and animal species and thinking about Panama’s global responsibilities.

Berlin’s Museum Island (Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Bode, Pergamon, and the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM)) have adopted a programme used by Museum für Islamische Kunst and a group of Syrian archeology students who became asylum seekers in 2011. “Multaqa: Museum as Meeting Point,” involves the training of Syrian and Iraqui refugees as museum guides and their weekly tours in the Arabic language have opened up the museum collections as conversation starters for refugees who have been disconnected from their own countries. A spokesperson for DHM explains that “When the refugees see images of a completely destroyed Germany and then compare this to what we have now, it gives them hope that Syria, in particular, might once again be a working state. We in Germany tend to forget that Europe was once, too, divided by religious wars and the whole continent destroyed.”

In London’s East End, The Victoria and Albert Museum was seen as partly being to blame for the loss of social housing and the gentrification of the area used for the London Olympics. They are now employing and training East Londoners to ensure that the museum is a product of the area, with a broad appeal for local audiences who can relate to local staff. Three worthwhile innovative strategies chosen by Hodge for discussion in her piece.

There are other ideas for smaller institutions with little budget for large marketing campaigns. Parramatta’s Riverside Theatre has been subsidising the cost of a theatre tickets to disadvantaged young people and running workshops in the arts for people with disabilities by asking theatre goers to donate to the Riverside Theatre’s education programme. Being proactive in engaging new audiences who might otherwise have been left outside the door is one way to ensure the future of the cultural institution, particularly when the experience is a positive one.

Hannah Hethmon wrote about inexpensive social media marketing for smaller cultural institutions in her blog post “Guerilla Marketing Tips for small museums”. She speaks about investing time and energy rather than money to attract new audiences using social media tools which target visitors who are not regulars and may be persuaded to visit by an influencer that they follow on Pinterest, Instagram or Facebook to visit a museum in response to a post which calls them to action.

Museums in the 21st century have to fight hard for a slice of the recreational dollar. In Australia, there are demographic changes to the cities, changes in cultural diversity, generational changes and changing in access to technology which affect the way cultural organisations are viewed and valued by the population in general. To grow in the future, cultural organisations must know how they are placed with respect to all of the above and take some risks in the future to remain relevant to their current audiences and to attract new visitors. It won’t just be about sharing collections and heritage spaces and places but about exchanging knowledge, being safe places to visit, being affordable and welcoming to everyone.

 

 

Maps versus Staff on the Museum Floor

When I am physically in the museum space, whether observing or surveying visitors, people always talk to me and ask me questions. I have no doubt from my observations that people like to see museum staff on the floor. It doesn’t matter whether the museum arms people with maps, touch pads, audio tours or text panels – visitors like to talk to real people. They have questions, they want directions and most of all they want to give you feedback about the things that they are seeing and doing in the museum. They want to tell you what they like, they want to tell you what you are doing well, what should be on display and they want to tell you about other museums doing similar things better than you are.

I don’t think that this is a bad thing. Museums need to know their audiences and they cannot possibly know them if they don’t do a little face to face work, rather than just counting numbers in galleries. Exhibitions need not be static places. Even if the exhibit layout is “perfect” from the curator’s viewpoint, there will always be room to tweak the exhibit in some way – whether it’s a text panel/ label, training “front of house” staff and educators/guides about a new exhibition space, doing continuous maintenance or just ensuring that museum visitors are making the most of any exhibition or permanent gallery on any given day.

I have seen many front of house staff appear exasperated that visitors can’t find their way around an art gallery or museum – even with a map. The fact is that maps are prepared by people who are familiar with the workings of a particular space and so a map already makes sense to them. In reality, people move through museums and art galleries  intuitively and so it’s better to build on that natural movement or provide them with really clear directions via gateway text panels and objects or pathways within the space.

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New entry to the Australian Museum

For example, at the Australian Museum, there is a gentle slope leading from the Museum’s new point of entry into the Wild Planet gallery. Sadly, most people intuitively turn right into the Skeleton Hall and then climb the stairs (even with strollers!) into Wild Planet which totally defeats the purpose of having a new entrance. When visitors move through the Skeleton Hall, they miss the Help Desk and the Museum shop and often become disoriented about using the lifts, ramps and stairs to the upper galleries. There is a museum map but people just follow their noses. If welcome staff were placed at the entrance to the Skeleton Hall armed with maps and information, they could offer visitors the alternative pathways – pointing out the lifts and the easy access ramp to Wild Planet.

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The British Museum uses “gateway objects” as an effective way to lead audiences on a trail through their galleries engaging them with bigger stories and themes.

I mentioned in a previous Blogpost (Musing on Text and Labels) that the British Museum uses “Gateway Objects” in museum galleries to catch the eye of the viewer and to give the visitor some understanding of the space and themes of the gallery without them having to read every single label in the exhibition. Through the clever use of design, someone entering the gallery will immediately be able to follow a trail of key objects through the gallery without needing a map or having to read everything to comprehend the purpose of the space. The same technique could be used for the whole museum and not just for a specific exhibition or permanent gallery. It isn’t as important for members or frequent visitors but for the unfamiliar visitor or one-off tourists, it could be the key for them to sample what’s on offer at the museum without having to struggle with maps or having to read every text panel which usually results in “museum fatigue”.

A great article in Hyperallergic spoke about an interactive mapping approach  by students in the School of Visual Arts’ MFA Visual Narrative program. The students developed a number of creative, interactive maps for the Metropolitan Museum of Art  which look way more interesting than the map in the link on the MMA website. Interactive maps are great but I don’t think that I’ve come across a museum yet with perfect access to free wi-fi in every room. It seems to be either intermittent or timed for 10 minutes or have some complicated temporary sign-up method (even worse if you don’t speak the language!).

One positive step that I have noted on the home page of most museum and art gallery websites is the “Plan Your Visit” tab which often links to an interactive or downloadable map so that you can think about the visit ahead of time. I still believe that there should be a “Taster Tour” tab where time poor visitors can at least plan for a taste of the museum’s vision and collection. With greater digital support of the collection, they can “engage” further online after their visit and at their leisure if they can’t physically revisit the space. Staff on the floor can really enhance the experience for these visitors by providing directions or insight into what is on display and the importance of some of the objects to the museum collection.

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Songlines and the coded memory

On a recent visit to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, I was shown evidence of fossils which were the earliest forms of life on earth and saw some amazing Indigenous Rock Art. When you visit an ancient landscape with such natural beauty and spirituality, it encourages you to look deeper into the rich culture of our First Australians.

I am slowly beginning to understand the connection of Indigenous people to country after visiting the Flinders Ranges  and having listened to 702 ABC radio’s Conversations with Richard Vidler. Richard interviewed  Lynne Kelly about her book “The Memory Code”. Lynne  has researched traditional Indigenous Australian songlines as a key to memory, unlocking many layers of information which have been encoded into the Australian landscape. Songlines can be shared through stories, songs and through traditional dance.

The strong unwritten and oral history of Aboriginal Australians is passed down by Elders within the community. So much of this knowledge is key to survival. Knowledge about the landscape, navigation, ancestral totems, food and medicine, trade routes, culture, law and history. Information is shared through stories, traditional dance and song. Kelly speaks about the way that non-written memory systems are coded into the natural and built environment. She believes that this system was not only used in Australia but may have been used by other ancient cultures around the world.

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The understanding of  the way that Songlines work has changed my thinking about the damage caused by the removal of Indigenous Australians from their connection to country. This must have had a devastating impact – causing much pain through the loss of culture and access to  key information for survival. Australians can empathise with other displaced peoples around the world and yet the issue on our our doorstep is even more complex. I’m not saying that colonial Australians did this on purpose but the end result is still the same and incredibly significant for our Indigenous people. I had these new thoughts on board when I attended the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney to see Jonathan Jones’s exhibition “barrangal dyara (skin and bones)” which was  Kaldor Public Arts Project no.32.

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The Garden Palace, Sydney

Jonathan has reinterpreted one of Sydney’s great cultural losses which was the destruction of the vast Garden Palace in Sydney, which burned to the ground in 1882.

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Bleached gypsum shields forming the border of what was The Garden Palace

 

The Palace contained many Indigenous artefacts which were culturally significant and represented a link to country, part of the collective memory handed on from Elder to community and which can never be replaced.The loss was also greatly felt by the Colonials who lost many archival records, art works and museum objects (remembering that at this time there were no public museums or art galleries in Sydney, only in Melbourne). In a strange way there was some commonality of loss and understanding for all Australians arising from such a catastrophic event.

What I liked most about Jones’s interpretation was the way that the installation took the physical components such as the kangaroo grass meadow and thousands of bleached gypsum shields to mark the perimeter of the original Garden Palace. In addition, the soundscapes of 8 indigenous languages floated through the air, creating an atmosphere which took the observer into a different world. There were also daily conversations from historians, theorists, curators, artists, writers amongst the public program activities allowing the audience to reimagine the building and the history and cultural loss – both from an Indigenous and Colonial perspective. It was actually a great conversation starter.

I think that the arts have a lot to offer as far as highlighting social injustice and human rights issues – bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians through increasing our awareness of the richness of Indigenous culture and the significance of “connection to country” and the sophisticated coding of unwritten knowledge into the natural environment. We have so much to learn and have an opportunity that our forbears  underestimated the value of.

Museums in the 21st Century

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Destination Sydney at Mosman Art Gallery

So many well regarded museologists have spoken about the role of museums in this century. Nina Simon is a strong believer in museums working with their communities, Ed Rodley writes about the museum as contact zone and debates the museum models for “traditionalists” versus “progressives”. Seb Chan believes that museums are playing catchup with their digitisation programs and that it is important for museum staff to reinforce the value of the physical visit in all the thinking and planning for their visitors.

I recently participated in a MOOC (a free Massive Open Online Course) by the University of Leicester and Liverpool Museums – Behind the Scenes in 21st Century Museums. The course built on some of the thoughts and issues discussed in articles by Simon, Rodley and Chan – such as growing museum audiences, creating emotional connections between visitors and collections/exhibitions, as well as the role of museums in starting conversations about social justice, human rights, health and well being etc.

When I consider all of the information above, the word that summarises museums in the 21st century for me, is “connectedness”, and the relationship of each museum to its audience. You can examine any of the issues raised above and in every case, it’s about having flexible ideas and staying connected to your audiences, no matter what museum model you are channelling. An article by Holland Cotter from the New York Times in 2015 discussed the fact that there is no single museum  model and that museums will be defined by “the role that they play as a shaper of values” and “the audience that they attract” rather than just their architecture and contents.

What are Museums in the 21st century?

Museums are about – vision, collections and exhibitions, context, meaning and shaping community values. Museums are connecting to the public in many ways, through – Community
Digital interface
Architecture
Collections and exhibitions
Physical location
Physical visits
Educational programmes
Acting as the contact zone for conversation between divergent groups
Addressing social justice, health and wellbeing issues
Growing audiences
Strategic marketing and publicity

 

To achieve all of the above, the financial and time commitment by museum management behind the scenes is huge. The many hours required to maintain collections and exhibits, develop educational programmes, design and curate exhibitions, streamline security, IT and the Front of House interface, maintain social media presence and continue with the digitisation of collections, train paid and volunteer staff and build membership and audience numbers can often be underestimated because this work isn’t “seen” by the public or “understood” by government funding bodies.

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Destination Sydney at S H Ervin Gallery, Observatory Hill

It’s good to see some of the smaller Sydney museums pulling together to create an exhibition such as the recent  Destination Sydney at Mosman, Manly and the S H Ervin Galleries. They used one curator to create an exhibition which could stand alone in each space, but combined showed 9 iconic Sydney artists drawn from major private and public collections. According to a report by Museums and Galleries of NSW the exhibition drew a much larger audience for all three galleries and greatly increased retail sales. Another report on the UK Museums and Heritage website talks about the collaborative work being done by museums in Bath to gain a greater market share of visitors to the region which has a number of heritage attractions competing for local and tourist numbers. Jointly the museums have worked to develop audiences, engage community and be more strategic in their marketing and publicity in order to create a more sustainable and resilient museum sector.

It’s hard to predict the future for museums, but constant introspection and learning from the experience of others goes a long way to ensuring that visitors will keep coming through the doors.