Tag Archives: nina simon

Sustainability & Resilience & Futurists

This week’s readings reminded me of our review of Nina Simon’s job application, and the choice to relegate “sustainability” of community engagement efforts as least important. At the time, I chose to do so out of clarity – shouldn’t sustainability be addressed in the bridging and engaging activities, and so this would be an afterthought?

Reading through the chapters of Janes’s Museums in a Troubled World, I found the increasing references to sustainability and resilience to be along this same theme. However,  Janes sees these issues of sustainability for the museum as overarching themes rather than project-based ones. Make the changes on the inside – in the hiring processes, in reports and assessments, in thought leadership – and it will find its way into the larger work of the individual museum.

I found myself most interested in the MA’s draft of sustainability principles, of which Janes includes five:

  • Manage collections well, so that they will be a valued asset for future generations, not a burden.
  • Make the best use of energy and other natural resources and minimize waste, setting targets and monitoring progress towards them.
  • Contribute responsibly to the social, cultural and economic vitality of the local area and wider world.
  • Resppond to changing political, social, environmental and economic contexts and have a clear long-term purpose that reflects society’s expectations of museums.
  • Join with other museums, and other organisations, in partnerships and mergers, where it is the best way of meeting their purpose in the long term.

Thinking of these principles in the context of resilience, it’s asking a lot. I certainly think museums should hold themselves to these standards – to place their mission and work in context with broader society. But it also changes the game in some way. There are greater issues at hand than just a museum being resilient – both Janes and the MA ask for the museum to fundamentally shift their role from knowledge production to knowledge sharing. These are the museums for public humans – people interested in the visitor-centric models, responding to changing contexts, and building partnerships with a community.

Tying this sustainability checklist and James’s idea of resilience, I’m also reminded of Nicole Ivy‘s work at the Center for Future of Museums. As a Futurist, Ivy works to identify the issues museums will have to wrestle with in the coming years. Where does the United States stand on these issues now? Where will be in the future? How can museums of all types – art, history, science, culture, etc. – contribute to a world embraced by (or devoid of) this trend?

I kinda see public humans (and public humanities as a field) taking on this role of futurists in museum/cultural organization culture. For us, engagement and bridging tend to come first – traditional museum work, like collections, seems to come second. We’re much more interested how the museum engages with larger trends and social issues (or perhaps how they don’t) and how the institution can right its previous wrongs. And finally, I think we’re more interested in building historians – as mentioned in Letting Go? – than taking on the traditional role of historians ourselves.

HHMs, Duke Farms, and Relevance

Vagnone’s “Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums” might not be as revolutionary as the title (as many of us have noted), but it is still practical, much needed advice. As Amelia noted, many historic house museums are behind the curve of accessibility and relating to visitors, so a more middle-of-the-road approach to programming and visitor relations might work best.

Sometimes, though, museums take a more drastic, new approach to programming. Reading Vagnone and Simon, I was reminded of the historic house museum – Duke Farms – that demolished its historic home. Well, the property was really preserved for the landscape and because it was owned by the tobacco money heiress Doris Duke, but it also included a 1893 historic structure that was torn down just last year. Doris Duke created foundations for her other homes based on their architecture, but Duke Farms’ was meant to preserve the farm and property. Over time, the mission evolved to “inspire visitors to become informed stewards of the land” and inspire “people to transform their approach to conservation” (About Duke Farms 1).

The historic home was never designed as an architectural beauty – it was only meant as a temporary home while the family waited for a nicer house to be be built (which never was). Demolishing the house created controversy in the New Jersey community, but also perfectly followed Simon’s advice on relevancy. The home did not hold any particular historic value, and demolishing it allowed Duke Farms to further realize its mission of protecting the landscape and providing recreation space for visitors.

Image Source:  http://www.nj.com/somerset/index.ssf/2016/03/demolition_of_doris_duke_mansion_has_begun.html 

What about the Insiders?

While Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance presented compelling and important arguments, I was left thinking that the solutions she advanced did not address the complexity and nuance of different types of museum visitors.  In her dichotomy between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’, Simon differentiates between museum visitors who are regulars– the ‘insiders’–and those who need to be given the ‘key of relevance’ before even thinking of visiting the museum–the ‘outsiders’.  In addressing the issue of relevance, Simon offers suggestions for motivating ‘outsiders’ to visit and become invested in what the museum has to offer. She writes, “to be relevant you need to cultivate open-hearted insiders, who are pleased to let new people in even if it requires a little change” on the terms of the ‘outsiders’ (65). While this sounds nice in an ideal world, practically the museum needs to make sure it is relevant to all its patrons: ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’.  ‘Insiders’ are probably not going to have the open-hearts that Simon suggests cultivating, as they too see themselves as customers who expect to receive the services they seek. Furthermore, while Simon focuses on ways to expand the museum-visitor population beyond the small and homogenous ‘insiders’ group, she does not recognize the dependency that museums may have on their ‘insiders’.  Those ‘insiders’ may be donors, key supporters and/or steady, regular visitors of the museum, whom the institution cannot afford to alienate. In this sense the museum must remain relevant to its ‘insiders’, while expanding its relevance to ‘outsiders’.

The non-profit I worked for last year made this very mistake. Although not a museum, the organization–unintentionally–followed Simon’s advice and attempted to make its mission more relevant to the younger generation, so to expand its membership. However, in employing this very tactic the non-profit alienated its older and committed population who felt they were being neglected. As most donations came from this older, more established membership, the organization suffered financial losses and had to reconsider its future activities. While I completely agree with Simon’s emphasis on the need for museums to reach out to their local communities and become relevant to a more diverse population, I feel that her quick and overly optimistic assumption that ‘insiders’ would adapt and be on-board does not reflect the complexity and difficulties involved.

tl;dr: Vagnone is right, but is this visionary?

Like Rica, I am both excited and skeptical of Vangone’s approach to the historic house museum. Vagnone, like Simon, shows investment in community, creativity and culture for the field. But, as Rica discusses, none of this seems particularly anarchist/revolutionary? Sure, Vagnone may be the first to compile it into a text, but much of this language has been part of what I consider public humanities literature and discussion of at least the last 5-10 years. I feel bombarded with “museum visionaries” like Simon and Vagnone to the point that this is my norm and my expectation for museums. The person that needs to be convinced is no longer me – in fact, it probably never was me, because this is the standard for thought leadership in the field at the moment.  I’m interacting with the “right” people – the people interested in change and ~revitalization~ – and so I’d be more curious to hear from classmates who’ve been on the inside about just how difficult these kind of changes are once inside the museum. Is Vagnone directing his work at the wrong person? Or am I just too optimistic about how change works?

I’d also like to point out that Vagnone takes a page from Mark Schlemmer’s playbook with #ITweetMuseums. But one should note that #ITweetMuseums started as a way for cultural workers to tweet about museums – an independent initiative, separate from the organizations themselves, and also not directly for these new audiences that Vagnone talks about for HHMs. Why is that? Well, these suggestions requires a lot of investment on the part of the community to be interested in your museum! Citizen Advisory Groups, young volunteers, N.U.D.E. tour guides, new paradigms of thinking – these are great partnerships for the museums, but I’m not sure if visitors/communities understand the benefits they would be getting from this conversation. And they’re the ones who, at the end of the day, need to be convinced as well!

I’m also interested in how Falk can play into conversations with Vagnone and Simon. Both seem more focused on getting people in the door with dynamic presentation, but not necessarily getting into the intricacies of those visitors’ needs and desires once inside. Which shifts into my next point…

Continue reading tl;dr: Vagnone is right, but is this visionary?