#flmuseums 6: museums and me

The final week explored “the museum’s two biggest assets: objects and people”. Some useful stuff on the former, not a lot on the latter.

Objects can evoke memory, particularly when our senses are involved. What can they mean when we encounter them in a museum, or in everyday life? We might start to think about museums as having a biography: a life story.

Things to think about when considering an object:

  • intention and context of the maker(s) of the object
  • processes by which the object was made
  • ways in which the object is seen by different subjects
  • processes of distributing the object
  • ways in which the object is consumed
  • ways in which the object is used
  • whether or not – and how – the object is kept
  • ways in which the object is discarded/recycled

If we can find out enough information about an object, we can piece together a biography for it. The meanings and values ascribed to an object tend to change as its contexts change, resulting in a rich, multi-layered set of complementary and conflicting meanings. It can also tell us much that goes beyond the object, as well as being about and illustrative of the object itself.

Objects form a link to past events, people and ideas. We live by and through objects. We use them to shape our social lives, our characters and and our identities. Consider the clothes you are wearing…Our relationship with objects is, in part, socially and historically determined. Consider a basic chair…

You knew it was coming:

Pick an object that you think says something about you. It could be anything – an item of clothing, something from about the house or garden, a treasured souvenir, something that reminds you of a person or a place or a special time, perhaps.

Take some time to look at the object. Hold it, feel it, smell it, you might even be able to taste it or listen to it. Think about what that objects says about you. How does it fit into your life? How did you acquire it? What experiences have you shared with that object? Why is it important to you?

Would it be easy for someone else to work out how that object represents you? Would it be easier for someone to tell something about you if you selected a group of objects?

A nice exercise, but maybe in need of interpretation for others’ contributions to be of interest.

Spend some time exploring the collections of National Museums Liverpool online. Look at a few objects in more detail and consider the following questions:

  • How are they interpreted?
  • To what extent do the object’s biographies come to the fore?
  • Whose meanings are being represented here? Whose are absent?
  • What meanings do they have for you personally?
  • How do you respond emotionally to some of the objects you see?
  • How might you experience these objects differently if you were to encounter them in real life, rather than digitally?
  • What is lost/gained through the digitisation of these objects and collections?
  • Might technology continue to change the possibilities for exploring and interpreting museum objects and collections in radical ways?

Musuems and digital:

  • mid 1960s: computers first came to the museum
  • 1970s:computers used for automation of manual record systems
  • 1980s: computerisation of collections and of images
  • 1990s: big web revolution
  • 2000s:  mobile and social media revolutions
  • 2010s: postdigital? embedded, an innate function of the museum

Think critically as you visit museums:

Visit a few museums – perhaps museums of different sizes and types – and look at them through fresh eyes. You might like to think about the work the museum is doing – can you see any evidence that they are engaging with social justice and human rights, or health and wellbeing, for example? Are they trying to be dispassionate, or actively seeking emotional responses? How diverse are their visitors and how inclusive are their displays?

And that was it…

Told to be inclusive, not elitist, in order to justify their funding, modern museums have sometimes swung too far the other way…A successful museum isn’t about dumbing down, it’s about sharing expertise.

Quotes above from What are modern museums really for? in The Spectator, oh dear…The MOOC offered an insight into some strands of current thinking, as reflected in the three questions above, but not over-useful for my context. In the comments someone came up with Tangible Things, an edX course in August, which looks worth a whirl. See also Mysteries of the mind, tracking the development of an exhibition by students on the MA in Museum Studies at UCL.

As so often, the instructors were largely absent from the discussions.

In the Danish context, Nordea Fonden has come up with DK 20 million for a consortium of 13 museums and five universities to undertake a project exploring user involvement. Starts May 2016 and runs for four and a half years.

My interest is in taking ‘curation’ further, towards interpretation/formidling (cf public engagement) IRL. @LeicsMusStud offers an MA in heritage and interpretation – the course brochure is worth a look. UHI in Perth offers an MSc in Interpretation, and there are similar courses på dansk, not least RUC’s Turistføreruddannelse. There’s natur- og kulturformidling at Metropol and at UCN i Hjørring, and both KU’s Institut for Kunst- og Kulturvidenskab and Det Informationsvidenskabelige Akademi offer kulturformidling, which in the case of the latter brings us back to the curation angle.

For what this is about in practice see the Libro small business chat with Katherine Findlay, who did the Leics course and now helps “organisations to connect with their visitors through stories”. More: the Association for Heritage Interpretation | Interpret Europe and InHeritTellTale, and Scottish Natural Heritage on interpretation. Yikes!

Update: from Interpretation is dead. Long live interpretation!: “Interpretation happens inside the minds of the visitor, and all that is – or isn’t – in the space contributes to the active meaning-making going on inside any individual mind…Our job is to understand and enable this meaning-making…This could involve selecting what meanings we think should be made – that’s fine but we need to consciously own (document and publish) that we are doing so.” Hear hear!

#flmuseums 3-5: the activist museum

Whistle stop tour through weeks 3 (emotions), 4 (social justice and human rights) and 5 (health and wellbeing), all of which had an exclusive, if not narrow, focus on the idea of the activist (or proselytising) museum that “takes up and tries to build support for a particular moral standpoint or engages visitors in debates about contested issues”. Increasingly felt like a foundation course with museums tacked on, cultural heritage as a means to an end. I don’t have a problem with any of this, it’s just not what I came for, and there’s a distinct lack of balance, which is reflected in the comments.

Museums and our emotions

The 21st century museum is “all about us”, seeking to engage and connect with its audience. Hence it is inevitable that people respond emotionally to the spaces, objects, exhibitions and stories they contain. It is important to remember that your response will not be the same as another person’s – “we all connect with objects and stories differently”.

  • How should we design with emotion in mind? What should we take into account?
  • Should museums be seeking to purposefully elicit emotional responses from visitors? If so, what sort of emotions should we be seeking to elicit, and how far should we go?
  • And what, if any, is our duty of care to our visitors if we know that the stories we tell are likely to generate emotional responses?

Visitor responses to powerful works can be encouraged by offering opportunities to provide feedback, through comments cards, visitor books, #some or even via sticky notes, which can be added to a comments board. “You can gain some very emotional and personal information by giving people a space to react and express their emotions” – it can even become part of the exhibition.


museums and cognitive dissonance: “what happens in museums when we see something and experience something that we don’t expect, that doesn’t fit in with our view of the world, we feel an emotion that overcomes our sense of aesthetic detachment”

Do you think a museum should actively seek to elicit emotional responses from visitors, or should they seek to be dispassionate about the subjects they display? Is it even possible for a museum to be dispassionate?

David Fleming (Director of National Museums Liverpool) on the emotional museum:

The fundamental issue about museums – their role in society: why we have them, why we fund them, and how we run them. We need to consider what we, the people who run museums, think we are here to do. Museums have to connect with and impact upon the public. If we do not do that, there is not much point in having the museum in the first place.

But…the challenges that a museum faces in displaying difficult objects and telling emotional stories. These difficult stories are sometimes those that most need to be told, but how should the museum deal with material that clearly has the potential to cause emotional distress? Museums have a role to play in telling difficult stories and highlighting both historic and contemporary issues – can they be dispassionate?

  • At the very start of this week, what point did we make about the meaning of museum objects? – Objects have many meanings. Different people will find a multiplicity of meanings in a single object.
  • Why should museums consider emotions when creating exhibitions and displays? – Because our emotions kick in a split second before we start thinking and this affects how we intellectually perceive something. What are some of the implications of this for those creating exhibitions and interpreting objects?
  • Why should emotions be at the heart of museums? – Museums should seek to connect with and impact upon the public.

“If shock leaves us feeling numb, then maybe there’s a problem. If it inspires us to action and to change things for the better, then maybe there isn’t.

If people actually are inspired to feel rage and anger at injustice and go and do something about it, that in that case shows that rage and anger can be very positive emotions when they’re turned to doing something to make things better.

Museums, social justice and human rights

Museums are powerful places and are well positioned to deal with a number of difficult issues, looking at the present and future as well as back to the past. One of the most significant arenas in which the museum has a role to play is in the fight for social justice and human rights, supporting positive change in society. In 2014 the UK’s Museums Association launched Museums Change Lives, a new vision for the social impact of museums, and recent years have seen the emergence of an activist museum practise that seeks to use the resources of the museum to contribute purposefully and actively towards a more fair and just society. Note however that this idea is by no means universally accepted – debates around the social roles, responsibilities and value of museums remains subject to debate.

A number of organisations have been set up with a specific remit to shine a spotlight on specific issues, but museums of all kinds are inherently political, and the decisions that they make regarding whose stories are told and whose interests are represented in the museum – or overlooked – can have implications that spread beyond the walls of the museum.

This poses a series of difficult questions for practitioners:

  • Why are some human rights issues taken up by museums whilst others are neglected?
  • What dangers and pitfalls might there be in supporting a particular viewpoint or cause?
  • What are the challenges involved in engaging audiences in debate about some of the most difficult issues we face in contemporary society?

Case studies on racism and hate crime, migration and immigration, transphobia and homophobia, and disability representation. International networks are developing for museums that engage with these issues – see the Social Justice Alliance for Museums and the Federation of International Human Rights Museums.

Bet these comments don’t make it to the end of week vid:

I didn’t change my mind over the week, in fact it confirmed my view that museums should research exhibitions as thoroughly as possible, make them as balanced as possible and should not indulge in social engineering.

I feel slightly patronised. Like I’d never considered any of these issues….? It’s OK to say we need to, but this week didn’t half lay the message on a bit thicker than was necessary.

Museums’ contribution to health and wellbeing

Health and wellbeing is more than the physical functioning of our bodies and how that can be affected by illness, disease, infirmity or old age. The holistic view of health and wellbeing realises that health and wellbeing are affected by our feelings, personal characteristics (eg age, gender), social and community relationships and networks, living and working contexts, and the wider socio-economic, cultural and environmental context in which we live.

Wellbeing is made up of two elements, feeling good and functioning well. Characteristics of feeling good include feelings of happiness, contentment, enjoyment, curiosity and engagement with the world, whilst functioning well is associated with the experience of positive relationships, having control over your life and a sense of purpose. Health and wellbeing is increasingly being seen as a societal issue that is linked to multiple and complex factors such as lifestyle, social and community networks, culture and the environment. Governments and the United Nations are also looking to wellbeing or happiness as an explicit policy goal, to replace economic value or material prosperity as an indicator of national wealth and success.

Museums can play a role in the health and wellbeing of their communities. This work needs to be rooted in community need, in museum collections and in finding the right partnerships. Cultural experiences and creative activity both have a positive impact on health and wellbeing.

The New Economics Foundation’s Five ways to wellbeing consists of five actions – connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give – all connected to the idea of wellbeing as ‘feeling good and functioning well’. Each action contributes to wellbeing in a positive way, making people feel good and boosting their mental capital, for example their resilience (ability to adapt to change), self-esteem and emotional intelligence.

Case studies from a smoking cessation project, an exhibition seeking to explore and destigmatise HIV and a project that enables carers to use museum collections to support people living with dementia.

For measuring impact see UCL’s Museum Wellbeing Measures, aka the infamous umbrella. It wasn’t what the people wanted…

Onward to the final week, plus a haul of accumulated links to work through.

#flmuseums 2: engaging people with museums

Onward…week 2 looks at engaging people with museums: “how museums can consider who does and does not visit the museum and how it is possible to engage with diverse audiences”. Only 13 steps, that’s a relief. Step 1 explores who does or doesn’t visit museums, bringing up questions around what, and who, museums are for, who is currently excluded from them and why. Communities may be excluded through lack of representation in collections and lack of opportunities for cultural participation…the case study looks at how Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery has sought to grow family audiences and engage the young with art.

Who visits museums? Issues highlighted from the DCMS stats (note: digital engagement does not appear to be included here):

  • over three in five adults (60.8%) in the upper socio-economic group visited a museum or gallery in the last year, a significantly higher proportion that the lower socio-economic group (38.6%)
  • 42.3% of ‘black and minority ethnic’ respondents had visited a museum, a difference of over 10 % when compared to ‘white’ respondents, of whom 53.1% had visited

A 1998 (!) survey found that the image of museums among ethnic groups (the image was of old buildings, a quiet and reverential atmosphere and a place for intellectuals or ‘posh people’) formed a major barrier to access.

Barriers to access Issues and solutions
Physical Is our museum building physically accessible? Is it open at times which suit different audiences? – Installation of ramps, handrails and seats.
Sensory Can our exhibitions, events, and facilities be used by people with hearing or sight impairments? – Objects which can be touched. Varied means of interpretation, such as taped guides, subtitled audiovisual programmes.
Intellectual Do our displays exclude people with limited prior knowledge of the collections or artists on show? Can people with learning disabilities access our services? – Consult and involve new audiences in the production of exhibitions. Evaluate levels of understanding amongst a range of audiences when developing exhibitions.
Financial Does our admission fee deter people on low incomes? Do our shop and café sell items that families can afford? – Offer free admission on certain days and publicise it widely. Take the museum into the community. Provide free transport. Admit schools and community groups free of charge.
Emotional or attitudinal Is our museum environment welcoming to new visitors? Do our staff have open attitudes to diversity? Is the style of our publicity inclusive or exclusive? – Staff training. Special events and ­activities to build confidence among new audiences.
Lack of involvement in decision making Does our museum consult potential new audiences and value the input of external stakeholders? – Develop projects in partnership with audiences. Establish a consultative panel.
Lack of access to information Does our publicity effectively reach and communicate with new audiences? – Develop new and accessible marketing networks and methods to information of communication. Publicity and orientation in large print/tape/ Braille/different languages, etc.
Cultural Do our collections, displays and events reflect the interests and life experiences of our target audience? – Proactive collecting, special exhibitions and events, redisplays with appropriate interpretation.
Technological Does our use of new media facilitate rather than hinder access for our audiences? Do we exploit new advances in technology to enable access? – Use of assistive technologies.

Are there any problems with listing the ‘barriers to access’ and their potential solutions in this way? Is it useful to segment the population in this way? Many frameworks can be used to understand why people do not engage with museums. Research from Leicester’s School of Museum Studies in 2002 explored other models for understanding what barriers there are, including lack of motivation. What motivates people to visit a museum? Even when barriers to access are identified and dismantled, people may still choose not to attend – some individuals do not believe museums will meet their specific needs.

The Walker Art Gallery

The Walker has had a turbulent relationship with its audiences since it was opened in 1877. When the gallery reopened after WW2 it focused on a local audience, believing that access to art was important to the people of Liverpool in the difficult post-war era. However, as the years passed, the Walker focused more and more on its success in engaging with national art galleries and organisations rather than focusing on Liverpool audiences. How might this affect people’s perception of the Walker today? And, shall we watch the vid?


the addition of time management tips is a good idea – another advises that 15 mins per discussion task will help keep to the estimated 2 hours

Up until about 2006 the Walker Art Gallery in was seen as a rather traditional art gallery with a typical audience of older visitors, tourists and well informed art enthusiasts. Over recent years a targeted programme of audience development initiatives and improvements to the gallery has gradually reversed this image, and the Walker Art Gallery is now a vibrant family friendly venue. Not only do more people visit the gallery, but audiences have also grown more diverse and more and more visitors engage with the gallery in many different ways.

What’s wrong with ‘just’ being a museum? I still need a better way into the discussions, it’s way too much and feels to random as a stream, but there seemed to be a certain amount re passing fads and fashions, babies and bathwater, what ‘culture’, high or otherwise, is about….

  • How might museums and galleries respond to this debate?
  • Is it possible to meet everyone’s demands and needs?
  • What strategies might be used to achieve a balance between the needs of different audiences? What ethical issues might such strategies pose?

Should all museums be family friendly? See the Kids in Museums Manifesto. For some, all these activities, dressing up, cartoons etc can be offputting rather than engaging.

Actually, children and families are well catered for at most museums, and indeed many museums seem to think they’re the only audience that matters, which doesn’t help the fact that a significant proportion of the public thinks that museums are _only_ for children. So, how to reach more older people? How to attract those who feel museums aren’t for them because they’re “not middle class”? How to reach ethnic minorities, who may see museums, especially ones like the British Museum, as bastions of Empire? What about people who are put off by civic pomp, which most museums are more than happy to engage with, despite any social history credentials they may have?

Think of a museum, gallery, or heritage site that you have visited. How would you approach making it more engaging and accessible to a wider audience? Why does it have to? If you can’t be all things to all men…Can’t a museum have a target group? For example, I’m not interested in our local circus museum – although there is something in the old adage that everything is interesting if you get into it enough.

The answer may be in the trend we looked at last week, ie address niche segments digitally – this is largely how I interact with Forstadsmuseet, which is targeted at local residents. Otherwise museums may be in danger of losing sight of their key mission.


#flmuseums 1: building a 21st century museum

Back to FutureLearn with Behind the scenes at the 21st century museum from Leicester’s School of Museum Studies (@LeicsMusStud) and National Museums Liverpool, six weeks at two hours per week, it says here (with 20 steps in week 1 this feels unlikely). 9000 10K+ signed up.

How can we understand museums today? Who makes the decisions about what to put in them and whose stories they tell? Who are museums for and why are they working to engage new audiences? How do we respond emotionally to museum objects and spaces? And how can museums play a role in the pursuit of social justice, human rights, or health and wellbeing?

Week 1 explored what we mean by the term ‘museum’ in the 21st century and how this may differ from notions of a ‘traditional’ museum.  In museums and galleries we learn about the past not by reading a book or watching a film, but by moving through the museum and engaging with objects and collections, and stories.

Defining the term ‘museum’:

  • UK’s Museums Association (1998): Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.
  • UK’s Museum Association (1984): A museum is an institution which collects, documents, preserves, exhibits and interprets material evidence and associated information for the public benefit.
  • Oxford English Dictionary (2012): A building in which objects of interest or importance are stored and displayed.
  • International Council of Museums (ICOM), (2007): A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environments for purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

Thinking about the range of objects, stories, ideas and cultural practices that museums across the globe preserve and interpret, what do these definitions include/exclude? What is prioritised, and what is marginalised? Does it focus on the museums’ many forms (physical, online?) or its functions (collect, interpret, etc)? Does it prioritise particular values? Whose values might they be?

The Museum of Liverpool

Museums as a mirror, celebrating past successes and reminding of past failures, but also of place. Liverpool as place is a nice big one to look at, a counterpoint to other local/city museums. I’ve been to the National Maritime Museum in Albert Dock (and the Beatles Experience), but now we have a rather trendy looking Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011 on the waterfront:

The Museum of Liverpool is far from many people’s notion of a traditional museum. It is a lively, modern space that is enjoyed by a range of people and delivers services both within and outside of the museum’s walls.

The Museum of Liverpool sees itself as more than just a building, but a space that is connected to the city in social, physical, and metaphorical ways. It replaced the Museum of Liverpool Life, which opened in 1993 (I may have been there…). With over 300,000 visitors a year, the popularity of the original museum prompted the development of a new, purpose-built venue. (The tone of the vid – something for everybody (lowest common denominator?) – makes me think there’s nothing for me? It’s all on a plate, you don’t make your own choices. An experience, made up of stories. Doesn’t inspire to learning or action.)

What factors are considered important when designing and building a museum in the 21st century?

  • architecture and design – on reclaimed land, an empty space between the Pier Head and the Albert Dock; now with a view over the Three Graces; first new public building to be built in the city for more than 40 years and the first significant development in the World Heritage Site; project from concept to opening took 10 years
  • designing narrative spaces – visitor routes around the different spaces,  design linked to the notions of history and narrative that the museum staff wanted to support;  what is gained and lost with a more open and flexible way of moving around the spaces, to what extent does the architecture shape visitors’ experiences of the objects and stories on display
  • the atrium – hosts performances, participates in city wide festivals, pop-up display for campaigns; also as an income generator via corporate events
  • the shop – “nicely tucked away”
  • visitors have a choice of galleries and can come across things rather than being taken through a chronological series in a linear route; “a little bit like being in a city”
  • in terms of narrative and storytelling a history museum should acknowledge the fact that there is no one story, no one history – there are many ways to look at things

David Zahle (BIG) in Curator Magazine: “Museums today are the living rooms of cities…a space were people can come together and interact socially.” Museums blur the line between architecture and art. They are no longer only about presenting objects behind glass, but increasingly they also function as social spaces, where people meet, spend time, enjoy a meal and engage in hands-on experiences together. There’s truly something for everyone. So consider yourself invited to the living rooms of Copenhagen and make yourself at home!

How have museums changed over time?

A trajectory over some 500 years from museums being imagined and experienced as buildings or venues to being understood fundamentally as something else: projects, services and processes.

In that 16th and 17th centuries cultures put objects in rooms, using architectural spaces to frame narratives and to frame collections. Later, other actors (friends societies, literature and philosophical societies, touring exhibitions, the late 20th century idea of outreach) saw the museum trying to burst out of its four walls and see itself as a project, a service, something that you could experience away from the venue.

The traditional shape of the museum is one where the curator is king, where the curator was able to collect, research and describe objects in the way that s/he thought fit from the perspective of their professional experience. The web challenged this. Instead of there being one singular authoritative voice it brought a choir of different voices, a cacophony of user-generated content, with different perspectives and different ways of seeing the world and interpreting the objects within the collection.

The web has allowed us to reach out to audiences that may not be able to attend the museum, and its visitors bring with them their whole social network, enabling the museum to follow the visitor out the door. So as the visitor continues through their lives, the museum can be something that can jump in with more information, extra content, a follow-up idea or story.

Flipping the model of museum visitation – for 500 years the standard model was of localisation, of visitors coming to the museum. Now the museum visits those visitors, wherever they might be, in transit, a flâneur through the city. Rather than immersing the visitor and enveloping them in this highly controlled choreographed experience, suddenly the museum has to think about joining the visitor in their everyday lives.

What makes a good museum?

Is Liverpool unique? Museums as tourist attractions or for the community? (Maybe working with the community is what makes it able to offer the sense of place for tourists.) As an entertainment venue/experience? Changing definitions of culture must also play a role here. Does it have to be a new building to do this?

Dipping into the discussions reactions seemed pretty mixed, even tending to the ‘traditional’. Many felt a need for more space and stillness than presented here, to move about, read, look…can’t be all things to all men.

There’s loads of interesting material here, which I may be able to return to – it’s not possible to do justice to it in two hours, let alone forge a furrow through the discussion forums. The overlap with curation/ism is of interest, as well as the role of the city/local/urban museum, although later weeks may address different sorts of museums.

It might have been an idea to separate the material into different tracks, as seen on #corpusmooc, so you don’t feel compelled to address everything – eg additional materials, material on community consultation, project management…