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Museums in the age of Lego

To engage or not to engage…..

If you can find a person who doesn’t have a smirk on their face at whilst building something out of Lego, chances are that person doesn’t have a face. It is the king of toys, and has provided generations with their first glimpses of science, art and architecture. So as a museum attraction it has to be obviously a “no brainer” . Perhaps, but also perhaps not. Increasingly used  by museums as a way to engage broader audiences and increase their relevance factor amongst “the kids” it is a highly seductive tool. It’s a known commodity amongst parents in a way that perhaps “steam engine” or “mineral collection” no longer is. A guarantee that travelling 45 minutes by train and forking out a fortune for lunch at a buffet meant for unsuspecting tourists is a worthwhile event.

For museums too, it is a way to provide an accountable revenue stream against varying audience flows of Probus and foreign language groups. So everything is great on that front as well. But for me a museum fan, it is a worrying sign that many institutions have given up on their mission statements and collections. For a start it screams apology “sorry folks we are really boring, but look we have Lego “. Secondly it is a lazy curatorial tool. Why make your current content engaging when every six months you can have a Lego exhibit and tie it loosley to your theme.

A key selling point of these exhibitions is the influx of new audiences into institutions. But what is the point, if adjacent exhibits don’t meet the entertainment demands for these audiences. Essentially what the institution is doing is creating a seasonal interest that may or may not carry forward into the future. There is little in the way to educate fresh museum audiences about the museum environment. Instead, counter intuitively audiences transfer external expectations onto a museum that it is no different from a children’s creche.

As a museum our core role is to educate. It doesn’t have to be strict or formal, but we owe it to the public  to regard the arts as special. Heaven help a staff member if they try and ask a parent to politely refrain from using that Nubian sculpture as a piece of kiddie gym equipment. My love of  museums stemmed from my early family experiences, interaction with parents and friends within the context of the exhibits. I wasn’t left to my own devices as my father used the experience to check his mobile phone every five minutes. It’s not that museums cannot be enjoyed, but the exact opposite. Museums are multifaceted and should be for everyone. A visit to a museum these days as single person is to confront screaming masses of parentless kids , who believe that because they bought the family pass it’s open season on everything.

Lego  is a great way to engage young imaginations. But like everything, how it is used within the concept of a museum will influence how an institution is perceived  by the public.Great, “build it and they will come….and perhaps look at our other things too”. Not necessarily.With most museum visits lasting an hour or so, there is precious little time to actually explore the place that provided the Lego. So people walk into the museum, see the Lego and walk back out again. If you quizzed many of the guests leaving about these particular institutions mission or history you will largely draw a blank. The world is sadly full of museums who thought that they were being engaging but actually sold their own collections short. If anything perhaps more curators and administrators should play with Lego to develop their own creativity, and develop fresh ways for institution collections to exist outside the box.

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