Tag Archives: museums

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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The medium is still worth three hundred words

You don’t get many rights as you get older. But with age comes great responsibility. It is the responsibility to tell some art aficionado’s that they are full of ….you know what I mean. It seems at times as though humanity is losing the emotional battle of artist versus medium, and trading it for the lesser more unconscious one of which artist has the biggest marketing tag line. Contemporary art is seemingly becoming less about a reaction to the contemporary world and more about artists saying “hey, look at me, I’ve discovered 3d printing”. Artists are not entirely at fault here, in a world now run by marketing departments it is tempting for  to jump to new media at the expense of the old. 3d printing sounds so much sexier in print than oil painting ,water colour or even sculpture. In an effort to encourage and educate the public to the joy of art through many avenues, promoting new mediums seems like  a good way to capture public attention.

I am a firm believer in art for the people. I am not arguing for a return to the renaissance or the banning of photography post 1992. Art needs to be accessible to inspire us all to be more creative. This can include the use of contemporary mediums. However, it seems that arts’ marketing is run more by marketers than art lovers. The focus on the trend level of a medium as opposed to its artistic merit. Doesn’t the artistic battle for the “new” in traditional mediums provide a valid promotional point for the public?  Yes, it does. But tradition is harder to sell to audiences. In an era in which nobody seems to have time for anything except for themselves, old mediums are time intense. They take time to create, consume and market. Meanwhile, the arts is increasingly becoming a numbers game.  But there is a method to my marketing madness. Art changes the world not only through its content but via the way it is constructed. Good art can be found in digital formats, but so can much of our everyday lives. It is the medium that challenges our mindset to focus beyond the distortion. Old mediums take us out of our comfortable interpretation zone .They are no longer the status quo, they relate better to mercury and velum than binary and hi definition. In doing so audiences are forced to actively converse with a work, rather than passively nod in acceptance.

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State of decay: The challenge of art preservation in the 21st century

A curator  of  prints  at a major American gallery once compared art preservation to  the Titanic sinking in that  “some people  get  in  the  life  boat,  some don’t”.  Whilst there is a more democratic approach to the preservation of artistic works in the 21st century than compared to even forty years ago, this change has brought the debate full circle. Where once intellectuals battled in backrooms over departmental funding for their latest acquisition, increasingly in a user pays/user dictates arts environment are we once again facing a similar predicament?

Since  the  1970’s  there  has  been  a  change  in  the  way  institutions  view  preservation.  At  this  time  museums were  debating  their  then  current role as “storehouses”  for  artefacts. Collections were considered  mainly  for  academic  purposes , the  public was allowed  access  to select  parts  of  collections  deemed  worthy  by  curators. Even in those halcyon days of museumship it was predicted that the era of museums being solely the domain of academics was at an end. This was to prove in some respects a good cultural move for many traditional museums. Cultural stewardship had in many instances a departmental bias developing an  ad hoc  approach to preservation.  Based  on  department head  interests  rather  than  an institutional   strategy , items  that  were not  covered  by  specific  disciplines  were frequently left  uncatalogued in  store  rooms. In the 1980’s Thatcher’s Britain did force cultural institutions to develop unified preservation and display policies. As visitor numbers dictated government funding, what institutions had in their dusty repositories became increasingly important as did their preservation.

It could be argued that the worldwide shift in power away from academics to public accessibility in the 1980’s was a good result for preservation; however, it is a double edged sword. The  choice  of  what  items  to  save  is  a  delicate  balancing  act.  Not all items worthy of preservation are palatable to all the public.  The  destruction  of  a  Banksy  in  Melbourne  in 2013  highlighted  the fragility of  the  preservation process. Viewed by some as graffiti, valued at potentially $50,000 by others and unintentionally destroyed by a builder. The third of a handful of rare works by Banksy to be destroyed in Australia, illustrates that even the public has the same difficulty in discerning what cultural property should be preserved. Perhaps the old guard were right to hold on to their departmental ideals. In those halcyon days of the 20th century they realised better than most, that not everything can be preserved and that what is saved has to be fought for.

The ongoing alignment of cultural institutions with commercial enterprise is an important fact of arts life. Preserving, maintaining and rejuvenating collections does not come without a price tag. The renowned institution of the BBC has begun utilising the economics of consumer demand to help conserve its collections. In 2012 they began the process of making available their entire archive available online via a “user pays” basis.  In  this  way  programs  that  are  not  deemed  economic  for a  wide scale  DVD  release  are  still  available  to  the  public.  This  is  in  sharp  contrast  to the BBC   of  the  1970’s  which  routinely ‘junked’  or  taped  over  programs  that it  deemed  of  no value. The bootlegs of these programs featuring the Beatles or Dr who are now in high demand from financially well-endowed private collectors. The public culture based in accessibility during the 1980’s and 90’s has moved up a gear. This is the era of the intergenerational user. A whole new stakeholder, whose rights are still yet to be defined, and yes they are very powerful. The rise of consumer awareness by cultural institutions has created a new form of preservation program, one dictated not by what academics feel illustrates the human condition, but by what the public wants to see. Despite the PR reassurance, the risk of prioritising the preservation of artefacts that keep the turnstiles moving rather than a holistic story is very real. Arts institutions need to be savvy in their thinking. There is nothing wrong in responding to public demand, but institutions still need to be able offer the element of surprise in their answer.




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