Museums as Collaborative Spaces

Samuel Bernier-Cormier – November 29, 2019

The museum as an institution of knowledge is an idea that dates back to the 18th century, with the British Museum opening its doors in 1759 and the Louvre in 1793. While it has undergone many transformations since, the core concept of the museum as a place where history is preserved has not changed. However, decisions around the content of said history and the way it is presented to the public is in need of constant reconsideration. Some museums have been attempting to pluralize the history they present so they might better represent the public they serve, some more successfully than others. More and more, this process typically involves community-based work and audience-centred programming with new technologies being incorporated into engagement efforts as they are developed. This shift in mentality requires new methods to be adopted, whether in exhibitions and education programming or acquisitions and collections management; this involves shaking things up with cross-disciplinary initiatives that bring unexpected events to the museum space. The participatory nature of some recent museum practices is particularly relevant to the very idea of Culture Days, and is manifested through some of the programs organized in museums during the Culture Days weekend over the years.

Allegory of Sight, Jan Brughel II, oil on copper, c. 1660.
Allegory of Sight, Jan Brughel II, oil on copper, c. 1660.

The museum was born out of cabinets of curiosities. First documented in late 16th century Europe, these were rooms in which the wealthy put their collections of artifacts on display. It is no surprise, then, that for a very long time (and some may argue still), museums presented the perspective of a select echelon of society back to that very same group of people. Over time, this created a dynamic where the museum as an institution dictates what parts of our culture and history are most important and deserve to be venerated and preserved.

Diversifying audiences has been a large part of recent discussions regarding the accessibility of arts and culture. As a result, some museums are trying to make their collections more accessible to a larger portion of the community. This has affected programming strategies and led museums to put together exhibitions with a new kind of popular appeal: increasingly designed to address aspects of culture not historically associated with the museum, like film and music. Exhibitions like You Say You Want a Revolution — organized by the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) and presented at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2017— bring together art, design, film, music and fashion in one space. The V&A’s exhibiton programming constantly bridges the gap between several aspects of culture.

Installation image, You Say You Want a Revolution, 10 September 2016 – 26 February 2017. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum.
Installation image, You Say You Want a Revolution, 10 September 2016 – 26 February 2017. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum.

Not only are there new kinds of exhibition content, but methods have also evolved to incorporate technology and create interactive experiences for the audience. While this kind of interactivity has been prominent in places like science museums, and children-oriented spaces, new technologies have prompted other institutions to try out these kinds of hands-on approaches. ReBlink, a project at the Art Gallery of Ontario, let visitors experience modernized versions of works through an augmented reality app. Projects like ReBlink are used to make the museum more exciting and step away from the idea that navigating an exhibition should be a static experience. During the 2019 Culture Days weekend, the New Media Gallery at the Anvil Centre in Westminster, BC, organized a meet-up to discuss this kind of innovative ‘arts & tech’ programming.

Original artwork: Frans Hals, Vincent Laurensz. Van der Vinne, c. 1655. Digital art: Alex Mayhew. Photo: Art Gallery of Ontario.
Original artwork: Frans Hals, Vincent Laurensz. Van der Vinne, c. 1655. Digital art: Alex Mayhew. Photo: Art Gallery of Ontario.

Not only have there been changes to the ways museums present their collections, the contents of the collections themselves are changing too. Museums tend to concentrate on a particular topic, whether natural history, fine arts, archeology or any other aspect of culture. Collections are often limited by the boundaries of these areas of study. However, broadening these boundaries and diversifying the content of museum collections has allowed new perspectives to flourish in the sector. We can see many art museums including craft objects and amateur or press photography in their acquisition efforts, for example, which come to fill some holes in the “history of art” presented by these institutions. Similarly, places like the Royal Ontario Museum are collecting contemporary art to compliment the more “historical” parts of their collections.

The museum’s own programming is not the only place where we can see an effort to engage community, rather, members of the community are being invited to bring their programming and local culture into the museum space as well. In this way, larger institutions may have learned a thing or two from public libraries and local museums, which have acted as community hubs for a long time. This encourages a wide range of activities to take place within the same space, and allows different perspectives to interact and foster collaboration. For Culture Days 2019, The Rooms in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the province’s largest cultural centre, organized a series of skateboarding events, demonstrations and open skates. This happened in tandem with the opening of the exhibition Border X, curated by Jamie Isaac and organized by the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which presents the work of Indigenous artists who surf, skate, and snowboard. Not your typical museum program, but relevant to the wider community.

Museums always play a large role during the Culture Days weekend, hosting hundreds of events across the country. Some of these events let the public get a glimpse of spaces not usually accessible, like the Brockville Museum’s behind-the-scenes tour, which brings people into its vault. This kind of transparency can also help break down the walls of the institution, re-shape the role of the space, and create a new dynamic where the community feels more connected to their local museum. It seems that this idea of connectedness is a main motivation for museums today, which can help build a stronger sense of community, expand and diversify audiences and create more productive spaces for knowledge to not only be preserved but challenged and developed in new and unexpected ways.

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