the big picture

Audience participation (or the lack thereof) in the museum world is not a new topic, popping up intermittently like a proverbial bad penny, only to be pushed aside without resolution.  Recently, some big-thinkers are pressing the issue again, inviting staffers and museum fans alike to contribute to the conversation.

What is Our Problem Anyway?

Nina Simon’s raison d’être is participatory culture and her recent Museum 2.0 post, “What Are the Most Important Problems in Our Field?” makes the museum geek in me squeal with delight.  The question suggests that museums take a proactive stance and reflect on the larger issues at hand.  This doesn’t seem like a revolutionary concept until you realize that programs, exhibitions, gallery rotations and the like are usually planned months or years in advance.  The clock is constantly ticking, deadlines rush over you like rogue waves and someone is constantly asking, “So what’s next?”  The luxury of reflection is something many museum staffers lack in abundance.

Ms. Simon, who serves as Executive Director of the Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center in Santa Cruz, writes that most practitioners in the field cite the hot-button topics of securing funding and addressing rapidly shifting demographics as the field’s most worrisome problems.  I agree with her assessment that such answers are self-indulgent, focused purely on survival instead of sustainability, but it is a conditioned response born of decades of forcibly defending your existence.   All that being said, how do museums address audience needs while maintaining the bottom line?

What Do We Do When They Finally Show Up?

Rob Stein, Deputy Director for Research, Technology and Engagement for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, addresses the issue of sustaining participation once it is achieved in “Please Chime In: The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture.”  In this post, Mr. Stein  suggests museums must make the ideological switch from being chiefly concerned with just keeping the lights on to being “an organization that significantly impacts its community for good.”

This post assembles keen insights from a variety of museum professionals regarding technology, audience engagement, funding expectations, collaboration, authoritative voice, object preservation, existing power structures and the dangers of blindly chasing the next big thing.  After reading, I had many more questions than answers, which is evidence of its thought-provoking nature:  Is there value in being participatory in name only? How are other cultural organizations handling these issues?  How can museums refine their internal processes to facilitate audience engagement? What voices are not being heard?

You can follow the 140-character discussion at #museumchallenges, with Museums & Motherhood helpfully aggregating the highlights.

How do you define participatory culture? Can museums achieve it?

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*cue trumpets*

Today is Museum Day! The annual initiative, sponsored by Smithsonian Magazine, allows participating museums to waive their admission fees for one day.  Granted, you have to present a ticket that is only good for two people per household, but that is a pretty painless requirement to see places like the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art, American Textile History Museum, Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and American Jazz Museum

Much has been said and written about the value of the arts, but access continues to be a stumbling block, particularly as admission fees continually rise.  While there is no shortage of fantastic museums that are always free, this is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate support without denting your wallet.

Check out Smithsonian Magazine’s must-see Museum Day list.

nonprofit nerd reads

While I’m extremely grateful for the free coffee and tea in the company break room, what really excites me is the new Read & Recycle Bookshop.  Yep, that’s right, FREE books, magazines and CDs available just steps away from my office! The idea–take what you want, leave what you can–really speaks to the book lover (and hunter) in me.  Every time I go in there, which is pretty often, I find something new.   This installment of nonprofit nerd reads highlights some of the books I’ve discovered in this miraculous place.

The Fourth Stage of Gainsborough Brown by Clarissa Watson.   Eccentric painter, gallery shenanigans, seemingly accidental death and an amateur sleuth armed with nothing but a sketch pad.  What’s not to love, right?




Winter in the Blood by James Welch focuses on a dysfunctional, destructive and inexplicably likeable young man stumbling through life as he struggles with identity, ethnicity and tragedy against the harsh backdrop of the Montana wilderness. 



The Ruins by Scott Smith.  This is my second reading of this novel, and it still gives me nightmares.  Set in Cancun, Mexico, four American tourists detour from their dream vacation to help a German tourist track down his missing brother, to disastrous results.  A disturbing tale of what can happen when you don’t stick to your vacation itinerary.


Have you stumbled across any literary finds lately?