22 Apr

Match the museum to the rhetoric

Maurice Davies

I attended my first MuseumNext conference in Geneva and it made me realise how much museums still need to change.

The conference was inspiring, even to an old cynic like me. It was forward-looking, optimistic, even idealistic. Speakers and delegates surveyed possible futures without fear, seeing endless opportunities to engage more people more deeply. It was a hugely refreshing counterbalance to recent backward-looking, almost fearful events in the UK, like Future Curator at the British Museum and Does the Museum Just Preserve the Museum? organised by Cambridge University Museums.

In part, of course, it was because many of the museums represented aren’t facing the terrifying level of cuts in public spending that we are in the UK. But it wasn’t only about money. MuseumNext revealed a hunger to change museums to make them better for their audiences. The key phrase was ‘disruptive change’. (For all that I liked its idealism, Bullshit Bingo is an easy game to play at MuseumNext.)

I had expected the conference to be dominated by designers and digital people, but it was much broader than that. There were many interpreters, youth programmers, exhibition makers, HR people, marketers, chief operating officers and directors, although rather few curators. Most of all, there were what could be called museum entrepreneurs, some from museums, some from private companies and some from charities and foundations, all of them bursting with ideas and schemes to keep making museums better, from MuseumHack’s lively ‘renegade’ group tours featuring gossip and games, to Stephen Feber’s bold but eccentric vision of museum as interactive Amazon warehouse.

For a brief few hours in the conference room, it was easy to imagine museums are already transformed. But stepping out into Geneva’s spring sunshine was a useful corrective. The city has two shiny new museums: the Ethnography Museum and the Museum of the Red Cross. At MuseumNext, both of their directors said all of the right things – about community, engagement, participation, contemporary relevance and so on. But the realities proved different.

The Ethnography Museum’s changes cost over £40m (This is wealthy Geneva, rich at other cities expense: a place that specialises in incubating money that should be paid in taxes elsewhere on the globe.) For their £40m+ the good citizens of Geneva and the world have got a smart, neatly installed and well lit subterranean gallery that is, well, a little dull. The museum has been at such pains to democratically de-exoticise the ‘other’ that it makes the strange seem pedestrian and ordinary, when surely a key purpose of ethnography is to render the familiar strange.

The new Museum of Ethnography in Geneva.  £40m+ and a bit dull

The new Museum of Ethnography in Geneva. £40m+ but a bit dull


And for a museum about people, it’s oddly depersonalised. It reports it undertook extensive consultation, but includes no voices other than those of the curators and a couple of carefully selected artists. The opening temporary exhibition on royal Mochica culture in part of what is now Peru, features gorgeous objects and spectacular settings, but the didactic interpretation is too worthy and lacks a sense of passion. The experience of visiting falls well short of the director’s ambition and the general ambition of MuseumNext participants.

I enjoyed the Red Cross Museum more. Also housed in a basement, it took the brave, some might say foolhardy, step of commissioning three separate architects to design its three main thematic galleries. Best is the one about the Red Cross’s work to reunite families; it taught me lots, moved me and gave me hope. That’s the best feature of the Red Cross Museum: in spite of addressing the most ghastly episodes of inhumanity, it gives a sense that people, individually and collectively, can move on positively from the most horrific experiences imaginable. I will remember the quiet dignity of the former Guantanamo detainee and the once displaced Rwandan schoolgirl, who says she is now a ‘happy’ grown woman, for a long time.

Some of the 6m record cards used to connect families with WWI prisoners of war.  A symbol of hope at the Red Cross Museum

Some of the 6m record cards used to connect families with WWI prisoners of war.
A symbol of hope at the Red Cross Museum

I also enjoyed the temporary exhibition on art and non-violent resistance, from Houston’s Menil collection. Again, it gave hope and a sense that exceptional individuals do make a difference.

Sadly, the gallery, by the respected Japanese architect Shigeru Ban on disaster preparedness, is a childish disappointment. And the museum’s greatest failure is to give a very low profile to current humanitarian disasters – an omission especially disappointing viewed through the lens of MuseumNext’s passion for connecting with people’s contemporary concerns.

In museums we clearly need some ‘disruptive’ change to move us on from, or to at least add to, our core centuries-old technique of displaying old objects in neat rows, often untouchable, behind glass. Above all, we need to connect our collections and displays with the world.

27 Mar

Textbooks v Tweets: Museums’ Cultural Challenge

Maurice Davies

Last week I heard a whole bunch of things that made me understand the cultural challenge facing museums. First, after finishing my stint teaching on the Oxford Cultural Leaders programme I stayed on to listen to Keith Ruddle of the Said Business School talk about what he calls ‘adaptive leadership’.

Adaptive leadership is needed in organisations and situations that are highly complex and unpredictable, perhaps because significant things (say, levels of public funding or climate change) are completely outside the organisation’s control. Every challenge is new and leaders inevitably won’t know the answers to problems. Rather, the job of the leader is to encourage and support the whole organisation to explore new ways of working so that the inevitable changes are constructive.

Most museums need adaptive leadership, but are perhaps more comfortable with its opposite: technical leadership, or the efficient direction of tried and tested processes. That’s fine if your aim is to produce relatively fixed, complete, repetitive things that don’t change very much or very often.

But the unchanging museum or exhibition, seen as complete on the day is opens, is increasingly outmoded, as I heard at an enjoyable talk by up and coming French museum designer Adrien Gardere. He is rapidly becoming the go-to guy for high profile museums. He’s done the Louvre at Lens, the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo (tragically blown up by terrorists) and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto (which I reviewed here). He’s working at the Met and the Royal Academy – and MuReNa in Narbonne, which wins my prize for the most bat-shit crazy and wonderful museum proposal of the decade so far.

At MuReNa, Gardere is working with the UK’s Fosters architects to design an installation of moveable, massive carved Roman stone blocks. They will be displayed on racking, alongside avs, and regularly rearranged using forklifts! So much for permanent displays…

Image credit: Foster and Partners

Image credit: Foster and Partners

I also went to a debate about how much museums are changing because of cuts.

By the end of the week I wanted an idea that could bring all these insights together. Luckily, on Friday night I came across a piece, written in 2013, by Katharine Viner the newly appointed Guardian editor. Brilliantly, she observes “A newspaper is complete. It is finished, sure of itself, certain. By contrast, digital news is constantly updated, improved upon, changed, moved, developed, an ongoing conversation and collaboration. It is living, evolving, limitless, relentless.” She’s talking about the need for newsprint journalism to change, but she could be talking about museum curation.

In the 21st century, things are increasingly fluid, provisional and relative; the process and the conversation is more important than the result. Nothing can ever be seen as complete or finished, and taking part matters more that observing.

But in this world of social media, museums are still trying to write textbooks!

Devising new models for today’s fragmented, flexible, ever-shifting culture is surely the biggest challenge facing museums.

15 Oct

Elegant but Puzzling: The Aga Khan Museum was going to be in London, is it better off in Toronto?

Maurice Davies

Arriving at the newly opened Aga Khan Museum is a strange experience. Once planned for the banks of the Thames in central London, the museum opened on 18 September in suburban Toronto. Its luxurious building is rather incongruous, next to a noisy expressway, just along from buildings housing offices for banks and McDonalds.

As you approach the museum, starkly isolated from any kind of context apart from the neighbouring Ismali Centre, you feel it could just as easily be in the Gulf as in urban North America. There are inevitable resonances with the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, although sadly the Toronto version doesn’t share its magnificent setting and views. Mind you, if the architect had arranged things differently, there could’ve been an attractive vista of downtown.

The interior combines 21st-century corporate minimalism with Islamic patterns – in the glazing and in carved wooden panels, for example. Sunlight is allowed to gently filter into some of the galleries. The artificial lighting is superbly done. The ambient light level is quite low, with gentle touches of spotlighting on the displays. Every single object is evenly lit; there are no shadows and virtually no reflections.

Elegant, well-lit, relaxed galleries, what’s not to like? Unfortunately, the architectural design is far from perfect as the galleries all open into each other, with no doors, or even narrowed openings separating them. That might make for easy, free-flowing visitor circulation, but there are hard edges and hard surfaces with little to absorb sound. It’s uncomfortably noisy, with multiple echoes from visitors’ voices and footsteps.There is also distracting noise overspill from videos in the temporary exhibition gallery, on a balcony high above.

The permanent-collection displays combine restrained av presentations with items presented almost individually as great works of art. Some are on open display; others in the most minimally elegant showcases I’ve ever seen, possibly the most expensive, too.

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The ghastly modern paraphernalia of smoke alarms, exit signs, plug sockets and switches has been fairly effectively corralled and disciplined. But some things still jar, such as a brightly lit exit sign adjacent to a 15th- century carpet. Perhaps it’s a mark of democracy that bureaucrats can thwart the designs of even the richest men in the world.

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The displays look lovely, but elegance does not always support understanding. Some labels are so far removed from objects that it’s impossible to work out which description refers to which artefact. A particularly frustrating example is a case where 10th-century bowls are displayed in two rows of three, but the labels are in a block of three rows of two. I had no idea which was which.

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Some visitors struggled to identify things. I overheard a couple puzzling over the function of a large marble fountain and pond. I eventually found its official label, hidden at ground level a couple of metres away on the plinth to a different object. Presumably done in the interests of not detracting from the beauty of the object, that was a plain daft decision – especially as the fountain itself is festooned with no less than five ‘do not touch’ notices.

There’s a nice alternative to minimalism in the Bellerive Room. Carpeted and comfortably furnished, it displays islamic ceramics inspired by the way they were arranged in an earlier Aga Kan’s home in Geneva, in showcases made from Spanish church pews.

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Unfortunately, the only view from the room’s window is the museum car park. Apparently the view from the museum members’ room is better than any granted to the ordinary visitor.

So, a good museum but not a great one and I don’t envisage large numbers of people making the journey. It has that mildly depressing dehumanised soullessness of contemporary minimalist luxury. It’s a bit of a vanity project and it would probably have been better if it had needed to argue for external funding.

It bills itself as ‘the first museum in north America dedicated to the intellectual, cultural and artistic heritage of Muslim civilisations’. (Intriguingly, the word ‘islam’ appears to be largely avoided.) A member of staff told me that the museum ended up in Toronto as a mark of respect for, or even a gift in return for, the city’s extraordinary openness to migrants and to different cultures. If that’s the case, then it might’ve been less happy in central London. More accessible, certainly, but at the heart of a nation that seems ever more backward-looking, isolationist and frightened of the rest of the world.