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.

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