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.

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