“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives” – Maria Kalman
UK’s major museums and galleries reported a fall in visitors of almost 1.5 million over the period from 2015 to 2016. The fall was even more drastic among the younger demographics. Even the Louvre in Paris saw a 20% drop in attendance over the preceding year in the same period. While a variety of factors play a role in the decline, surely this is a cause for concern? What’s going wrong?
The Digital Age encroaches
Museums have always been educational spaces and among the main providers of information and content related to a specific topic. The emergence of the digital age has taken away some of that utility though. Today, people can get highly specific information, facts, images, videos, and a host of related information in a well-ordered manner without even leaving their couch. When you’ve got the smartphone hooked on to the internet why even bother making the trip to a museum to gather information? In that context – the role of museums as a “collection of things” has been dramatically impacted. It is becoming increasingly clear that museums face a struggle to remain relevant at a time when they are being viewed as mere passive spaces.
Confronting the struggle for relevance
Across the globe, museums are looking at ways to reinvent themselves and break away from the mould that was created for them. Museums have for long been seen as portals to the past. Imposing, awe-inspiring gateways to the glorious days gone by… spaces for reflection, contemplation, and education. However, as the bridge that connects the past to the present, museums have an important role to play beyond being mere curators of curiosities.
If that is so, then how can museums evolve into spaces that not just please the eye but move the soul? How do museums curate journeys that inspire action and compel the viewer to give back more to the society…to dispel ignorance and spread the knowledge?
Can Technology solve the problem technology created?
The temptation is to turn to “Technology” to create engagement with interactive displays, better (read digital) visuals, and the latest in audio-video. But this can be a double edged sword. Technology can be and has been successfully used in museums to add continuity to context, or as an aid to tell a story to make it more relatable. However, overusing technology can also act as an impediment to curating immersive experiences. The audience could be unintentionally more impressed by the technology rather than the content of the exhibit. It, therefore, becomes essential that the museum experience leverages technology elements only as a tool, almost incidental to the core experience rather than at its centre. Ideally, the technology should be used only to allow the audience to become an active participant in the museum experience rather than just being a witness of things or a passive receiver of information.
So, what are we suggesting?
Steve Jobs had once said, “Create relevance not awareness” and museums should take this advice to heart. We believe that museums must evolve to becoming spaces of reflection that lead to action. They have to emerge as spaces that evoke myriad feelings and emotions within the visitor that remain with them even long after they have left the physical space. These feelings must inspire them to do more with the knowledge acquired in that space. More than passive spaces, they have to emerge as spaces of contemplation and of action…spaces that provoke the visitors into going out and doing some good to society, or even just to themselves.
Clearly, while the content of the displays is important it is even more important that the museums rethink their relationship with their audience. They must create journeys that are more immersive and interactive, capable of evoking a sense of realization that is unique to each visitor. It is only this focus on creating spaces that are more experiential in nature that can create a resonance with feelings that lie trapped within the souls of the audience.
A poignant example is the Auschwitz Concentration Camp tour. Though not traditionally considered a museum it does open doors to the past in a manner that stays with the visitors even after they leave the premises. The feelings of anguish, failure, dejection, anger…the feeling of being trapped and of impending doom resonate throughout these spaces. Another example would be The Empty Library in Bebelplatz in Berlin. The burning book memorial is a tragic reminder of the book bonfire held by the Nazis in 1933 where they collected books by Jewish authors from all over Germany and burnt them. The memorial, underground and almost invisible can be viewed through a glass panel on the paved road. It consists of bookshelves with a capacity to house over 20,000 books but all lie empty as a reminder of the 20,000 books that were burnt by the Nazis. These spaces create visitor journeys in a manner that the audience here does not remain just a passive spectator but a witness, to the events of history. They become capable of feeling all those emotions that the Jewish people went through during one of the most horrific times in history.
The Tool Box
Madeleine Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, recently said: “The pendulum has swung from the museum as passive temple to the museum as active space, from a treasure box to a toolbox.” This is as clear a vision of the way forward as any that has been expressed so far. To stay relevant in the Digital Age, museums must evoke a powerful and visceral response that inspires action – become a toolbox rather than a treasure box so to say. It is only when museums are able to establish a human connection that inherently inspires the visitors that they will flourish.
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