Tag Archives: Experimenting in Museums

Experimenting in Museums: Creatively Interpreting Artistic Creations

Torpedo Factory Art Center, photo by bittermelon

A typical art museum exhibit contains pieces of art, each accompanied by a block of explanatory text. Sometimes this text only includes the basic facts of artist, title, country, date, and provenance. Other times, wall text is lengthier, giving detailed information. What materials were used, and how did the artist use them? How long did it take to make the work, and what changes did the artist make over time? Who or what influenced the artist, and what is the artist trying to convey? What, in the artist’s own words, is the piece all about?

We can often learn the answers to these questions by reading the text on the wall, or by taking a guided highlights tour. But what if we could actually see the answers unfold as they happened? What if we could watch artists transform materials, speak about their work, and try one technique and then another?

Wall text and traditional tours are useful for understanding art, but museums need not limit themselves to these two methods of conveying ideas. As a museum educator, I have enjoyed trying a variety of art-centered activities, designed to reach diverse learning styles and allow for a more holistic interpretation of the art. I have also had the opportunity to see creative forms of art interpretation as a museum visitor. I have seen art interpreted through museum theater at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), and through dance at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. At the Torpedo Factory Art Center, visitors can watch and chat with artists as they work, a chance literally to watch the creative process unfold.

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Works by Maria Sibylla Merian. Photo by Laura DiSciullo.

At NMWA in 2011, actors performed three short one-act plays in the galleries to bring the art of their Trove exhibition to life. One of these Trove Trilogy plays featured an artist interacting with the fictional broom-person she painted. This sketch fascinated me the most, as it showed an artist’s conceptualization of her own creation. Another play portrayed an interaction between photographer and subject, and finally, another play depicted an artist (Maria Sibylla Merian) at different points in her life and in her career of researching and making engravings of rainforest flora and fauna. These plays all served to help visitors understand the art by creatively helping visitors to understand the artists. You can read more of my thoughts on the plays here.

Art is all about unique, creative expression. Art museums can, in the spirit of this creativity, embrace unconventional interpretive experiences, including opportunities for audiences to see art being made and participate in art making. Varied, nontraditional means of interpretation blur the barrier audiences might perceive between themselves and the art, and can change a scornful “I could have made that!” to an inspired “I want to make something!”

The idea of experimentation may be daunting, but the results can be quite enriching. As noted in the Elastic Manual, “It is the closest thing so far to working in line with how artists cre­ate.” The Elastic Manual does not give a specific checklist of what makes a project experimental, let alone give a step-by-step list of how to implement such a project. Instead, it offers guidelines and things to keep in mind when embarking on any of the many kinds of undertakings that are unconventional and experimental. I read the manual as a statement that is deliberately open-ended, with a focus on trying new out new ideas – and letting creativity happen as it will.

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SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27. And to help make this more of a conversation, we encourage you to add your thoughts or questions below.  See all posts in the series by clicking here.

Experimenting in Museums: The Living Room Project

I believe the best rewards in life come from making oneself vulnerable.  To that end, I approach my work each day in way that allows for experimentation free from fear of failure (okay, sometimes I’m slightly afraid, but I don’t let it hinder me) because we learn from both our successes and our failures.  With the opening of a Renzo Piano-designed wing in January 2012, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum ushered in the next phase of the museum’s history.  The spectacular architecture and increased focus on contemporary art (the museum’s Artist-in-Residence program celebrates its 20th anniversary this year) has provided increased opportunities for making connection between the historic and the contemporary.

In reflecting on An Elastic Manifesto for Museums, I thought about our Living Room Project.  Domestic in scale and design, the Living Room functions as both visitor orientation space and contemporary art project at the same time. Inspired by the 2000 exhibit The Living Room by artist-in-residence Lee Mingwei, the room is designed to foster visitor learning and interaction in creative ways.  In addition to collection resources and trained volunteers, twice a week visitors encounter a “living sculpture” in the form of a guest host who shares personal objects.

While much of what the Manifesto is about is relevant to this project, I’ve reflected on a few key points.

A different museum experience

By its nature, the Gardner is a different kind of museum.  The arrangement of the collection, housed in an imaginative Italian palazzo with a central lush courtyard, is eclectic and seemingly idiosyncratic in many instances.  And there are no wall labels to identify and explain works.  The installation was a personal endeavor for Isabella Gardner.  However, she is not here to tell us the stories behind her pieces or her personal connections to those objects.

Mingwei’s Living Room Project asks hosts to take on that role by choosing objects of personal significance and engage with visitors in conversation about those objects with the hope that visitors get into the mindset of thinking about and discussing works of art in a way that includes personal meaning and emotions.  This experience is a bit unique and can befuddle visitors, especially the idea that this interaction is a work of art.  Mingwei’s work is something that is “made” not entirely by him (he only comes to the museum periodically); the work of art is the experience of the host and visitor interacting in a unique moment.  In that way, the work of art (like all works of art, I would argue) is different in each encounter and for each visitor.  This is definitely a different kind of museum experience for most visitors.  So far, they have welcomed and embraced this new opportunity.

Your presence is important

Living Room Host Sandy Goldberg. Image courtesy Lisa Abitbol 2012

At its core, the Living Room project is about basic human interaction—one person learning about another person through sharing personal stories.  The rewards of this open ended activity are powerful and what better place to encourage this than in a museum setting.

The rewards for me as a staff member have also been great.  Because we are expanding the museum’s role in the larger Boston community, I have had the chance to meet some amazing people who I may not have met otherwise.  Hosts do not have to be “museum people,” although many curators, educators and staff have participated. We’ve had artists, students, professors, lawyers, ballet dancers, and many more. I have learned something different from each one of them.   This sociability, togetherness and relationship building is the foundation of the Living Room project.  It not only enriches our visitors’ experience, but also feeds the souls of the staff.

Give up control

Living Room Host Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Artist with Lee Mingwei. Image Courtesy Cheryl Richards 2012

Last, but certainly not least, is the idea of letting go and trusting others.  Mingwei’s work, the Living Room project included, explores issues of trust, intimacy, and self-awareness.  Each week, I marvel at the generosity in which each host has shared a bit of himself or herself with our visitors through their stories and objects, often very personal and precious.  For some this might be the scariest part of such a project; I essentially give control over to the hosts and trust it will work out as best it can that day.  That’s a hard thing for most of us to do (me included), but it is essential for a project that is about multiple voices and building community.

The Living Room project is a work of art that belongs to Lee Mingwei, the museum, and every host and visitor that participate.  That is a novel way to consider a work of art, I think.  But that is what makes it powerful, successful and beautiful.

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SERIES NOTE: This post is part of a series from ArtMuseumTeaching.com designed to respond to and grow from the ideas explored in An Elastic Manifesto for Museums & Artists, first presented at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting. If you have your own response or project to share, please contact me via Twitter @murawski27. And to help make this more of a conversation, we encourage you to add your thoughts or questions below.  See all posts in the series by clicking here.

Experimenting in Museums: Taking Risks with How We Work

“I don’t think ideas are very valuable in themselves. It’s only in the doing of the idea that you learn anything, or anything interesting happens.”

-Mark Allen, Machine Project Hammer Report

Experimental work in museums has been a topic of conversation for quite some time, and many museums have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects.  But earlier this spring, many of these explorations and ideas came together in a unique and powerful way in a session at the 2012 American Association of Museums Annual Meeting entitled “Experimental Museum Projects: Creating a Community of Practice.”  Presented by Maria Mortati (independent exhibit developer), Sarah Schultz (Walker Art Center), Susan Diachisin (Dallas Museum of Art), and Stephanie Parrish (Portland Art Museum), this session explored how to support, realize, and engage with a variety of experimental projects, leaving attendees — and the entire museum community — with an Elastic Manifesto for Museums and Artists.

photo by Kristin Mckee

For me, this has sparked some great conversations with colleagues and staff about taking more risks with the work we do, and fueled my own fire to “just make it happen” (to use the words of the Manifesto).  And here’s the really crazy thing … I didn’t even attend the conference!  I had heard about the session prior to AAM, and connected to the Elastic Manifesto and related materials through Maria Mortati’s blog (which includes the Elastic Manifesto, Elastic Manual, and supporting Bibliography with some must reads!).  The presenters also started the Experimental Museum Projects group on Facebook, and their session was tweeted and retweeted to a very widespread audience on Twitter.  So before AAM had even ended, people across the country had already been discussing the ideas surrounding this flexible manifesto and embracing experimental work.

Far beyond the boundaries of the conference, this session is now living its potential to empower these types of experimental projects and to help museums create platforms and spaces for new kinds of creative experiences.  To support the open conversation that has been ongoing since AAM, I wanted to launch a new series of posts called “Experimenting in Museums” on ArtMuseumTeaching.com and include more voices and projects to the mix.

As you read the perspectives posted in this series, you can add your own thoughts to the conversation in 2 ways: (1) add comments to the blog posts, and (2) contact me via Twitter @murawski27 if you are interested in contributing your own post to this series.

EXPERIMENTING IN MUSEUMS SERIES