Tag Archives: space

Museum as space of opportunity, creativity & care: A perspective from Spain

Written by Fernando Echarri

In Spain, COVID-19 has caused and is causing sudden and overwhelming social change. Spain is one of the countries in the world that is suffering most from the effects of the pandemic at the moment. Effects that translate into new social and personal challenges, involving many factors including misinformation, manipulation, fear and catastrophism. This situation shakes the foundations of a way of living, of coexisting, of perceiving, of doing, of desiring, of dreaming.

This change has happened practically from one day to the next, when the Spanish Government declared a state of alarm. The change meant the closure of many public and private equipment, including all educational centres and museums. We work at the Museo Universidad de Navarra, located in the north of Spain. It is a recently created university museum of contemporary art (2015). With structures and procedures still being established and, therefore, also with the power of flexibility towards new scenarios. The museum’s closure has been very sudden, with the exhibition “Universes” by the artist David Jiménez just opened in March. It has taken place at the same time that the University has stopped its face-to-face activity, so that university students and other visitors from other segments of the population cannot physically visit the museum or carry out their various cultural and educational programmes.

And how does a university museum of contemporary art adapt to a situation that prevents the public from seeing its exhibitions and carrying out the rest of its cultural programme?

We try to raise 5 criteria that can help answer this question :

1.  It must be faced with a positive mind, which sees this situation as a generator of personal and social change that provides a new space of opportunity.

2.  Learn to work with uncertainty; with a continuous and changing uncertainty that the situation itself generates. Uncertainty that affects everything from the biology of the virus and the evolution of the disease to the political and regulatory measures that are taken and the social perceptions and new forms of behaviour that are being generated in real time. These new forms of behaviour will probably include a new emotional and affective state in terms of the relational aspect between people. And in this new generation of new forms of behaviour, the museum cannot be alien. It cannot miss this train, in a challenge that we do not know where it is going, but in which the museum has to be assembled, to travel together with society, to accompany it in the different situations and contexts that are being generated.

3.  Space for creativity. The uncertainty generated provides in turn a great ally, usually forgotten: creativity. Creativity can be a lifeboat when the waters are turbulent and the known capsizes. The undefined space is built with enabling bricks that are linked to the creative cement. New products are thus generated, at this time digital, that respond with contemporary art to the needs of the users.

4.  To focus on the value Care. This value is not usually the focus of most education programmes, and is not usually one of the main values considered in a transversal way in the programmes of museums. However, this word is currently one of the most mentioned in the media and has become one of the key words generated by COVID-19 and which people are taking into account the most. Personal, family and social care is now a trend topic. Perhaps this value has surpassed the value of respect, which is the one most often used in social work. The respect value has fallen short in this situation. If we understand the value respect as the consideration for others, the value care implies respect, but it is more than that value. It also implies concern, protection, solidarity and love.

We could simplify by considering that care = respect + love. In this situation generated by COVID-19, it is clear the numerous evidence of care that is being generated in society. Neighbours who previously did not speak to each other are now wondering how they are doing, how they are handling the situation, if they have any sick relatives, if they need anything. Anonymous people who help other anonymous people. It’s not a minor change. COVID-19 is possibly making society better, more humane. Or maybe it already was, but there were no opportunities to make it so obvious. In order to adapt to this situation, museums should integrate this value into the relational possibilities offered by their various programmes.


5.  ‘Stay at home’. This is the communicative message that the Spanish Government is promoting during this period of confinement. This message has forced the Museo Universidad de Navarra to change its communication, dissemination and educational strategy. This new situation is a challenge for the University of Navarra Museum. It means devoting all its efforts to off-site activities. If the visitor does not come to the museum, the museum will look for the visitor. It means taking the museum to the people’s homes. That is why it has created the ‘MUNENCASA’, with the intention of providing artistic, cultural and educational support to the various people and groups that are currently confined.

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This impediment to living physically in the museum has made it possible to develop a parallel, virtual museum, which offers users programmes, activities and tools such as virtual visits to the exhibitions, multimedia videos, digital gamification, a blog with recent history and current affairs, and classes for university students and the rest of the population. It also pays continuous attention to the different social networks, publishing not only news. The world of social networks has increased its volume of traffic these days and we must redouble our communication efforts. In record time, digital materials are generated that adapt existing analogue resources. Programmatic resources are generated, both exhibition and educational, which help people through art and culture.

This is what we have to do at this time: to approach each home and accompany, help, and care for our users as much as possible.

Society expects nothing less from us.

Header Image: José Ortiz Echagüe, “Tenura”

About the Author

FERNANDO ECHARRI IRIBARREN holds a degree in Biological Sciences (University of Navarra, 1989) and a PhD in Museum Education (University of Navarra, 2007). He is an associate professor of the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain) and teaches in the following areas: “Art Education”, “University Master’s Degree in Higher-Education Teaching” and “University Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies”. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Education Department at the University of Navarra Museum. His interests include meaningful learning and significant learning experiences.

Sometimes I sit and think, and sometimes I just sit.

Resting at MoMA. Photo by Just Karen

How long can you spend in a museum gallery before you need to sit? Do you visit exhibitions with friends or family who take a lot longer to view artwork than you do? (Yes, mom, I love you, but even I, the museum professional, cannot read every word in an exhibition as you can.)

What kind of space is there in your institution for visitors to take a break? Is it inviting? Can people eat there? Can people talk on their cell phones there? How many people use the space?

At the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, we recently explored these questions in a rather thoughtful way. I must give most of the credit to the wonderful team of staff members that did the “heavy lifting” on this project. The manager of special events led the charge, and we were joined by the coordinator of academic programs, the membership manager, and the director of development and external affairs. (One thing I think we do really well at the Nasher is collaborate across departments like this.)

We have this space at the Nasher that we generally call “the computer alcove.” It is a nondescript area where there’s been a long wooden desk with 4 computers, some tables and chairs (furniture that is also used in our cafe) and access to an outdoor terrace. Students and general visitors check their e-mail at the computers, but not much else. Sometimes, during the school year, we see Duke students studying there, but not all that often, and we knew it could be much more than it was.

We wanted to offer our visitors several things in this space:

  • An inviting/welcoming place to sit and relax
  • A place where Duke students can study and work – ideally we’d like to be a destination spot for studying and hanging out
  • A place where staff can have informal meetings
  • A place where people can talk on their cell phones
  • A place where visitors can engage in a hands-on activity and/or explore supplemental reading materials

First, our manager of special events looked at the existing space with a critical eye and asked this question, “What can we do with what we currently have to make this a nice environment?” There were MANY simple things that instantly made the area more inviting. These included:

  • Raising the shades so people could see the terrace outside (and know they could go out there if they wanted)
  • Cleaning the terrace on a more regular basis
  • Moving the artwork on the terrace close to the windows, instead of at the far end of the space
  • Opening the umbrellas on the terrace so the space looked “open” instead of “closed”
  • Arranging the furniture in a more pleasing way – this included thinning out the amount of furniture and spreading it out a bit more

It was amazing to me just how big a difference simply raising the shades made. It’s important to remember that we all become “blind” to our museum environments. The more familiar we are with a space, the harder it is to see how it could be off-putting or unpleasant.

For the last weekend of our special ticketed exhibition “Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy” (organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago) we rented some fun furniture as an experiment. We knew there were going to be a lot of people in the museum, and we wanted to see what effect the furniture had. It made a huge difference.

The Nasher Museum’s alcove/lounge with mobile interactive and rented orange furniture.

We had a summer intern track use of the space over four days. She started tracking before the furniture arrived, and once it was installed, the number of people in the space shot up. Around 20% of all visitors to the museum used the “lounge” over the fours days.

To me, that’s a big number. That means one in every five people spent some time there. And, most people spent an average of 15 minutes in the space. Our intern also interviewed people to see what they liked about the space, why they had come over in the first place, and what else we could do to make it more inviting. Many people said they wanted to know exactly what they were allowed to do there. This was especially gratifying to me, since I had suggested we put signs in the lounge that read “Welcome to the Lounge. What can I do here?” and then list all possible activities. Some in the group thought that was too limiting, but it seems like people want explicit information (something that’s not surprising.)

Sadly, we had to return the rental furniture, but we are now on a mission to find some permanent furniture that will be inviting, but also work for special events, be durable and not ridiculously expensive.

I am looking forward to continuing to track the use of the space, and find creative ways to make the museum an inviting location for all our visitors. And I re-ask my starting question to spark some conversation, and to hear more about what spaces you might have or be developing at your museum:

What kind of space is there in your institution for visitors to take a break? Is it inviting? Can people eat there? Can people talk on their cell phones there? How many people use the space? What can they do there?