Thursday 11 February 2016

The engagement era - and the artist's place within it

As I continue pecking my way through my WCMT research report (see the drafts on open collections and museum memberships) I find myself repeatedly wrestling with the ideas of 'engagement' and 'experience', two words that are constantly in use in contemporary museum speak but which I still find very floppy in their definition.

One framework that I've found really useful as I try to organise my thoughts about what characterises the urgent issues and highest priority activities in art museums today is that advanced by Seph Rodney. In a recent piece on Hyperallergic, Rodney traces a progression from the final decades of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th century, when museums focused on 'centralization, specialization, and classification of a collection' and any benefits gained by visitors were largely a by-product of that concentration , to a post WWI era where visitor education becomes the main cause of the museum, meaning that by the end of the 20th century 'one could have expected to enter a museum to have an explicitly educational experience, that is, the success of the visit would have been defined largely by how effectively information was transferred to the visitor, largely through didactic texts.'

Over the past 25 years, Rodney argues, political and economic changes have created a new era of the visitor as 'consumer', and a environment in museums where 'personalisation' has succeeded 'education':
Now, in the 21st century, with the inauguration of a new museology, and the engulfing of the civic culture by capitalism with its handmaidens, consumerism and heightened competition, museums have begun to recognize that in order to survive they must cultivate new and repeat visitors. Three key means of accomplishing this is first, recognizing visitors’ capacity to make meaning for themselves; two, partnering with them to discover what they personally want from the museum; and lastly, mobilizing the museum’s resources to meet these needs. These tasks can be met by, among other things, new curatorial strategies through which museums partner with visitors to develop activities and events: co-curation projects, and crowdsourcing exhibition content.
The hallmark of this new museum is the interactive and participatory activities that have emerged over the past quarter-century in exhibition design, but underlying these is 'an institutional recognition of the visitor as an independent maker of meaning who uses the museum in a variety of ways to fulfill particular, individual needs and desires.' You can read a longer version of Rodney's argument - which is the basis of his recent Ph.D thesis - on the CultureCom website.

I don't think we can deny that there *has* been a change in thinking. Here's a pretty specious piece of evidence based on Google's ngram viewer:

Instances of the phrase 'visitor engagement' in the Google Books corpus, 1950-2008

Rodney's way of looking at 'engagement' and 'experience' is informed by the study of changes in museum philosophy, as well as governmental cultural policy and shifts in marketing trends. Another trend emerging in museums' internal understanding of themselves and their relationship to visitors is that advanced by Jon Alexander of the New Citizenship Project, who has worked with a number of media companies and art museums, including the Baltimore Museum of Art. Alexander is promulgating a shift from thinking of the visitor (or individual, beyond their visiting potential) as consumer to the visitor as citizen: less about targeting individuals through a better understanding of their personal needs and wants, more about appealing to them as people who wish to be better participants in their society.

The #CitizenShift, as the New Citizenship Project terms the 'emerging era of the citizen' maps reasonably well to Rodney's 'collections > education > engagement' model, as this 'quick concepts' diagram from their publication shows:

One of the reasons why I find the words 'engagement' and 'experience' so hard to grapple with is that I instinctively conflate them with the theories and practices of the contemporary internet and web worlds that I professionally came of age in. The practice of user experience design underpins the way I approach working in a museum: as Wikipedia defines it, 'the process of enhancing user satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction between the user and the product'. Previously applied to the relationship between user and hardware/software, those practices can be expanded out over any interaction between the individual and the physical world. The strong emphasis upon accessibility and usability - which were 'inclusive' before that word became on-trend in wider discourse - in particular maps well to today's museum.

I find it natural, therefore, to see the changes over the past 25 years in museums as being at the very least influenced by the rise of the internet; not just the way that the web has amplified the voice and abilities of the individual, but also the theorising of the internet. And the most outwardly-visible changes in museum in this period - the introduction of digital interactives, the uptake of social media, the free wifi networks, the adoption of all things 'crowd' - have indeed looked very internetty. Let's zip back almost exactly five years, for example, to an interview with Thomas Campbell, who had by this time been running the Metropolitan Museum for three years. Much is made of the difference in style between Campbell and his predecessor, Philippe de Montebello:
The difference was certainly evident in a recent interview in the director’s office, where Mr. de Montebello used to preside with baronial aplomb behind his desk. Mr. Campbell instead pulled up a chair around a conference table and talked with boyish enthusiasm not just about art but also about the kinds of things that increasingly accompany it in 21st-century museums. The Met has created its first app, to accompany the guitar show. It is embarking on the daunting task of wiring its huge building for Wi-Fi, he said, so that patrons will eventually be able to read and watch videos about art museumwide on their phones and tablet computers. And it is venturing as never before into the rapidly evolving field of what museum administrators call “visitor engagement”: a social science aimed at trying to reach every patron, from the first-timer to the seasoned scholar.
Such ambitions for the Met might not sound revolutionary, especially after the kinds of grand expansions and acquisitions that more than doubled the museum’s size during the de Montebello years, leaving little room for his successor to start putting his stamp on the place. 
But in two wide-ranging interviews over the last month Mr. Campbell said that he did not see it that way and that he viewed the museum’s next frontier to be less physical than philosophical and virtual: a change in the Met’s tone and public face, making it a more open and understandable museum, largely by thoroughly rethinking the way it uses technology.
“It’s not sexy and glamorous, like building a new wing,” he said, “but I think it’s a fundamental part of our responsibility to our audience.” 
If you'd like to see an apoplectic hot-take on this interview, check out Charlie Finch's reaction from the time on Artnet, and his screech that Campbell is about to 'trap, fold and mutilate every poor soul who arrives with something called "Visitor Engagement".' Today, the Met has come from behind to be doing some of the most innovative online work in the world.

Most leaders in museums today (I hope) have figured out that touchscreens and Snapchat ≠ 'engagement', but rather that it's the shift in thinking that characterises the new museum. This is a point that people like Seb Chan are particularly good at articulating. In his end of year post for 2015, Chan wrote:
Digital transformation is really about something else that often isn’t openly talked about – transforming audiences. Sure, we might change work practices along the way, but really digital transformation efforts are really in the service of visitors wherever they might be. In that sense, ‘digital transformation’ follows in the footsteps of the education-led museology of the 1990s.
Here we see again that shift from 'education' to 'engagement'. (It struck me just now that we can throw in another 'e': 'empowerment'. Such a fortuitous vowel.) Recently Suse Cairns took this point by Chan (and Rodney's piece above) for a walk in a post titled 'Transforming audiences, transforming museums'. Cairns picks up on a distinctive theme of Chan's piece: what 'audience transformation' means in the American museum sector, where the funding and oversight of museums comes largely from private individuals and philanthropic or corporate supporters. Thinking about contemporary audience development, she also cites Rob Stein:
Now that museums are beginning to have the tools and expertise at their disposal to monitor, track, record, and analyze all the various ways that the public benefits from their work, the real task begins to redesign the process and program of museums and to embed impact-driven data collection into every aspect of our efforts.
Cairns identifies this as the "crux of this digital transformation/audience transformation question. As we can measure our audiences in new ways, we expect to be able to measure how we impact and affect them, in order to respond to them differently."

One way I have been trying to re-phrase 'engagement' inside my head (and 'experience' to, because all museums are and have always been designed as experiences) is as 'visitor-led': as in, we have moved from being educationally-driven (you will learn about this and that and come out better for it) to being 'visitor-led' (how can we better understand you and meet your expectations so you enjoy your time here?). Another way is to think of museums as switching from an impersonal omniscient narrator to a first person point of view, where the visitor is constantly asked to bring their own history and context to their museum encounter. Museums still tell a story through their arrangement of spaces and objects and accompanying interpretative devices: however our assumptions of, and responses to, our visitors' desires have changed.

All the drivers above either come out forces surrounding the museum - new technology, new cultural policies, new marketing tactics - or from museology itself. What I think much of this discussion about the new museum experience and visitor engagement often leaves out is the influence of changes in artistic practice.

Let's look again at Seb Chan paragraph cited above, this time with the final sentence appended:
Digital transformation is really about something else that often isn’t openly talked about – transforming audiences. Sure, we might change work practices along the way, but really digital transformation efforts are really in the service of visitors wherever they might be. In that sense, ‘digital transformation’ follows in the footsteps of the education-led museology of the 1990s. You can sense this in Nicholas Serota’s recently published “commonwealth of ideas” speech about a new Tate.
Serota's speech (printed in The Art Newspaper) identifies a 'profound shift in the expectations and behaviour of audiences in museums' initiated yes, by digital transformation, but also by shifts in artistic practice. He opens by reflecting on unexpected visitor behaviour in installations in the Tate's Turbine Hall:
For me, this first became evident in the response to Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project installation in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2003. People took over the space and used it as an arena for their own experience, so that the work gained an unanticipated performative aspect. Similar unprogrammed responses were prompted by Carsten Höller’s Test Site in 2006 and by Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth in 2007. 
In his essay from last year 'After the white cube' Hal Foster tracks some of the issues I'm grappling with here: the adaptive cycle (or arms race) between museum architecture and artistic practice, the 'activation' of the viewer, the society of spectacle. When we survey visitors on what they'd like to see more of at The Dowse, one of the things they cite are experiential or participatory exhibitions we have staged in the past, such as those by Peter Robinson in 2013/14 and Scott Eady in 2011/12. The appeal of these exhibitions is strong and - in those one of those phrases you never want to be documented using - they tick so many boxes. Families love them, funders love them, the media love them, and they photograph so damn well. In fact, you can sit at your desk and draw up just the perfect exhibition for your gallery, that will have all the necessary elements of hands-on interaction and Instagram appeal, and then lament the fact there's no artist you know making exactly that thing so you can just programme it in.

Which is not to demean those artists who are working in a manner that invites, or needs, participation from the viewer. But we're working in an era where it's increasingly hard to differentiate experience design from artwork. (And maybe we don't need to - and maybe I'm retrograde for thinking we do - but I still think it matters.) The Rain Room sits squarely in the middle of this conundrum - exhibited at leading art museums around the world, described as an 'immersive environment', but somehow not quite art to my mind. Glade's 'Museum of Feelings' - which coopts the experiential museum visit to sell scented candles - squats malevolently at the fringes. And then there's the 20 works developed by the 400-member Japanese technology-art collective teamLab for Pace's new Art+Technology program at Menlo Park. As Pace president Marc Glimcher said himself of first seeing teamLab's work:
I was like, ‘This is not art,’ and realized I was having an authentic art experience,” he says. “It’s something that we have to open up what our definition of art is, so I had my own conversion experience.”
Unusually for a dealer gallery presentation, you have to buy tickets to see what this actually is.

Serota says in that piece above that the future of museums is being driven by 'a combination of curatorial vision, artistic innovation and the demands of audiences'. At this point, are we dealing with artist-led experience, or visitor-led design? I can't answer that question - and I'm not even sure I'm asking the right one. So I'd love to see some pieces of writing that track the hand-in-hand development of participatory art practices and the museological interest in visitor experience: the co-creation, so to speak. I'm sure they're already out there, so please, send them my way.


Seph Rodney, 'The evolution of the museum visit, from privilege to personalized experience ', Hyperallergic , 22 January 2016

Seph Rodney, 'How museum visitors became consumers', CultureCom, 28 August 2015

'This is the #CitizenShift', The New Citizenship Project, (undated)

Seb Chan, 'Since we last spoke: Rounding up 2015', Fresh + New(er,) 10 January 2016

Robin Kennedy, 'The Met's plans for virtual expansion', New York Times, 12 February 2011

Suse Cairns, 'Transforming audiences, transforming museums', Museum Geek, 27 January 2016,

Nicholas Serota, 'The 21st museum is a commonwealth of ideas', The Art Newspaper, 5 January 2016

Hal Foster, 'Beyond the white cube', London Review of Books, 15 March 2015,

Julie Baumgardner, 'A Very Different Kind of Immersive Art Installation', The New York Times Style Magazine', 4 February 2016


staplegun said...

I've always found the lack of 'usability' thinking in museums very frustrating, so it's helpful to see its recency within a longer historic perspective. I see now that it's a mix of: a change in approach, in parallel with a change in audience expectations.

But then saying some exhibitions "tick so many boxes" brings this thinking back into perspective... in pandering to the "me", does that make museums only in the infotainment business now? The danger of infotainment is a race to the bland.

It's a reminder that the difference between an infotainment media company and a museum is the strength of curation. Museums don't just do what people want them to, but what they need them to too. Unfortunately, this wider public-good role is less appealing (to funders and patrons), but if museums don't challenge us with confronting works and themes, who will? You're out of luck if your work doesn't meet the infotainment mould - will losing a platform force them back underground until we have another renaissance age of enlightenment (to realise it's not just "all about me")?

Anyway, as always it's about finding the right balance. If there is little or no appetite for the confronting, maybe the only option is to slip bits in here and there within a happier infotainment structure?

Unknown said...

[I should really write a proper blogpost in response but time keeps on slipping . . . ]

One of the best things in this regard was the beta_space collaboration at Powerhouse in Sydney. This ran for a number of years and enabled media artists to 'beta test' their interactive art works and get 'usability' feedback as they developed their works . . . .

See paper from Turnbull, Connell & Edmonds -

There were plenty of examples of the artists involved developing better works as a result of this - and was a really good way of the museum itself creating value for all invovled.

Seph Rodney said...

This is a good, thoughtful piece. Yes, a very valid way to talk about what museum experiences are now is to describe them as visitor-led. This is the era of the visitor, clearly.

Courtney Johnston said...

Seb - I'm fascinated by what you guys are doing at ACMI at the moment with the plan to open up working space for people working in the moving image and film industries able to mix with your staff, and everyone to learn from each other. It seems like an opportunity to create a rich and supportive and possibly even more focused, innovative and efficient environment for creation.

Seph - I really appreciate you getting in touch here, your recent online pieces have given me a framework that's been incredibly helpful in turning a group of connected but inchoate ideas and observations into a set of propositions that I can actually start working with.