The Museologist

Museums and Social Media

Posted in General by adevereux on January 22, 2010

In general, there are two schools of thought concerning the cultural and scholarly authority of museums.  The first argues that museums are empowered to tell stories that hold truth and that visitors will undergo a learning process made possible by the museum and its curators.  In essence, curators are the “holders of truth” and are to be trusted to tell the stories.  The second school of thought argues that curators hold one part of the truth, and that visiting a museum is not just a learning process but an experience.  A museum-goer adds to and expands the interpretation of the story.

The rising trend in museums, and the one I tend to agree with, is the second school of thought.  How to make a visit to a museum an experiential learning process, and one that gives credit and weight to the ideas and interpretations of the visitor, is difficult to determine.  However, after reading a recent article in the NY Times, I’ve been convinced that the web is one venue that allows the public to contribute to the curating process and to the discussion on issues raised by museums in their exhibitions in a way that does not undermine the role or expertise of the museum curator.

The way museums can use the web to forge successful collaborations with the public is to look at their websites not as virtual exhibition spaces, but as a form of social media.  The article writes, “While only a handful of museums have successfully harnessed Web users to develop their collections, social-media platforms are starting to foster new kinds of interactions between Web audiences and museum curators long accustomed to working only with other experts.”  In this way, the public is able to contribute new thoughts, ideas, interpretations, and responses to collection material in a way that is meaningful.  It also allows curators to gauge what material is relevant and important to their audiences.

Nevertheless, the curator gets the final word on what materials are included in an exhibition and the accompanying narrative.  But the sources available to a curator will expand beyond what has already been said by scholars, or the curator’s own interpretations, to those offered by the public:  “new-media advocates argue that Web participation can actually enhance the value of curatorial judgment. ‘Curators are starting to realize that they can be challenged by the audience’”.

A museum’s use of the web as social media in order to let the public to contribute to cultural and historical dialogue re-distributes the authority traditionally granted solely to the curator, but in a way that doesn’t compromise his/her skills, expertise, and judgement.



Posted in Curatorial, Exhibitions by adevereux on January 16, 2010

It’s been some time since the last entry, but since then I made a trip to Los Angeles and visited the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.  The exhibition displays works from the permanent collection dated from 1980 to present and goes in conjunction with MOCA Grand Avenue’s exhibition of their permanent collection from 1940-80.

At the Geffen exhibit, I noticed how much the label texts for each work made me more confused about the art than I would have been otherwise.  The labels texts were quotes pulled from the artist him/herself about the work or his/her wider philosophy.  Making sense of, or finding meaning in, a piece of wire sticking out of the wall is not always easy, and reading the artist’s thoughts on the work can make our own thoughts even more convoluted.

While the label format used in this Geffen exhibition isn’t the norm, it was a welcome alternative to the standard curator-written label text.  I definitely don’t believe the point in going to an art museum, or any museum for that matter, is to make sense of things, or to have a label tell you the meaning of a work of art.  I think confusion is a good thing if it means we come up with our own responses to art.  So, even though I didn’t gain much clarity of thought about all the pieces on display at the Geffen, I was happy to see a museum offer an alternative label format.

This visit to MOCA-Geffen made me think about other label formats I’ve seen or heard about that might be effective in promoting original ideas and thought in museums.  At many university museums, a curator might lay out questions or problems related to objects in the exhibit and have students do research and studies to answer those questions and generate a label.  For a Frida Kahlo exhibition at the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, a wide variety of scholars from different backgrounds and areas of expertise wrote articles on the different works by Kahlo for the exhibition catalogue.  Then, instead of one or two curators writing the labels for the entire exhibit, quotations were pulled directly from the catalogue and used for the label text.

I’d like to hear about other ways museums have moved away from the standard label format, and what kind of effect these alternative methods have had on museum visitors.