Art museums have a real challenge: they must display art and its history in an interesting and contemporary way. That’s not to say that museums are stodgy or uninteresting; in fact they have survived and thrived into the digital age by promoting direct contact between the public and traditionally conservative collections.
Engaging the public is essential to the success of any exhibit or a museum. Successful museums have learned that creating interactive areas for their visitors, whether it is in specific exhibits or throughout the museum in general, is a strategy that works. The most popular exhibits include audience interaction or talkbacks.
Here at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Curator of Collections Marisa Pascucci has created an interactive portion in our current exhibition, Afghan Rugs: The Contemporary Art of Central Asia. There is a desk with Post-it notes and pencils where the museum-goer is encouraged to share thoughts on the exhibition or art in general.
There are 62 responses posted on the board and the majority of them state things such as:
- “No more war”;
- “Peace not war”;
- “I love art”;
- “I liked the rugs”; or
- small sketches.
There are; however, 6 or 7 more in-depth comments on both the Afghan Rug and exhibit and the other temporary exhibition installed in our north gallery, Elaine Reichek: The Eye of the Needle. These notes discussed art and war (in response to the war imagery in the Afghan war rugs), the use of symbolism in the Afghan Rug exhibit and in Elaine Reichek’s works and how they were similar, as well as a discussion of the history and images in the Afghan rugs.
|Portrait Rug (Amanullah Khan), knotted wool, Afghanistan, acquired in Peshawar (Pakistan), 1985, 53 1/4 x 33 ½ inches. Courtesy of a private collection
||War Rug, knotted wool, Pakistan refugee camp, acquired in
Peshawar (Pakistan), 1998, 72 7/8 x 42 7/8 inches. Courtesy of a private collection
All in all it was surprising and refreshing to read some of the insightful comments as well as see some children’s handwriting and drawings getting excited about being able to express an opinion of their own. The museum also displays a monitor that runs both Twitter and Instagram feeds. When a visitor tweets or Instagrams and tags the museum it appears on the monitor. It is great to hear feedback from people who have just visited or see the beautifully edited Instagrams of favorite pieces in the museum.
Speaking from personal experience, many museum exhibitions I have attended have offered at some sort of audience participation. For example, in Florence, Italy last fall the Palazzo Strozzi presented an exhibit entitled Unstable Territory: Borders and Identity in Contemporary Art in which contemporary artists portrayed the different meaning of “territory.”
In one portion of the show, the audience was asked to write or draw on a large dry-erase board their thoughts on language barriers, love and other traditions. In addition, at the Venice Biennale, last fall, there was an exhibit that the audience created themselves.
Croatian artist Kata Mijatovic asked via social media, as well as at the venue, for specific dreams from the viewers of the show. The dreams were then displayed on television screens throughout the room with accompanying pictures and music. This sort of interaction directly affects the exhibit itself. It is less of a reaction to the art, but more of a way of making the art; an interesting way to get viewers involved.
More personal, and fun, are the prompts and written responses museum curators come up with to promote thoughtful interaction with the exhibit. Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History uses interaction in some of her shows and it is pretty successful.
Some creative ways in which Simon encouraged participation in just one exhibition, Santa Cruz is in the Heart:
- writing thoughts and opinions on cocktail napkins;
- posting certificates of accomplishment on a mock fridge; and
- writing in marker on rearview mirrors set up throughout an exhibit.
Each of the displays asked the viewers to recall personal experiences that corresponded to the theme of the show. Generally the greatest concern with each interactive portion was the number of appropriate responses to the prompt. Obviously, without the cooperation of the audience, the interactive portion of exhibitions does not matter. The key is to come up with a prompt that will inspire audiences and create thoughtful and meaningful comments on works at the museum.
So, why is it important for audiences to interact with art? Well first of all, if the museum-goer puts something about the collections on their social media it can inspire more people to visit. More importantly; though, it creates a dialogue between the institution and the viewer.
Sometimes it’s not enough to just stand in front of a piece. Thinking about and reacting to art is as important as looking at it. That is precisely the thing that curators are prompting you to do.
With the areas designed for audience interaction the viewer can:
- take time to critically reflect and develop his or her own opinion of the exhibit(s);
- consider what he or she liked or disliked;
- address how it made him or her feel; and
- relate it to his or her own life.
These sorts of reactions are what art is about, anyone can be an art critic and you don’t need an art history degree to be able to talk about it. That’s why we at the Boca Raton Museum of Art encourage everyone to Tweet, Instagram, Facebook or Post-it about something they enjoyed at the museum!