The US-China Museums Summit addressed how museums meet the needs of their ever-changing communities.
Art Radar recaps some of the key points from the session chaired by Asia Society Museum’s Boon Hui Tan.
On 28 September 2016, the Asia Society Museum held the panel discussion “US and Chinese Museums and their Communities”. The talk was part of the two-day “US-China Museums Summit”, a gathering of museum directors and professionals that discussed possible collaborations between the museums of the two nations.
Moderated by Vice President of Global Arts and Cultural Programmes and Director of Asia Society Museum Boon Hui Tan, the panelists included:
- Sharon Matt Atkins, Vice Director of Exhibitions and Collections Management, Brooklyn Museum
- Qizhi Wang, Deputy Director, Nanjing Museum
- Catherine Futter, Curatorial Affairs, Nelson-Atkins Museum
- Heng Wu, Deputy Director of the Cultural Exchange Centre, Nanjing Museum
- Katherine Anne Paul, Curator, Arts of Asia, Newark Museum
Here Art Radar presents some of the key points from the speakers.
Who visits museums?
Boon Hui Tan opened the session noting that we are currently living in the age of museums where visitor numbers are ever increasing. Nations like China are growing particularly fast. With 4,500 museums and some of the highest attendance rates in the world, Chinese museums are quickly catching up with museums that have been developing for over 200 years. But in spite of the fast development and focus on big buildings, Tan points out that
all museums are social entities, they exist as part of society…it’s not just about the building.
So in this era of so-called global audiences, what kind of communities are involved in museums? Museum audiences change from institution to institution and the panel agreed that there is not just one audience that they target. Rather there are multiple stakeholders, ranging from members and financial supporters to artists and locals who live in the area.
Atkins highlighted that regardless of the international recognition a museum achieves, it’s important to consider the people who live locally. She explains of the Brooklyn Museum:
when we’re thinking about our programming, we really want to make sure that not only are we doing high level program that draws attention from that kind of audience, but that we’re also doing things for the families that live in the neighbourhood…They [need to] feel that they have a place…it’s a constant balancing act between the two.
Targeting programmes for a local audience is something that Wang also raised. Nanjing Museum is a large regional museum, but most of the visitors are local or national tourists. International tourists currently make up fewer than ten percent of the total attendance.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum also receives few tourist visitors. Futter explained that in 2002 the museum became free to the public, and since then they have been trying to make it as open as possible. They actively seek partnerships with local communities through connecting with diverse cultural festivals such as the Mexican Day of the Dead festival and various Southeast Asian festivals. They also connect with community organisations such as art schools and contemporary art museums.
The Newark Museum also has a long history of outreach programmes that incorporate local festivals into the exhibition programme as a way to reach out to communities. Paul mentioned that there have been times when Newark Museum has been very successful reaching out to communities through translation. For one of their exhibitions they had a staff member who was from Shanghai who contacted Chinese language press in the region, which provoked local as well as international responses. This also occurred with a Korean exhibition. By having the content in different languages, diverse communities became interested in the museum’s collection. The museum also provides tours in different languages for local Korean, Mandarin and Spanish-speaking schools.
Engaging with young audiences
Several of the museums use dance and music events to draw in younger audiences. In the case of the Brooklyn Museum, the Saturday night dance party became so popular that they had to scale it back. Atkins pointed out that the dance party attracted more people into the exhibition spaces as well, not just to the dance party events.
Futter argued that the Nelson-Atkins Museum found it more effective to build long-lasting partnerships. She explains:
What we’ve found more successful is partnering with younger people, and they bring their friends in so they take ownership of a program…I think it’s actually [about] making the museum a place where they want to spend their time when they’re not at a rave or a dance party.
The panelists each mentioned a range of strategies to engage younger audiences, such as: establishing a youth programme for teen guides, setting up a youth advisory group, creating family days and family activities, developing links with local schools to set up visits and doing scavenger hunts in the museum for university students’ orientation to the city. One unexpected activity for younger audiences was the suggestion that the museum is a good place to take a date. In fact, Wu recounted that Nanjing Museum was rated as the number one place to go on a date in Nanjing.
Creating interactive exhibitions was also a strategy suggested by Wang. Nanjing Museum has three halls targeted at younger audiences. In the Media Hall for example, animations are used to tell love stories from ancient times. Visitors can also interact by telling their own stories, which then become part of the exhibition.
This need for diverse engagement was supported by Atkins, who said that
[we asked] what was the kind of engagement our visitors wanted, and the thing that we heard time and time again was that it was the experience of having a curator or a docent taking them through the galleries and having that kind of dialogue.
As a result, the museum set up a system where questions could be answered in real time by a team of museum staff via a mobile application.
Challenges of future audiences
Audiences are changing rapidly and it is a challenge for museums to keep up. This is a current problem that museums will increasingly face in the next ten years. As Tan explains in one example,
In Auckland in five years […] Asians and Pacific Islanders will be more than 50 per cent of the demographic. And the museums there are struggling with the fact that they cannot get any leaders from these communities onto their boards […] and the reason is very simple. The response is: your entire collection does not have a single object that represents me.
This is a very real problem for many museums, as they do not necessarily represent some of the larger growing communities in their local or national context. Some of the museums are trying to bridge this gap through linking in with local festivals or by interpreting their collections in the context of different communities. However, as Paul points out, it can be difficult to financially maintain the current collections museums have, let alone finding the resources to develop a new one.
Meanwhile, Nanjing Museum expects to see more international growth. Currently, the museum is increasing its visitors by ten per cent every year, and Wang expects visitor numbers to continue to grow. Nanjing as a city continues to open up, the airport will open international route for example, which should bring in more international visitors in the next ten years.
Another area of growth for Nanjing Museum is that in recent years there has been more interest in exhibitions from abroad. There seems to be a lot of interest not just in local culture, but visitors are also curious about foreign countries. According to Wang, this interest will probably only increase in the future.
Atkins argues that in order to keep up with changing audiences, it is important for museums to be nimble and relevant to current concerns. This needs to happen not only at the programming level, but also through the exhibitions and the way the collections are presented. Atkins explains that “it’s a challenge, particularly for a larger museum to be nimble, to be able to be responsive.” But ideally a museum can become a place where conversations about the things that are impacting daily lives can happen.
So what will change in the museum of the future? Atkins posits that it will be everything and nothing:
All the things that we’re talking about in terms of engagement will continue to change as our audience changes but that at the same time that experience, the first hand experience and engagement with a work of art…that’s something that we feel very personally, very deeply, and I don’t think that will go away. As long as there’s the urge to create, I think people feel that kind of connection.
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