How to Matter: A Review of Art of Relevance

Okay, it’s not so much of a review but more of me saying “yaaaas!” to most of what I read in this book but stick with me.

Museums, like many other institutions, are nothing without the people. This is very much why this blog is titled Mining the Public. The public or our guests are the gems that we are searching for that make artworks, interactives, sites, and artifacts significant. art of relevance

I’m no expert on material culture but while objects, whether they be a Abe Lincoln stovepipe hat or Da Vinci painting,  have no significance in a cultural or educational institution without creating context and relevancy. Of course, objects can have meaning and importance to the person(s) associated with them but as time goes on and societies shift simply enshrining something because “it’s important” will not encourage most of the public to engage with our cultural institutions.  This and more are some insights I gathered from reading Art of Relevance by Nina Simon. Simon is an experienced museum professional and she has been important voice on the topic of  making museums about the people with good reason.

“If we give up on the idea, that people should want what we offer, we give up on the idea that what we have is desirable” – Art of Relevance, p.94

You don’t work at a museum, you say? I still think this book could be a worthwhile book for you if you’re involved with a non-profit of any sort, arts organizations, education, marketing, and, as Simon mentions, places of worship. The crux of the book is about how to matter to the people we hope to attract; how to be of value.

What immediately sold me on Art of Relevance was this:

“We believe what we do is relevant to everyone. We can connect it to everyday life, ergo, it is relevant. Everyone can see the door, everyone already has the key, and they can open the door anytime they like…these are delusions.”- Art of Relevance, p. 40

Since I’ve been working in museums (for a whopping 5 ish years combined) and had the opportunity to see the behind the scenes of what goes into exhibit planning, something that consistently irked me is a vague belief that this exhibit or museum is for “everyone”. The target audience is “everyone” or other broad terms museums like to use for their intended audience such as: millennials, adults, families, Asian Americans, and any other lumped demographic or category we think of. “This museum is about contemporary art, the audience is adults – maybe even millennials!” Really, all adults? That’s who you’re trying to reach? I criticize it because it’s lazy or, even worse, disingenuous. I’ve surely done it too in program planning but it must change because the audience you want for that exhibit or your museum or your whatever is never “everyone”.

I want to charm you into giving this book a chance by presenting some Simon’s best advice here. At the end I’ll link her Tedx Talk by the same name and let Simon woo you for herself.

Continue reading


Mining the Public?

I have an academic crush and his name is Fred Wilson.

Everyone in the public history world knows Fred Wilson and if you don’t yet you will. Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who is known for his challenge to traditional presentations of art and artifacts. In the public history world he is most notably known for his exhibit for Maryland Historical Society titled “Mining the Museum” in which artifacts like a gorgeous European silver tea set was juxtaposed to slave shackles. The kind of thing he does unsettles and is amazing! He dug deep (“mined”) the museum’s collection to say something new and valuable. I am most inspired by him and that is where I get my blog title “Mining the Public”. For me, mining the public is my public history philosophy; my belief is that the general “public” has incredible complexity and wealth of historical knowledge and we public historians should recognize it, analyze it, critique, and contextualize it with our specialized learning. Call it shared authority, if you want, I call it respect.

Recently I discovered two websites that are related to this concept. The Experience Project is a social media website that has millions of users and was founded in 2007 as a platform for people to share their experiences on a particular subject with others. Those experiences are categorized under subject headings such as food, health, travel, etc. Responses range from short and lighthearted to deep insightful reflections. Sometimes users ask others about their experiences. The site is an exemplar of web 2.0: social media, interaction, and user-generated. While this site doesn’t have anything to do with history exactly I did find another site that operates on a similar premise but as a digital archive of social history.

Indian Memory Project
was founded in February 2010 by Anusha Yadav as a way to allow “regular” Indians the chance to digitally archive their family stories, letters, and images as an open repository of Indian history. The site reads like an open scrapbook of a whole country. Stories relate to the history of Indian independence or a widowed great-grandmother who educated herself. While the site could profit from objective historical context or commentary, this site is the brain-child of social history and web 2.0. Yadav noted that archives in first-world countries are successful but archives are very different in India and Shefali Bhushan of Beat of India (a Indian folk music site) also complains of Indian archives criticizing that they:”lock things in a cupboard where they gather fungus” [1]. Formalized memory isn’t just for the elite and its an archaic message that is clearly being challenged around the world.

Neither Yadav or Bhushan are public historians but we can all take a lesson in learning how we can use the web to diversify and democratize history. Of course, we must question whose stories have more weight; is everyone’s story equal? Should everyone get equal say in history? How best can we contextualize these expressions of social history while still recognizing non-academic public knowledge and experience? It is no easy set of questions but it deserves continued exploration. Until then we, academic and public historians, should keep mining the public.