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.
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.