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How Participation and Expertise are Key to Museum Experiences

Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a controversial article titled “Everybody’s an Art Curator” that reported that “museums are increasingly outsourcing the curation of their exhibits to the public.” The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, for example, will feature an exhibition about the ocean that might combine artists’ works with someone’s GoPro footage of surfing or a two-year-old’s drawing “that’s been on the fridge for five months.” That may get people in the door and win friends—admittedly half the battle—but, without thoughtful collateral programming, it loses sight of the museum’s mission, which is to inform the public in significant ways. Careful looking and thoughtful questioning—about an artwork and its relevance to everyday existence—are crucial to analytic thinking, a skill that adds enormous richness to life and makes for a more attentive and politically astute citizenry. Museums should be fertile ground for making the connection between culture and a deeper understanding of the world.

The situation in Santa Cruz reflects issues that are central to museums today. As with everything in contemporary life, we have been affected by the way technology has changed communication and the exchange of information. All over the country, museums are starting to produce more programming that includes viewer participation. This is because participation, whether digital or analog, is embedded in the ethos of the information age. Interactivity is not, however, an ideal intrinsic to the traditional museum, whose very structure is based on notions of expertise and the authority that flows from that.

Curators create exhibitions based on research and a body of knowledge that they have often spent years acquiring. The familiar gestures of social networking—liking and sharing—provide a way to communicate our experiences, but a museum must also offer the possibility of learning something surprising and new. The goal must be to make the staff’s knowledge accessible without diminishing the complexity on which it is based. At the same time, we need to credit the understanding and life experience that museum visitors bring to the conversation by providing the intellectual space for them to engage directly and in exciting ways with the art that we show.

Sebastian Errazuriz’s wall of drawings and visitor activity table
Outside of the Forum Gallery exhibition Sebastian Errazuriz: Look Again, a visitor activity table encouraged the public to sketch their own ideas.

In other words, it’s all about balance; and museums all over the country are experimenting with how to achieve a satisfying balance between expertise and participation. At Carnegie Museum of Art, we have been considering these issues for some time. Among other efforts, our education department has instituted a workshop program in which visitors make art with artists who are showing at the museum, such as 2013 Carnegie International artist Nicole Eisenman and artist/designer Sebastian Errazuriz, whose exhibition is currently on view. For his show, Errazuriz also designed a table where visitors can make drawings inspired by his own. Audience participation is central to the Hillman Photography Initiative project A People’s History of Pittsburgh, a crowd-sourced online album of the city and its inhabitants, which will be the basis of a print publication next year.

As successful as these and other endeavors have been, the kind of institutional change that will allow us to best serve 21st-century audiences is still a work in progress. At CMOA, our goal over the next few years will be to find new ways to reach more people with a message that is engaging, accessible, and profound, and that supports our belief that the visual arts are essential in creating an educated populace able to meet the challenges of the future.

Inside the Museum is Carnegie Museum of Art director Lynn Zelevansky’s blog about the local and global impacts of the museum and the art world. For past installments, please visit the archive.