Nina Simon: Memo from the Revolution

I had the pleasure of hearing Nina Simon speak yesterday at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto, Ontario. For those who don’t know, Nina Simon is a rock star in the museum community known for her participatory approach at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) and blog Museum 2.0. Her talk called “Memo from the Revolution” was enlightening and very exciting to hear.

Nina Simon spoke about change, relevance and community. She took her museum from an elitist place lacking visitors, to a community centred hot spot. Instead of the museum acting a a platform, the museum has become a place where the community can become facilitators through collaboration. Social bridging and fearless experimentation are paving the way towards change at MAH.

One of my favourite ideas that Nina Simon is working on is a pop up museum. A place is chosen in the city along with a theme, and people can come and bring their own objects to share with one another. Why are the museums’ objects more important than someone else’s? This brings up a whole other world of interesting ideas.

Nina Simon explained that working at a small institution allows for magic in a way different than larger institutions, where smaller museums can try new and innovative experiments.

I personally think these ideas are great, but Nina Simon did speak about people adverse to these changes. There are still those people that want to visit a museum as a place of information. They don’t see the museum as an important community resource, but instead it’s a place of knowledge – and the museum curators know the ultimate answers.

Nina Simon mentioned a visitor card in her museum where someone wrote, is this a museum or a community centre? And another visitor responded – does it matter? Well, does it? In a city that has the opportunity to have more than one type of museum, perhaps it is okay to have both. But, we are now more than ever seeing the decline of visitation to museums. Potential visitors aren’t making use of these amazing facilities, still seeing them as elitist institutions where they don’t belong. So, even if someone argued that a museum should only be a place of knowledge, what’s the point if no one is going to come? If museums keep remaining the same and not listening to members of their community, these beautiful treasured buildings are going to have to close their doors. And that would be a shame.

This really does bring us back to why museums matter. Think about it: why do museums matter? Is it because they house objects from the past? In which case, who cares if people visit – the museums are doing their jobs. Or is it to share art history, history and the past with the public. In which case, when visitors come through the doors, museums are doing their job. The museum is exhibiting the object it’s preserving over time. Or is it taking it a step further, ensuring people are learning about the objects when visiting. Or even one step further and making sure visitors are learning – something – anything – when visiting. Even if it’s just about themselves and not about the objects. Maybe it’s about making engagement, a fun place, a connection (with objects or people). Or social bridging as Nina Simon put it, bringing people together who normally would not ever connect.

So even if people see museums as resources of knowledge and power, what really is the point of that if no one is visiting? What’s the point of preserving an object if people don’t get to see it. So that one day in the future there’s a record of the past? Who bloody cares – we won’t be around anymore. We need to enjoy these objects now, while we can. The only way in this modern day to get people go to museums is to make them relevant. Otherwise, they’ll just collect dust. People don’t make black and white movies anymore unless they have a reason. We text, we blog, we watch TV and movies with super graphics. The world is adapting to change all around us, and it’s time that museums do too. That is, if we still want them to exist.  (To be continued…).

Want to learn more? Yesterday’s talk from the Textile Museum is now online: here.


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