Sunday, July 4, 2010

Are Local Museums the Best Social Museums?

There's lots of discussion right now about how museums can be social places, places to gather, to come together, to enjoy each other's company.  And amidst all the talk,  I'd forgotten how nice an event that just brings people together can be--and this weekend, I got a beautiful reminder in the town of Opishne, in the Poltava region of Ukraine.   It's a bit unusual for a museum with national status to be located in a town the size of Opishne,  but the National Museum of Ceramics, run by an energetic director, Oles Poshyvailo, is.   So it's a national museum, but with a distinctly local flare and connection to this town, the traditional home of many potters.  For the past two weeks, there's been a ceramics festival, culminating in Saturday's National Potters' Day.

So what happened during these two weeks?  A unique combination of events:
  • A scholarly symposium about Ukrainian traditional ceramics
  • A two week artists' residency where 12 contemporary ceramic artists from 5 countries came to live and work, producing three works each for a juried show--and as side results, many new connections and ideas for collaborations among them
  • The juried show, a juried show of traditional ceramics and a juried show of photos about ceramics
  • The presentation of a new publication on Opishne ceramics in a Moscow museum
  • Special exhibits in the museum's several buildings
  • Master classes and demonstrations

and finally on Friday and Saturday, a fair held in the center of town--and that's the event that reminded me that museums, particularly local museums, can be these community centers.  It's particularly compelling here, where the event was held on the grounds of the former House of Culture, built by the Soviets to replace the traditional gathering places in communities.  But here, the event had the feel of a small-town event anywhere.  Local dignitaries (and not so local, including me) made opening speeches, traditional musicians performed,  young and old alike got to get their hands dirty trying a potter's wheel, slip decoration and straw braiding.  Hayrides, the sale of traditional pottery and a benefit auction and nicely out back, away from the main event,  a bouncy castle and the junk food I associate with a county fair.

And who attended this event?  Lots of people from the town--arriving by foot, bikes, scooter and car. The contemporary artists, jurors and scholars,  people from the larger community of Poltava.  Young people, old people, in between people.

The ceramics museum is, I suspect, the major employer in town and its employees worked incredibly hard during the two weeks to make the event a success.  Their success resonates beyond the museum however as it also served as a bit of an economic generator.  Artists and others were put up in local homes,  a restaurant served lunch every day,  I bought ceramics from local potters:  all those things make a difference in the local economy, no matter where you are.

I've planned fairs and festivals myself, and I know how much work they are (and how lucky one is to get a beautiful day like Saturday) and sometimes I groaned at keeping them fresh and new.  But in fact, the opportunity to see friends and neighbors, to enjoy music, to enjoy the work of potters and other craftspeople--and perhaps bring a piece home.  These things are the things that can  make local museums important social places.

Ukrainian museums lean towards the scientific--it often seems as if it is not acceptable to have fun in a museum setting.  In Opishne,  I found wonderful proof that the two can be combined.


milk said...

I totally agree with what you are saying. It seems like little local museums can reach more easily the community and the community feels really involved compared to bigger national museums. I am doing a research on how museums, especially contemporary art museums, are trying to open up to new publics, to be inclusive and socially engaging to the community (here's my blog It looks like most of them are trying to be entertaining and are adopting very commercial marketing strategies to overcome these challenges. I am also working as part of the reasearch team on visitors in a small London museum and I am impressed by how much visitors of that part of the city care and enjoy that musuem.
Should the big museums try to imitate the small ones or should they just stick to their nature of being mostly touristic attractions?

Linda Norris said...

Thanks for such a great comment--I think there's a number of contemporary art museums that do a great job at connecting with their publics (in the US, MassMOCA and Brooklyn come particularly to mind) but I love hearing that there's still a place for museums that small communities (even in big cities like London) love and care about. I think it's not about big or little, but perhaps about finding the way that's right for your organization. Not every place should be a tourist attraction and not every place should be a locally-only focused place. I'm always interested in finding guest bloggers and if you wanted to write about the visitor research at the small museum as a guest post, I'd love to have it.

Jenna said...

Nina Simon of the blog Museum 2.0 has been posting a lot recently about Ray Oldenburg's book "The Great Good Place" and the potential role of museums as social gathering spaces. If you have yet to hear of the book or read her posts, I think it would be something you would find very interesting. Thank you for the wonderful information about a part of the world few of us get to see, and what their museums are like!

Jenna said...

I meant to include the link to Nina Simon's blog in my original comment. Here it is!

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Jenna--I've been a fan of Nina's blog for a long time--and have to admit, I read Oldenberg's book a long time ago and her recent posts have encouraged me to take another look at it as she and other guest bloggers have delved more deeply into than my initial read--so thanks for the reminder. And, thanks for reading the blog. Yes, I've been really lucky to be here and have this experience--and happy to share it!

milk said...

You're welcome Linda!
I would be pleased to write about the research, even though I am not personally responsible for it, so I am not sure I can say much about it. But I can surely share my experience of interviewing visitors if that could interest you!
Even though you don't specifically talk about art museums, I would love it if you could participate in my blog or if you want, you can join the group I have just created:
Back to the topic now.
Yes, I think you are right, it all depends on what the organisation wants to be.
For art museums this is particularly difficult to understand. To survive they need to increase the number of visitors and to be inclusive, therefore they must engage the visitor and attract the non visitor, but sometimes the visitor does not want to be engaged or is simply not interested: I am conducting a parallel research, asking people who are not in the arts what kind of relationship they have with art museums (especially modern/contemporary), and it looks like many of them do not like art, do not understand it or do not want to understand it.
That's a hard challenge for a museum that wants to open up to new publics..

Linda Norris said...

Sorry to be a slow responder--transitioning from Ukraine back home...would love to have you write about your experiences interviewing if you're interested, write away and just email me something...Thanks so much!


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