Reconsidering the Priorities of Museum Practice

The question I ask myself every now and then, is – as Michael Edson put it, visiting Helsinki last autumn – if there exists “a bias” in the museum industry of “getting a person in front of the artwork” in a museum setting? And if this is true, should we reconsider and revise the priorities of current museum practice?

With the fabulous new HAM (http://hamhelsinki.fi) re-opened and a brand new art museum Amos Rex (http://amosanderson.fi/en/lasipalatsi/) soon to be constructed directly opposite to the Kiasma – and moreover, the annual museum card gaining in popularity – well, the industry seems to be blooming here in Finland. The Finnish National Gallery alone attracted well over 500 000 visitors last year.

Even the Solomon R. Guggenheim foundation seems to have a vested interest in the Finnish museum-going people, as well as the steady flow of tourists visiting Helsinki (http://www.guggenheimhki.fi/en/).

However, my question, regarding the possible bias is, how can museums best reach out to new audiences, besides “the regular crowd” visiting the museum’s collections and intriguing exhibitions at the physical site?

A few years back, the Rijksmuseum, located in Amsterdam, Netherlands, transferred well over 100 000 high-resolution images of the artworks in their collection in the internet. In conjunction, the museum also created the Rijksstudio, where the general public can create their own collections of images and edit them. Furthermore, the collection data of these artworks can now be downloaded free of charge. An unprecedented online buzz resulted.

As the most feasible way to reach people besides those visiting the museum site is to upload quality content, for example, images of and information on artworks on the internet or social media, many museums around the world are starting to embrace open data.

In the book “Sharing is Caring – Openness and Sharing in the Cultural Heritage Sector”, Merete Sanderhoff describes the current online and offline practices of the Statens Museum for Kunst, located in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Last week, Sanderhoff also visited the Finnish National Gallery, giving a brief talk of her work in the SMK.

What makes the current practice of the SMK really groundbreaking is that the staff of the museum, on all levels, is now deeply involved in facilitating sharing, reuse, sampling and remixes of the digital resources.

Some prime examples of the facilitation of image reuse are the extensive community projects that have been undertaken by the SMK staff. These involve getting a group of local youth to meet the staff once per week, to brainstorm and carry out projects where the artwork images are appropriated to the cityscape, as well as handing over control of the museum space to artists and creatives for an arts hackathon.

In her talk, Sanderhoff emphasized that acting as a catalyst for creative ideas of the general public or other creative people is now a practice permeating the organization of the SMK.

Last year, the FNG conducted an extensive research on its audience’s preferences regarding art museums. For this research, 500 people from Finland were asked to fill out a questionnaire regarding their views on art. This questionnaire included 18 sample images of the artworks of the collections of the FNG.

This research clearly indicated, that in addition to viewing art in a museum setting, the majority of Finnish people who replied to the questionnaire would also like to see artworks elsewhere – for example on the streets of their cities, or when visiting shopping centers – or even when using public transportation.

I think the FNG’s recent collaboration with the Lux Helsinki light installations festival in the beginning of this year makes for a prime example of contemporary art reaching out to new audiences, of art integrating to the cityscape, as well as of art becoming a topic of various conversations on the internet. By collaborating with the festival, the FNG attracted numerous new visitors in the Ateneum building, while the beautiful images of the colorful façade and the various light installations inside spread online during the festival.

The results of this type of collaborative projects can be very rewarding for all parties involved.

Art can substantially enhance the look and feel of the cityscape, and our everyday environment. And besides the museum site, given a chance, art can also thrive online and generate a buzz online and in social networks.

In order to better address their long-term strategic objectives, will art museums be making this kind of collaborative and community-based practice and reaching out to new audiences online their top priority in the future?

Author: Iiris Konttinen

I am a digital service design and digital marketing professional based in Helsinki, Finland.