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Dialogue Centres—Wave of the Future?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

This week’s CFM guest blogger is Robert Janes, editor-in-chief of Museum Management and Curatorship, Chair of the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley and former president and CEO of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Canada. (Hence the spelling of “Dialogue Centre.”) This post is adapted from Robert’s recently published book Museums in a Troubled World in which he explores the meaning and role of museums as key intellectual and civic resources in a time of profound social and environmental change.

“Although much has been written, and much said, about the role of the museum as a forum, or the more fashionable museum as agora, little has been done to consciously nurture the visitor’s active participation apart from the passive consumption of museum services—exhibits, shops and restaurants. Museums might consider departing from their preoccupation with exhibitions, and replace or augment them with a dialogue centre.

The model I have in mind is the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada part of Simon Frasier University. The Wosk Centre describes itself as “an intellectual home and an advocate for dialogue.” At the Centre, practitioners, researchers and students of dialogue probe the nature of dialogue—that process of interaction whereby open-minded discussion leads to mutual understanding and positive action—and they nurture it in practice. The Centre has ergonomic seating for 154 participants and is arranged in concentric rings for maximum interactivity, with each desk equipped with technology to enhance dialogue.

A dialogue centre is also part of the Science Museum in London, and is a stylish, purpose-built venue designed for experimental dialogue and ‘blending of the best from science, art, performance and multi-media to provoke discussion and real engagement with the key issues of the day.’ Activities at the Dana Centre include stand-up comics debunking science myths, updates on radical research, and handling sessions of rarely seen objects from the Science Museum’s collection, as well as debates on modern science. State-of-the-art digital facilities link the Dana Centre with anyone who has online connectivity, including mobile phones.

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A dialogue centre is a tangible focus for visitor interaction, and could even be used to explore the future of museum exhibits from the visitors’ perspectives. This is an opportunity for the rhetoric about museums as ‘forums of public discussion and safe havens for dialogue’ to actually assume tangible expression. It is highly unlikely that public space in museums, no matter how monumental it is (and there is more and more of this space every year) will ever produce much more than admiration and fatigue. Visitor interaction, as idealized in the forum/agora aspiration, is not going to happen with people standing around as passive observers. Museums are one of the few public institutions that can assume leadership in nurturing active visitor involvement, and dialogue centres are a means to this end. Dialogue centres are a commitment to the future and one which all museums should seriously consider in their renovation or building plans.”

CFM Addendum: notes on dialog center-like activities in U.S. museums
Giving Voice: A Role for Museums in Civic Dialog cites a number of examples of museums using space and programming to promote dialog.

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has invited opposing sides of the garment industry together to listen to an educational program and then discuss all sides of the issue.

The Brooklyn Museum Elizabeth E. Sackler Center for Feminist Art has a “presentation space to promote dialogue and exchange about the exhibits and related issues represented in the galleries.”

The new Center for Civil & Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia will not be an “artifact-driven museum”, but rather “a nexus for dialog and understanding about the universal struggle for civil and human rights.”

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1 Comment

  1. To add to the list of US Museums …The Immigration Sites of Conscience Network – comprised of 13 museums across the country – has dialogue at the forefront of their work. Many of the participants, including ours, have developed dialogue programs where the exhibits (or in some cases the historic site) serve as a catalyst for the dialogue, and as a way to address contemporary issues.

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