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Interpreting the Future of Art Museums

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

I’ve blogged about the emergence of new kinds of positions in museums over the last decade. This week, four leaders in interpretive planning from the Nelson-Atkins, Denver, and High art museums as well as the Detroit Institute of Arts share an evolving conversation about one of these new roles, and invites you to weigh in.

Last year, on the day prior to the Alliance’s annual conference, a group of museum educators met to discuss a position that is slowly gaining ground in art museums—that of “interpretive planner.” All of us were engaged full-time in the conceptual development of visitor experiences in our museums, and as we discussed our work and our changing museums, we realized that on some important levels, we were responding to the work of CFM! 
In the early nineties, general museum practice, particularly in science and natural history settings, shifted to a team approach to exhibition development. The makeup of the team varied from institution to institution, but in all cases a broad range of staff were involved in deciding which stories to tell and how to tell them. Generally, in these settings, such work is referred to as exhibition development. For some reason, this move to a team-based approach did not spread to art museums (with some notable exceptions). Today however, we are aware of approximately thirty art museums that have adopted this team-based approach, and added the associated position, interpretive planner, to their ranks.
Why are interpretive planners becoming more common in art museums now?
  • Increasing sensitivity to visitor expectations. The museum field as a whole is becoming more sophisticated about what visitors want, and art museums are following that trend.
  • Diversifying demographics. As CFM has documented, our country is becoming increasing diverse. Current minority groups, which collectively will soon become the majority, often do not have museum-going as part of their culture. It is critical for museums to understanding how to build a sense of welcome and accessibility for broad audiences, from the choice of exhibition theme and message, to the options we present to visitors for engaging with our objects and ideas.
  • Dramatic shifts in what society expects from education. As we move to a more democratic, learner-based era in which individuals can access information anywhere, museums must create a broader array of products for learners to choose from, allowing them to be the leaders in their own learning.
  • A growing sense that art can be a source of cross-cultural understanding. This encourages museums to develop opportunities to inspire civic dialogue.
  • Changing expectations of authority. Audiences are less interested in the anonymous voice of the museum, and increasingly interested in multiple perspectives of both experts and their peers.
  • Changing attitudes about the importance of creativity as a vital “21st century skill.” Suddenly, art museums have a strong argument for relevancy: art museums are great places to demonstrate, invite, and promote creative thinking and creative problem solving.  
  • The increasing role of technology in the museum experience. The integration of technology into our everyday lives, and hence into visitor’s engagement with the museum, forces us to rethink both the delivery of information and the opportunities for new relationships with information.
  • Deconstruction of the dominant narrative. Art museums are finally acknowledging their collection and installation choices create a narrative, one that is perceived as unobtrusive but tailored by and to members of the dominant culture. Becoming more democratic involves being comfortable with integrating community input into exhibition development decisions, an advocacy role which is often taken on by interpretive planners.

In response to these changes, art museum educators with expertise in free-choice learning, visitor motivation, cultural attitudes, physical and cognitive accessibility and modes of response and participation are beginning to take a leadership role in the shaping of visitor experiences in gallery spaces. At this moment in time, most such staff work under the title of “interpretive planner.” It is up to us to determine how this position develops in the next decade.

Here are a few of the points our group discussed in Baltimore regarding what art museums need to consider as the position of interpretive planner grows, develops, and becomes institutionalized:
  • The impact on organizational structures and resource allocation.
  • The creation of interpretive planning documents and processes.
  • The importance of a shared understanding of the role of interpretive planning. Is this a moment in art museum history when interpretive planning is really getting defined and codified? (While retaining flexibility, of course!)
  • Where do we find the necessary training in interpretive planning and trained practitioners? There is currently no one academic credential or work experience that prepares folks for this work—it’s highly interdisciplinary. People who currently hold the position of interpretive planner have generally apprenticed and are usually self-trained.
If you’re are working as a full-time interpretive planner in your art museum, and would like to participate in our second annual gathering, at the annual meeting in Seattle, please contact any of the authors listed below.
Judith Koke
Director, Education and Interpretive Programs
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Heather Nielsen
Associate Director of Education, Master Teacher, Native Arts and New World
Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado
Jennifer Czajkowski
Vice President of Learning and Interpretation
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan

Julia Forbes
Head of Museum Interpretation and Digital Engagement
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
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1 Comment

  1. Imagine a City…

    Imagine a city where every home had on it's front lawn a piece of sculpture or an art installation.

    Imagine a city where each and every business invited artists to exhibit their work to the company's patrons.

    Imagine a city where instead of gifting clothing, electronics, chocolate, or cash, a work of art was given, and appreciated.

    Imagine a city where each and every home housed and preserved an art collection. Where insecurities over self-interests were dispensed with, and collections reflected those varied tastes.

    Imagine a city where glass, pottery, painting, photography. fibers, basketry, and even graffiti were embraced. Where the artists themselves were looked upon as a treasured resource. No matter their perspective.

    Imagine a city where any construction project involved multiple artists, in its' execution.

    Imagine a city which preserved its' creative heritage and embraced it.

    Imagine a city which understood, that capturing a slice of life had merit. But to alter a communities perspective to embrace all thought and belief, strengthened it, not weakened it.

    Imagine a city which led the World in cultural munificence which would then reap the reward of becoming a global mecca.

    Imagine a city which could step outside of what others were doing could walk the path of its' own making.

    Imagine a city where meetings to enact such change, needn't take place. Rather a spontaneous change came from its' citizenry itself.

    Imagine a city which artists flocked to; enabling them to create without fear of censorship or derision.

    Imagine a city not dependent upon their museums or art schools for their lead in any discussions of artistic merit, but rather the career artists themselves.

    I have imagined this city since childhood, as have most of my colleagues. Instead we've swum through muck, hoping such change would miraculously happen without distracting us from our labors. Or moved to the closest metropolis which appeared poised to take the plunge.

    Cleveland, like most cities, while not a blank canvas; is one, where the image it sports has faded beyond restoration. The time to paint over it has come. Shiny new unaesthetic buildings, are simply masking the rot.

    Marc Breed, Fine Artist

    "In the distant future, when America is a mere shadow of itself, who historically, shall be remembered? In sports, an argument can be made for Ruth, Chamberlain, Gretzky, Ali, et al. In Art, there is but one name, Breed."

    -Smithsonian Magazine

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