Museums are curious spaces. They house collections of related items, which have been thoughtfully distributed throughout the space and labeled in some way so that people know what they are looking at.
They are valuable in that they are generally accessible, allowing people to observe items in person that they might only ever see in books or on television. Their concentrated themes help provide a greater context for any single item or moment in history.
But I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I have a complicated relationship with museums. They have a reputation for being places many people feel obligated to visit. After all, if the things in museums didn’t have some sort of significance, they wouldn’t be in museums … right? Yet, how many people do you know have said they aren’t “museum people?”
As a child, I remember going to museums and feeling no connection to anything around me. We wandered room after room after room filled with “important” things accompanied by informational placards, but these things weren’t important to me.
If the things in museums didn’t have some sort of significance, they wouldn’t be in museums … right? Yet, how many people do you know have said they aren’t “museum people?”
I know now that I don’t have to look at every item, read every placard, or even walk through every room. I understand now that museums are about far more than the collections they hold; it’s about what these things represent and how they are represented. Overtime, I’ve been drawn to museums that share honest, interesting stories rather than ones filled with priceless, valuable things without that meaningful context.
Museums have long been static, highly curated, and pristine environments. Some are starting to shift their storytelling strategies.
Double Down on Accuracy
Despite the fact museums are intended to house a factual record of history, they need to be approached with caution. What is presented in a museum is like any other story — a single perspective. Even if there is a team of curators, they collectively made a decision about what to display (or not), how to showcase the items, what to emphasize or de-emphasize, and how to describe the items on display.
There is a lot of conversation right now about whether items stolen or acquired by colonizers should be returned to their place of origin. Beyond that conversation, though, there is a movement afoot for museums to be more transparent about the items on display and how they acquired their collections.
Based in London, Alice Procter currently offers Uncomfortable Art Tours at six museums. On these tours, Procter helps visitors “unravel the role colonialism played in shaping and funding a major national collection, looking at the broader material history of celebrated works: where the money comes from, the ways they’ve been displayed, and the ideological aesthetics at work.” She also calls on museums to rethink the way they present their galleries with “display it like you stole it” stickers and notecards.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is beginning to recognize the personal stories and atrocities tied to many of its items and is taking this kind of feedback to heart. Right now, the Rijksmuseum & Slavery exhibit includes additional labels on 77 items in the museum that explore their relationship with Dutch colonial slavery. Unfortunately, this display ends at the end of February.
Freedom from Censors
Museums are a place to think and learn — but should they be censored?
Four Austrian museums and the Vienna Tourist Board don’t think so. Bumping up against social media’s PG-13 censors, the Albertina Museum, Leopold Museum, Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum), and the Naturhistorisches Museum Vienna (Natural History Museum) turned to the subscription-based, 18+ social platform OnlyFans to share their “risqué” content.
According to the tourist board, “Vienna and its art institutions are among the casualties of this new wave of prudishness — with nude statues and famous artworks blacklisted under social media guidelines, and repeat offenders even finding their accounts temporarily suspended.”
Many people are content with keeping uncomfortable topics at arm’s length and behind glass. When museums encourage this through curation choices, they don’t invite visitors to grapple with complexity and the reality of the world we live in.
Madelaine Jamieson wrote her master’s thesis on how immigration museums can facilitate transformative experiences for their visitors. She noted the importance in creating relatable visitor experiences so as to humanize people and foster empathy. The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, for example, uses interactive elements like self-focused questionnaires that “push visitors to re-evaluate the differences between themselves and refugees,” Jamieson said.
Similarly, the most impactful immigration museums connect visitors to these seemingly “foreign” stories of immigration through exhibits curated around shared values. This is part of “a larger shift among immigration museums to go beyond telling just the traditional story of migration as a physical journey, and instead focus exhibits on broader themes and emotions that are relatable, engaging and, to some extent, timeless,” Jamieson said.
For example, the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, Australia, has featured exhibits on love, coming of age, home, identity, and belonging. The Interkulturelt Museum in Norway had an exhibit on unpacking prejudice, and the Pier 21 museum considers themes of hope, fear, and exclusion in its exhibit about refugees. “This approach also allows migration to be talked about in a contemporary sense as opposed to thinking only about the large historical waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Jamieson said. “This shift from historical/linear storytelling to thematic storytelling opens up many opportunities to build empathetic engagements.”
Context Beyond the Collection
People flock to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, for its art. Now, travelers are being encouraged to disperse across Tuscany through the Uffizi Diffusi program, which is building ties between the famous art gallery and small museums and towns throughout the area by lending art usually kept in storage.
This is a win-win-win situation: It is an anecdote to overtourism, it spreads the financial benefits of tourism and cultural awareness throughout the region, and it provides critical context and geographic significance for many of the pieces on loan.
According to this New York Times article about the initiative, “The Uffizi’s curators and scholarly staff work with local curators to help select the works on loan. ‘You need to present a historically interesting and correct narrative,’ (the Uffizi’s curator Eike) Schmidt said. ‘We don’t just put the name of the town into the database and say the painting was there, so let’s bring it there.’”
Beyond Items to Experience
When I lived in Kyiv, Ukraine, I visited a museum called Three After Midnight where I didn’t see a single thing. This museum features tours led completely in the dark by people who are blind. Instead of a curated theme or collection of items, this museum exposes people to a new experience of tactile and oral awareness with context by people who are familiar with this kind of environment.
Similarly, the Typhlological Museum is a collection of tangible and intangible items related to people with disabilities, specifically those with vision impairments. With locations in Zagreb, Croatia, and Madrid, Spain, these museums welcome people with disabilities to participate in a variety of activities and exhibits while working to correct negative perceptions and encourage the wider community to think and experience beyond their day-to-day reality.
Just because museums have historically been framed and presented in a certain way doesn’t mean they have to stay that way. Simply based on what they are, museums have a lot to offer both visitors and local residents.
The examples presented here show just a few of the ways these would-be-static exhibits are breaking out of that yawn-worthy, predictable packaging using new tactics for curation, transparency, installation, promotion, and guest interaction — all creative ideas worth considering.