“I GET ANNOYED WHEN I SEE THAT A MUSEUM IS DISENFRANCHISING PEOPLE IN THEIR COMMUNITY, YET IS SAYING THEY’RE WELCOMING. IF WE REALLY BELIEVE THAT MUSEUMS ARE PLACES OF PUBLIC SERVICE AND COMMUNITY, THEN WE HAVE TO LIVE UP TO THAT.”
Nina Simon, executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History,
in conversation with Emily Daura, Jiayi Song
EMILY DAURA: Hello.
NINA SIMON: Hey, it’s Nina.
ED: Hi, my name is Emily. Jiayi is at a meeting currently. We covered all the questions together, and I met with her this morning. So she sends her apologies on why she can’t be here. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
NS: My pleasure.
ED: So we have a list of questions I want to ask you, but Jiayi’s and my favorites…we’re just going to get them out of the way first.
We definitely wanted to know, is there anything from your background that influences your enthusiasm in your view for museum and participation?
NS: You mean background, like childhood? You mean background—
ED: Really anything. We have: cultural, environmental, childhood…
ED: What stands out to you?
NS: I definitely am not somebody who grew up loving and wanting to work in museums. I didn’t spend a lot of time in museums as a kid. But when I was in high school, somebody gave me a copy of this book, The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life Education. It’s a book about ‘un-schooling’ and this idea that we learn best on our own terms and in our own approach.
I got really curious about this idea of free-choice learning and did a bunch of exploration around that, and ended up finding the museums. In my case, I was an engineer and science centers are places where a lot of this could and was happening, so that kind of got me excited about it. I’m really excited about an idea of a pedagogy that is non-oppressive and is based on igniting and supporting learners, as opposed to ‘teaching’ people something.
ED: So we’re big fans, both of us, of ‘Museum 2.0.’ We’re both first years in arts administration policy. This year we went through a course that covered museum pedagogy and engagement, and we really liked one of your articles—a lot of your articles—and we came up with this next question. Do you believe more traditional, large museums that are fixed in traditional methods can successfully adapt your theories that you speak of in your book, The Participatory Museum?
NS: Well, I think so. Different sizes and types of museums work for different kinds of people. I always like to say that no matter what the culture of the institution or the people involved, people always want a way to express themselves and be heard. So I think that the strategies that we make, work differently in different museums. And certainly there’s a very big difference between huge museums that are serving a million or more visitors a year and very small ones. But I think that the opportunity to engage people on their own terms and in really genuine ways is the same.
ED: Should every museum be held at the same accountability for the same level of participation?
NS: No, I don’t really think there are…I feel that every museum should be accountable to what its mission is, and as long as you’re being authentic to that. When you think about it like interactivity, for example, children’s museums and science centers have a much higher amount of interactivity in their walls than other kinds of museums, but that’s not to say art or history or science museums don’t have them. They’re just kind of not as front and center. And so in our case our museum is a community museum. Community and community participation is front and center. But I don’t expect that every museum should have that approach, especially if it’s not your mission.
I will say what drives me crazy is any institution that’s disingenuous to its mission. So if you’re a giant museum that—it’s not even about big or small—if you’re a museum that exists to serve your collection, or a very small group or specific niche of your visitors or members, and you put on a marketing message that’s about being a gathering place or being an inclusive place…then I have a problem with you. But I don’t have a problem with any institution with any different kind of mission as long as they’re living it clearly and un-apologetically.
“IN OUR CASE OUR MUSEUM IS A COMMUNITY MUSEUM…”
ED: OK. So actually yesterday in one of our courses we had a talk about ‘the data.’ I want to know, how do you feel about the arts and data? You did a post about data way back.
NS: In terms of some of these things about Dallas Museum of Art and the kind of data collecting of visitor data, instead of dollars, kind of thing? Or what do you mean?
ED: We want to talk about museum data and how museums use their data, and also as a director how you use data.
NS: OK. I think it’s exciting that art institutions of all kinds are paying more attention and putting more resources into understanding their audience and how people do or do not use their spaces, and I think that’s really important and I think a big driver of that has actually been funders. When you apply for a grant, I now have several funders who require us to provide demographic information about our visitors and say to us, ‘Hey, it’s not OK to say you don’t know. You have to be collecting this information to get a grant from us.’ So I think there’s an interesting element of that accountability side of knowing who your people are.
It’s such a big topic, thinking about the value of data. Basically you should measure things where the result could change what you do. So not measuring things that are kind of, ‘It would be nice to know the answer. Oh, I’m curious about X.’ But things that you really feel like, ‘If we knew this we would do something differently.’ So we focus a lot on that kind of data collection, and we focus a lot on demographic data collection too, because we really feel very strongly that we want to exist for everyone in our community and it’s our only way to reliably know the extent to which the people who come reflect the demographics of our community. To capture demographics, it’s something I was resistant to for a long time because I was nervous that it would be very off putting for people to ask those questions. But getting the data has been so helpful and we’ve found that when we say to visitors we’re collecting this because—explaining why—they’re totally comfortable with it.
ED: Do you think collecting that data helps you choose your new exhibit?
NS: No, we don’t use it in that way. We have a theory of change that we use here, so kind of a one-page overview of how we hope to see our mission make change in our community. And so we use the data mostly to validate whether that’s happening or not and see how we can do it better.
ED: OK. So you use it to evaluate if you’re living up to your mission.
“WE HAVE A THEORY OF CHANGE THAT WE USE HERE…”
ED: Do you think there’s a good way for curators to reach out to their museum community, their actual constituents or patrons?
NS: I mean I think there are a million ways, and again, it depends on your mission. ‘How can I as a curator use my skills and expertise to bring more people into the story, to deepen the learning opportunities around it?’ That ability to have expertise is very different from a desire to have power or control, and I think you can have a lot of expertise and invite a lot of people in different ways without diminishing your expertise.
ED: Our last ‘must hit’ question, is one of Jiayi’s favorites. She wanted to know if you believe that there is a shared responsibility between the museum and the audience that comes into a museum, in terms of engagement.
NS: That’s a really nice way to put it. Yes, I think there is. I think it’s about having a sense of openness and trust, and so really the institution respecting and trusting in, expressing interest in what visitors have to offer, and visitors doing the same thing. It’s very much about relationship-building, and that relationship is not one way—and it’s not necessarily just two ways, because there can be so many different ways.
I think that the relationships are different in a small museum. I have the opportunity to really talk to a lot of the people who come in our doors. A large institution is necessarily more transactional. And that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means that it’s different, in the kinds of ways that you can connect with people in the community, and also some of the social norms you can rely on to make it a great experience.
ED: With your museum, since you are all about community…and you being the director, how do you form a new exhibition or select your exhibitions?
NS: It really depends on the show. We take an approach with exhibitions to say that we want to be able to have a big menu and a lot of different things on that menu, so that everybody can find something that’s for them even if not everything is for them. And so we do a huge mix of exhibitions. Tonight we’re opening an exhibition that is a pretty traditional, kind of like a blockbuster exhibition of African American art and historical artifacts from a collector in L.A. It’s traditional in its form. A lot of great art-historical artifacts. Voices of the black cultural experience are important to us. Next year we’re doing an exhibition project with this entity called the Foster Youth Museum, of art and artifacts related to the foster youth experience.
Sometimes we have a very collaborative process. I guess our exhibitions team involves a lot of different staff members. Sometimes they’ll be either a theme or an artist of interest, or we’ll get to know somebody through doing community festival projects together, or we’ll see their art somewhere else. I mean there’s a lot of those typical things that happen, but we actually don’t have a curator on staff, and that’s by design.
We see exhibitions as really a team process, and one that involves community members and staff members, and so we really don’t want anybody to have that…it kind of presumes an authorial that is singular, and we really want it to be a collective effort.
“THAT ABILITY TO HAVE EXPERTISE IS VERY DIFFERENT FROM A DESIRE TO HAVE POWER OR CONTROL, AND I THINK YOU CAN HAVE A LOT OF EXPERTISE AND INVITE A LOT OF PEOPLE IN DIFFERENT WAYS WITHOUT DIMINISHING YOUR EXPERTISE.”
ED: And going back to your mission, I know missions are very important for everyone. How hard was it for you to have that current mission now? To say, ‘This is it. This is the perfect set of words, the order.’
NS: We went through quite a process around developing our mission statement, and a strategic plan around it. I would say that one thing that made it slightly easier, is there are two ways to engage in a strategic planning process. There are processes where you’re saying let’s plan based on a vision of where we want to be and let’s try and plan to get there. And then the other version is more of a descriptive or definition process, where it’s more about saying, ‘Who are we? OK, let’s get that down on paper.’ And in our case we were doing a descriptive process of saying, ‘OK, if we’ve changed in all these ways we know who we are but we haven’t written down the words… Let’s figure it out.’ I would actually say it was a pretty easy process, because we weren’t arguing over what we do. We were just arguing over what the right words were to describe it.
ED: You did mention blockbuster exhibitions… So we want to know what you actually think of blockbuster exhibitions. Are the museums trying to be inclusive, cool, and get people in? Trying to reach out to the larger community? And I guess when we say that we mean bigger museums.
NS: Yeah, I think they are used for all of those reasons. You know, if you have a museum that people perceive as very static, obviously bringing in new shows helps. We’ve really shied away from doing that kind of project for two reasons. One is we feel like we don’t want to be an ‘airport’ where shows travel in and out, but they’re not unique to our community. And then also from an expense perspective, I’d rather spend that amount of money hiring local staff members, working with local artists, to build something together, rather than to have to pay somebody else to bring something that’s packaged up. That said, you know there are some things that—some stories and some objects—that are put together in really tremendous ways for these traveling shows that can be very powerful. So I think it depends. I think that when you look at blockbusters as something that’s key to the financial health of your museum, it’s totally fine to do that. But it definitely introduces a very transactional idea that it is a place to have novel experiences that cost a lot of money. And to come every time there’s a new exhibit, but not in between. So I think that if that’s your business model and it works for you, that’s OK. I personally think that’s a very risky business model and it doesn’t really serve building a strong constituency that’s engaged with who you are and what you do.
ED: I’m interning with a small, specific purpose museum about the Chicago River. So I wanted to know, what can a small museum do with a specific theme, specific message, specific narrative, to engage with their community or even try to build a community?
NS: I think there are two ways that those kinds of museums succeed. One is by focusing on bonding, and one is by focusing on bridging. So when you focus on bonding, you basically say, ‘OK, all the people who are hooked to this thing, we are going to be your place—we’re going to be your special place—we’re going to be your favorite place, we’re going to feel like your club.’ And if you have the right people and enough of those people, that can really be successful. That said, a lot of institutions that are successful at that eventually feel like it’s limiting, because there are only so many of those kinds of people in their place, and so then they start to redefine a little bit, and asking, ‘What bridges can we build connected to what we do?’ So for example, I think about the Japanese-American Museum in L.A. It really started out being a place for people who are Japanese American. That’s what they were about, that’s who they were for. And then they started opening the question of ‘OK, we think we are not just for this only. How do we continue the exhibitions that link to who we are in our core values, but invite new people into the story as well?’
I think one of the kinds of institutions has the most interesting relationship with this is Holocaust museums, because Holocaust museums are so specific story and the reason they exist is because they want those stories to continue to be relevant.
Museums have taken very different approaches to saying, ‘Are we a sight for social justice? How do we make that something that isn’t perceived as connecting only to a specific group of people?’
ED: I’m from Los Angeles, and know the Japanese American Museum downtown. When the Hello Kitty show came in, I had a look at the exhibition.
NS: They do a lot of interesting things. They are really cool. They’ve been doing this whole Japanese tattoo tradition show, that’s a travelling expedition. We’ve been interested in it because it tells an identity story in a really interesting way.
“I THINK THAT ANYTIME YOUR PRIMARY FOCUS IS ON YOUR OWN SURVIVAL, IT MEANS THAT YOU’RE KIND OF IN A HUNGER GAMES WORLD. YOUR MENTALITY, WITH REGARD TO THE OPEN HEART YOU CAN SHOW YOUR COMMUNITY, IS LIMITED.”
ED: OK, another question, is social media important?
NS: You know, I think that if it’s important to your community, then it’s important. If you’re working with people who are never online, and that may be because they’re elderly—or it may be if you work with teenagers who are all about texting each other, but not about engaging with institutional channels—then it might not matter that much. My colleague who runs our teen program, the program has a website. But she’s constantly texting with those kids. They don’t engage any of the other channels. But we also know that in our community, Facebook and Instagram are the places where people are. When we go to conferences there’s always a sense of, ‘You’ve got to be on every platform!’ But for most communities, there are certain platforms that are kind of the platforms for that community.
ED: I read one of your articles on Museum 2.0, when you’re talking about the sense of being a ‘bad neighbor.’ Like a museum being a bad neighbor because it doesn’t engage in its community.
NS: I don’t believe in moral absolutes and certainly not with institutions where people inside them are shifting all the time. So there’s no such thing as a bad neighbor…there are people who do neighborly things sometimes. So are there museums that often ignore what community members are saying? Or seem disengaged or even acting at cross purposes with their community? Sure. But those are all actions. I wouldn’t say that they are attributes. So I guess what I would say is I feel like there are a lot of museums and a lot of organizations—businesses period—that are more focused on their own survival than they are on how they can engage people and do their work.
And so I think that anytime your primary focus is on your own survival, it means that you’re kind of in a Hunger Games world. Your mentality, with regard to the open heart you can show your community, is limited. So I guess I get annoyed when I see that a museum is disenfranchising people in their community, yet is saying they’re welcoming. If we really believe that museums are places of public service and community, then we have to live up to that and we have to do so really honestly.
ED: Thank you so much for your time.
NS: My pleasure.
ED: I’m curious about one thing. Are there museums that are like ‘Nina’s recommendations’ to go see?
NS: Oh yeah, absolutely. You want in the U.S.? Seattle’s Wing Luke Asian American Museum is an amazing museum. All of their exhibits are built in partnership with community members. Also, St. Louis’ City Museum is one of the most beautiful playful, wild places. It’s a former shoelace factory turned into a giant obstacle course. In Baltimore, the American Visionary Art Museum. It’s a museum that showcases people who are extraordinary artists but who would never be considered part of the art establishment. Also, L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s a very strange installation.
I’ve been to a lot of small museums in particular that have really captured my heart. There are just too many to list, but I think that in many cases small museums are places with heart, at least for me as somebody who’s very interested in the extent to which museums help us understand what it is to be human.
ED: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.