Conversations at the Musée National de Céramique

Thinking Back to go Forward – The Museum as a Hub

Conversation at Pompidou Pavilion, Musée National de Céramique, Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique, Paris on 6 May 2016.

Participants: Alun Graves, Senior Curator, V&A Museum, London, UK; Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History, Kansas State University, USA; Namita Gupta Wiggers, Independent writer, curator and educator, director of the Critical Craft Forum, USA; Christie Brown, Professor of Ceramics, University of Westminster, London, UK; Clare Twomey, Research Reader, University of Westminster, London, UK and Hyeyoung Cho, Independent Curator, adjunct professor, Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea.

Facilitator: Kim Bagley, Research Associate, University of Westminster, London UK.

Museums and other institutions where art is shown are constantly thinking about how to be relevant to audiences, how to get them engaging with objects, with artists and ideas. Here, an international group of mostly museum professionals have pondered what has worked well before and what could be borrowed from other public services to enrich the service they provide to the public. 

Clare: There’s a question about how malleable do we want museums to be? Do we want all museums to be community centres? I see museums as democratic environments that anybody can enter. If we see more schools being involved, there’s hope that there’s more education and there’s a more inclusive environment. What does it look like if we’re in a dreamscape environment with museum as a ‘hub’? 

Alun: You mean you want the museum to be operating in a number of different ways and not just with a conventional audience, whatever that might be, viewing works in a particular way? I think looking back, things like the late openings have been transformative in the way that people have experienced the museum and the kind of audience that comes into the museum: how they behave, how they look at work and how they feel. That’s surely been one of the most positive things about museum culture in the last about ten years. Whether it’s the model, I don’t know, but we want more that are transformative in that kind of way. 

I suppose with projects like Barnaby Barford’s where we sold parts of the installation to members of the public from the museum, there was this blurring between the shop and the gallery, whose roles are normally conceived as different things. It was really exciting to me to do something that played around that particular boundary. To place a sculpture in the museum that was for sale seemed kind of dangerous. What was hilarious to me was that if the work had been about twenty metres west of where it was, it would be in the shop display and it would have been fine!

Clare: That’s so powerful! 

Christie: I’m also thinking there’s a really nice balance always to be got between the museum opening its doors to such an extent it becomes a community centre, and the presence of the museum as the old fashioned, hieratic, church-like place where nobody spoke much? We’re breaking out of that, we’re breaking down those values but there’s that element that people still love, like when they walk into certain beautiful rooms such as the Raphael Room. Getting the balance between those things is very important. 

Glen: I think you can expand this from museums to institutions, because the same kind of thing happens with university art departments. For example, students in Kansas held a project that involved leaving handmade mugs on the doorsteps of people they didn’t know, with a note saying they were going to hold an event later to bring the community together and meet the artists. People were so interested; they came to the department and they watched the students mix clay, which they wouldn’t have done otherwise. The institution was at the centre of this, but really it was a way of connecting people to artists.

The same, I think, can happen in the context of the museum. You have a resident artist: if they were to take the art out of the museum first that would inspire people to decide to come into the museum. It would be less of a community centre because those people really are interested, not just those who might be interested. 

Hyeyoung: A similar thing happened with a university in Sweden where a ceramic artist made reindeer that she then placed on traffic lights as a way of stopping road kill. People found these deer everywhere and came to the institution to ask, “Who made these?” It was an indirect message but it brought people together. 

Namita: It’s also looking at other systems. This is something we did in the bowl show . We used the library system to circulate bowls and recipe books, which tied in with this idea of democracy and access. Whereas the stories you’re telling are about connecting back to the artist, by circulating through the library, we had no control over what data would come back. So it’s also allowing the museum to operate in a position of uncertainty. That’s another way of thinking about a hub; there’s not always this loop. Sometimes it’s something that goes out and it goes off into other directions. Can museums allow that to happen and be comfortable with not knowing, and just trust that it will have an impact?

Clare: That raises an interesting point, the museum without walls. Can we say the museum is a set of thoughts?

Namita: I think the museum is a complex kind of pulsing organisation that has this potential to be a lot more than just a place to drop in and drop out… I keep thinking about this notion of the portable museum, the transferable, movable museum.

I made discovery kits for teachers when I worked at a children’s museum. One was on China and looked at universal cultural aspects such as education, but through Chinese experience and cultural structures.  What if we made a kit that was about ceramics? What would that look like? Couldn’t you use what you know needs to be understood about ceramics from the perspective of process and material and also interpretation and engagement?

Clare: Maybe we’re now talking about knowledge and not the museum? Are we talking about the notions of contact within museums?  Is it something around that permeability of knowledge, actions, objects, histories?  

 We’ve acknowledged that there’s a fixed position that has been deviated from. There’s a shift, whether that’s come from the artist entering the museum, the curatorial teams, the education teams or the notion of the big society. We understand the museum has a cultural role to play; are the ways to capitalise on that to include more interaction?

Alun: Just thinking about historical perspectives, the V&A used to run the circulation department which was charged with putting together touring exhibitions, but also small scale displays and what we call boxes of collections of objects that travel to art colleges and schools, amongst other things. This was axed in the late 70s for funding reasons. This very narrow and traditional idea of the museum is not where we’ve come from.

Clare: Exactly.

Alun: Twenty years ago the museum was a far more socially aware and outreaching kind of environment. Capturing something of that is potentially very exciting.  I’m not sure that it would be as simple, but would the right vehicle be putting together a box of objects and sending them out? The museum brokering relationships with artists that then go out into environments, maybe there’s something in that?

Namita: To tie this all in, there’s this thing called ‘Young Audiences’ in the United States. The Museum of Contemporary Craft used to have ‘Craftsmen in Schools’, that evolved into ‘Artists in the Schools’ and then ‘Young Audiences’ took it over. There’s a powerful thing in distributing knowledge quietly over time whether its objects or artists, people or things, going out into the public. I think we should think about how craft doesn’t only happen in big cities; there’s somehow this notion that London, Berlin, New York and LA, these are the contemporary art centres right? 

But ceramics happens in many, many places and there’s a power in that distribution and spread. I think it is an opportunity to get out into rural areas, to get out of the city, because let’s be honest, the suburbs, those are cultural wastelands. 

Clare: Or they’re privileged environments…

Namita: Yes! 

Clare: … that can have skill and can have craft because they can afford to do so, so you want to go back again and look at inclusion and democracy. 

Namita: I remember reading about this van called ‘Reading is Fundamental’ that used to go around, I don’t know if you had this in England too, it was this like a library on the go…

Christie: Yes, we have mobile libraries. 

Namita: Yeah, so that kind of idea is a possibility, and getting those students we have coming in involved too, it almost doesn’t matter what discipline they’re working in. They could think through this question of contact and I think students are hungry for personal interaction… I don’t know, there’s something really exciting about that. 

Alun: The V&A ran a bus around Scotland, ahead of the Dundee Museum, bringing design out to communities…