Minnesota museums reinvent themselves as playgrounds for the mind

No longer staid repositories to protect items from the past, Minnesota’s museums are evolving fast-forward into all-ages social beehives.


Walker Art Center tweaked the traditional role of museums with its cat-video festival, which drew 8,000 people last summer.

Photo: Craig Lassig • Associated Press ,

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

We may have to come up with a new term for museums.

They are, by definition, places where objects are archived and protected. But to attract visitors in the age of TMI, ADD and Instagram, their once-hushed halls of introspection have become beehives of social activity and techno-temptations.

Top trends changing the way that Minnesota museums operate include more opportunities for interactivity and a “makers movement” that lets visitors create objects themselves. Museums are also rebranding themselves as social-event gathering spots and finding fresh ways to display and interpret collections. They’re also blurring boundaries, from diversifying curators’ roles to taking exhibits outside their walls in formats like “pop-up” parks.

“The most common reason people give for coming to museums is ‘to be inspired,’ ” said Sarah Schultz, curator of audience engagement at Walker Art Center. “They also make us more aware of time, in the present moment.”

Meet me in Gallery 3

“Museums are leveraging themselves as community spaces by maximizing what they’re good at — having stuff and thinking about stuff,” said Phil Katz, co-author of a recent trendwatch report for the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums.

The Walker Art Center’s free-admission events on Thursday nights have become generally packed parties, with guest chefs in the restaurant and live music in the galleries. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has monthly Thursday events as well, with fun themes designed to attract a young night life crowd.

The Bakken Museum of Electricity is the latest to hop on the social-hub bandwagon. At a recent after-work fete featuring cocktails and diversions — including unique circuit-bending musical instruments and a static-electricity display that made attendees’ hair stand on end — geek was definitely chic.

“People think science is something done alone in a library or lab,” executive director David Rhees said. “But when they come here and build a bug out of recycled electronic components, they see it’s social and fun.”

Make ’n’ take

Today’s museumgoers love creating things on site, especially if they can take them home.

While museums have long tried to make learning fun, now they’re taking things a step further, giving visitors more control over the process. Last year, the Minnesota Children’s Museum’s 3D-printing demo, which allowed visitors to create their own prints, proved popular. In October, the museum will introduce “Creativity Jam,” a series of activities that encourage kids to problem-solve, find different ways to construct things like play forts and robots, and even help an artist with an installation.

The Science Museum of Minnesota has “#hashtag” signage throughout its exhibits, to encourage maximum tweeting. Many area museums have invested in expanding Wi-Fi access so visitors can spontaneously share their impressions or images on social media or Google more information on an artist.

The backlash to such hyperconnectivity has already begun. In Paris, a group is working to make the Musée d’Orsay Internet-free so people will focus only on the art.

“They’re fighting a losing battle,” Katz said. “One of the biggest technological developments driving what museums will do is that people carry their devices with them at all times and consider them a seamless part of their lives. Nearly 60 percent of American adults have smartphones. That percentage is certainly higher among the heaviest users of museums.”

Mixing it up

Museums are not only finding new ways of displaying art — the MIA’s “ReMix” program, for example, juxtaposes seemingly incongruous works to invite new interpretations — but also new answers to the perennial question “What is art?”

Exhibit A is the Walker’s wildly successful cat-video festival, which drew 8,000 people to its outdoor Open Field in August and is being expanded at the State Fair grandstand this summer.

  • related content

  • Local museum talents look ahead

    Sunday May 5, 2013

    Curators are often a hybrid of exacting clinicians and mother hens when overseeing collections. But to keep museum visitors coming back, curators must always look for fresh ways to present...

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions


Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters