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.

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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 ,

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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.

Museums are also taking chances on looser, more surprising collaborations, taking exhibits to unexpected places, like out on the streets — or even a suburban front yard.

To reflect the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden’s 25th anniversary, Walker Art Center will launch a summerlong project, “At Home in the City,” with events related to gardening, food production and urban farming. One home in the outer suburbs will be chosen for a residency by artist Fritz Haeg, who will transform its lawn into an organic garden, an “edible estate.”

Museums elsewhere are also stretching boundaries and rethinking standard practices.

Early this year, the Dallas Museum of Art began offering free admission and launched a “rewards” program for frequent visitors, who can earn badges redeemable for prizes from free parking to an overnight stay in the museum.

The New Museum in New York City has turned 5,000 pay phones in Manhattan into temporary time machines, at which you can dial a specific number to hear known personalities like Michael Musto describe what life was like in the area in 1993.

At the Louvre in Paris, IBM has installed a “smart” maintenance system that streamlines the efficiency of heating, cooling and other functions to allow many more galleries to be open at the same time to maximize the visitor experience.

Crowdsourcing is also being tested as a way to support new efforts. A campaign last fall on Indiegogo raised nearly $1.4 million toward a Tesla museum to be built in Shoreham, N.Y., site of the inventor’s final laboratory.

Adding more voices

The MIA’s Armstrong sees other uses for crowdsourcing as well. Traditionally a curator’s notes are posted on the wall beside a painting, but a museum might also print the thoughts of average museumgoers.

“Crowdsourcing labels, with Wikipedia being the model, seemed very radical a few years ago, yet we are all smarter when we work collectively,” Armstrong said.

Walker Art Center’s Schultz is on the same wavelength. Formerly in charge of the Walker’s Teen Council, she saw the high schoolers as an “audience in residence” with ideas as valuable as those of trained adults.

“Everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach,” Schultz said. “It’s better to think of it as expertise than authority, because authority shuts things down. Expertise is the beginning of a conversation.”

When Joe and Jane Q. Public are allowed to weigh in à la Yelp, is expertise in danger of being canceled out by ignorance?

“You have to have checks and balances,” Armstrong acknowledged, with curators getting the last word as content verifiers. “But it’s moving from the idea of one ultimate authority to acknowledging multiple perspectives. I’d much rather see 10 people’s opinion of a work of art than just one.”

Nor should visitors believe that making work more accessible is the same as dumbing it down, said artist Andy Ducett, who will be artist in residence at the Bell Museum of Natural History in the fall and who recently created performance art and other one-off antics for opening night of the MIA’s current exhibit, “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness.”

“The content is still there,” Ducett said. “There’s meat on the bone. It’s just dipped in chocolate.”

 

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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