Carpool Conversations: What is Relevancy?

 What is Relevancy?

A few of us commute from Vancouver to Britannia every day. On some of those days, the conversations regarding the exhibits, the programming, or even broader ideas regarding museums get bantered about.

The other day, the conversation of relevancy came up.

It began benignly enough as a question on the role of our blogs in ‘keeping us relevant’. But of course, none of these conversations are so simple.

To start, we post links to our blog stories on social media to… ‘keep us relevant’. Relevant to what though?

Sure, for those that follow the Museum in some fashion see our name flash by, but is that really relevancy?

Related to this is the question ‘does anybody read our blogs?’ This is an important question, for if they are not being read they are not relevant. If that is the case, we should stop writing them. That, or we need to revamp what we are doing so as to be relevant.

But this conversation represents only a tiny aspect of the question of relevancy and what it means for museums, or perhaps what it means to be a museum.

The fun part about answering the question of relevancy is that it is changing. What made a museum relevant 100 years ago may not apply today in its entirety. On the same note, what is relevant today may well not be in ten years.

 So with that in mind, what makes a museum relevant?

  1. Preserving the past

Perhaps this one is a little too obvious to even state, but museums are organisations entrusted to preserve and document history. They also tend to do it in a very special way – through material culture. It is all about the objects. Preservation of material culture, I believe, will remain one of the pillars of museums.

  1. Stick it in a case

Let’s stick something, anything, in a case and leave people to marvel over how it must be important, or else it would not be stuck in a case. Well, not exactly, but there are times it can feel like that.

This is my first question to tradition – things in cases. Things in cases are a big part of the history of museums, which are an extension of the cabinet of curiosities. Now when it comes to the things in that cabinet, the person filling it attached their own value, and thus relevancy to those objects. Think of going to a friend’s home and asking them the story behind something they have on display. You get the idea – the power of objects to act as talismans of stories crosses all time and cultures.

But what really makes those stories come alive? It is not necessarily looking at the object, but the emotion that flows from the storyteller as the object is brought back to life. So why do we stick things in cases? We do it because that is what we do.

But what if instead of putting things in cases, we allowed people to handle, to work with, and to reproduce these objects (as applicable)? This is where technology can allow us to break free of the case. We can allow people to fabricate tools, or fabricate products from said tools. We can allow people to fully experience the objects, but of course then how do we control the environment?

Perhaps the answer is as simple as good exhibit and interactive design. Perhaps it will take more. The point is that in a world where we are willing to accept replicas, where we are satisfied with visual displays, where movies can do a better job at bringing objects to life, then the museum of glass cases risks becoming an artefact itself.

  1. The role in people’s lives

In recent years, a fair bit of focus has been on museums as third spaces, which I wrote about in a previous post (The Relevancy of Museums). In our changing world, do people still value going to a museum the way previous generations did, or does the museum need to take on new roles to be relevant? The answer seems to have already been partially arrived at with programs which have introduced food and drink, for example, into the museum experience.

This can be extended further. What if the museum becomes the collection and the exhibit developer, but perhaps ceases being the host? Currently, many museums host traveling exhibits. In these cases, the museums become not much more than venues. So why bother having the museum as a host at all?

Sure, large traveling exhibits are not going to have an easy time finding alternative venues, but for the small to medium-sized exhibits, why not? Why not have these exhibits hosted everywhere from shopping malls and cafes to hotel foyers and airports?

If our goal is to enrich people’s lives in a meaningful manner, it is time to consider that the messaging should be where it is most relevant.

  1. Virtual Museums

Continuing from above, in a world where people are less focused on the actual objects – where images and videos fulfill their needs – should the focus be on finding suitable ways to bring virtual worlds to people? It has already begun; examples of where augmented reality brings the past to the present at the whim of the user have demonstrated the potential this holds.

 Once again, advances in technology and changes in our culture are suggesting that perhaps that while the background functions of the museum will remain (and must remain) important aspects of our societies, that which is outward facing is due for a change.

So what is relevancy? It is enriching the lives of people, which museums (along with science centres, art galleries, zoos, and aquariums) do well. But how this is achieved must continue to evolve.

I imagine one aspect of this change will draw ever more from other fields far outside the museum. It is the type of change which might have seen our summer exhibit look more like an immersive science fiction movie than a traditional exhibit. 

In the meantime, these conversations will continue to explore what the future of museums might be.