The Social Museum


I really like it when I learn a new word, believing I’ve never seen or heard it before, and then in the following week it’ll cross my path at least twice. I’ve been experiencing something similar in relation to the social aspects of museums – the idea isn’t new to me, but now that my attention has turned to it as a result of my US trip, it’s all I can see and it’s absolutely everywhere. To be fair, I’m conflating three different ideas of ‘the social’ – social experiences, co-design, and the social role of museums – but they all share an emphasis on people, how we interact with each other, and how we could interact with museums. Some examples…

Social experiences

This idea came up time and again during my trip – museum educators (for want of a better word) are thinking more holistically about the visitor experience and broadening their programme accordingly. It’s no longer just about providing ‘food for thought’, now it may also include actual food, accompanied by a glass of red, live music, perhaps a dance performance and, my favourite, somewhere comfortable to lounge about with friends or family.

Merilee Mostov, Head of Engagement at Columbus Museum of Art, is the patron saint of museum goers with weary backs and sore legs. She has installed many different kinds of seating across the galleries, creating spaces to slow down, chat, rest and reflect.
This inventive seating in the Center for Creative Connections, Dallas Museum of Art, encourages getting cosy with a good book.

Social experiences can be promoted between pre-existing groups of people (families and friends who know each other), or generated between small groups of strangers (such as the Museum Hack tour experience) or, if you’re feeling ambitious, created on a massive scale, such as the CatVidFest, where 11,500 people congregated to watch internet cat videos, part of the incredible Open Field project run by the Walker Art Center. I met Sarah Schultz when I was in New York; Sarah is now a freelance consultant and was previously the Head of Education at the Walker Art Center. It’s Sarah’s vision that made Open Field possible. Her new book, Cat Is Art Spelled Wrong, is a collection of essays inspired by the success of CatVidFest.

‘Open Field: Conversations on the Commons’,  on Walker Art Center website

I love the way Sarah talked about CatVidFest – it sounded like a truly collective, joyous, (a bit silly), and totally uplifting social experience. When I think of equivalent experiences in my own life, where for a brief moment I was one with thousands of others, I recall singing and swaying along to Dolly Parton at Glastonbury, and shouting at a telly in a pub in Cromer to aid Mo Farah’s victory in the 5,000m at the 2012 Olympics. Even the memory of these social experiences gives me goosebumps. They are on the ‘epic’ end of the spectrum, but I think it’s worth considering how we can foster more modest, but still collective, social experiences in our museums. I want visitors to head back out into the world feeling refreshed, relaxed and reliving an amazing moment that they couldn’t have experienced alone.




MCA Denver has a fantastic programme of evening events. For example, B-Side Thursdays offers live music and makes great use of the roof terrace and cafe/bar.


While it could be argued that museum educators have always collaborated, the current trend is pushing this idea further. We’re moving away from playing the role of cultural saviour, applying a tick-box approach, and casually diving in and out of relationships with community partners as it suits us. Instead, we’re moving towards a more complex model whereby: fewer long-term working partnerships are formed; there is an authentic interest in understanding the requirements, priorities and interests of the people we are working with; institutional biases are challenged; and the work goes beyond the remit of learning departments, and becomes core to the organisational mission. Not easy, but it’s  vital that we start to tackle this approach if we wish to remain relevant.

There are many names for this way of working – participatory practice, co-creation, human-centred design – although irrespective of what it’s called, the bottom line is always ‘working with, not at’ (I also like the phrase ‘nothing about us without us’). Nina Simon has been championing this approach for years and her latest book, The Art of Relevance, is filled with practice advice and well worth a look. Speaking at the engage annual conference earlier this month, Tate Liverpool shared their recent co-design approach. Tate Collective is their national young people’s project; Tate Liverpool has expanded this to a Family Collective and a Community Collective, working with adults. Representatives from each of these group spoke to us, alongside the Tate staff. The groups clearly have a good relationship with the team, and have the confidence to critique organisational practices (asking questions such as, ‘why can’t we have an exhibition?’).

Another great example of co-design practice is Our Museum, a five-year research project funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation (PHF), that aimed to move community engagement from the margins (ie. learning departments) to the core (ie. senior management and organisation-wide) of museums. There is a whole page on the PHF website that summarises the projects, their progress, and further recommendations. I have also recently discovered a report from the Oakland Museum of California, titled How Visitors Changed Our Museum. It goes into the detail of transforming the Gallery of Californian Art, which involved a huge amount of input from local communities.


Dick and Rick take very different approaches to working with communities. Part of the Citizen Design display at the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York

The Social Role of Museums

Cooper-Hewitt’s Process Lab recently had an interactive display, Citizen Design, which invited visitors to go through a social impact design process to explore issues, such as reducing dependence on private cars, improving access to healthcare, or restoring housing after natural disasters. At the entrance, as a means of introducing social impact design, was the wonderfully illustrated tale of ‘Dick and Rick’, and their differing approaches to co-design with communities. Rick finds out what is important to the community and spends a lot of time listening and seeking shared solutions. Meanwhile, Dick thinks he knows better and believes that a few photos of the area will suffice. They both work to create a community park – you can probably guess which project was the success.



Large network organisations and funders are currently querying the role (or roles) museums play in society, which is a sure sign that major changes are afoot. Museum ID & ICOM recently held a two-day conference in London, titled The Future of Museums in the Era of Participatory Culture. I’ve recently returned from an ICOM & La Caixa seminar in Barcelona, which asked the question, ‘what is the social role of museums?’ Case studies, shared by delegates from all over the world, reflected the economic turmoil of the time, the societal pressures of mass migration, and the impact of terrorist attacks on cities. The Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation is currently leading a number of workshops and consultations across England, asking, ‘what is the civic role of arts organisations?’ and politics is again rearing its head (think Brexit) and challenging how we see ourselves – could (or should) museums wade into this territory or would it be better if we just ‘stick to our knitting’ and stop trying to be all things to all people? Personally, I don’t think isolating our work from what’s happening around us is helpful. Museums are no longer cloisters, and no matter how much cotton wool we choose to shove in our ears, we can’t avoid dealing with our contemporary social context indefinitely.

With this social trend gaining momentum, it’s a great time to be working in museum learning/education departments. People are our thing – when something ‘people-related’ comes up in museums, it’s the learning departments that are expected to address it. So how do we make the most of this opportunity? Are we ready? What changes do we need to make to fully engage with this massive agenda? And how much of it do we actually want to take on?

Header Image: As part of the Citizen Design display, visitors were invited to select a sticker. If unwanted, the stickers could be ‘returned’ to a display board on exiting the display.


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