What’s the Anti-dote to Museum Learning?

As the R&B vocal group, The Persuaders, taught us back in 1971, “it’s a thin line between love and hate”. Only a few years ago, scientists proved them right – the neural circuits that light up when a person looks at a photo of someone they hate are in the same parts of the brain (the putamen and insula) that are also linked with romantic love. To be both drawn towards and repulsed by the same thing is a complicated emotional response. I reckon this love/hate, push/pull lies behind initiatives such as the antiuniversity and unconferences. Their provocative names suggest some sort of polarity or binary opposition, an implicit ‘we are everything that they are not’. There is also a sense of resistance, a challenge to dominant thinking and practice. But if the concept of universities and conferences was being entirely rejected, then surely it would make more sense to use different words to describe them. By making reference to what is being opposed, it shows there’s still some love in there. An effort is made to keep the best and ditch the rest, with the ultimate goal of creating ideal universities and conferences that are all killer, no filler.

Antiuniversity Now! began in 2015 as an idea for a festival, It was set up as “a collaborative experiment to challenge institutionalised education, access to learning and the mechanism of knowledge creation and distribution”. Entirely volunteer-led, the premise is that anyone can pitch an event for the festival, as long as it complies with the ethos of Antiuniversity Now! – “all our activities are firmly rooted in a collective desire to create and sustain safe autonomous spaces for radical learning that follow, nurture and enact anarchist, feminist, anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic, de-colonial and anti-capitalist values through conversation and direct action.”

In their first year, the organisers had anticipated maybe five events – they ended up with 60. In June 2016, tying in with the Alternative Art Education Summit in London, the second iteration of Antiuniversity Now! had a programme of 120 events across the city. Clearly, there is a huge appetite for this way of working, from organisers and audiences alike. It was inspired by the Antiuniversity of London, established in 1968 in a similar climate of disillusionment and grassroots activism. A fascinating (although condescending) BBC short film on the original Antiuniversity is on YouTube, and there is also an interesting online archive, called – what else? – Antihistory.

Unconferences derive from a similar impulse to break with conventional hierarchies, although they aren’t overtly political. Attendees arrive to no set programme and must make the unconference as they go. Anyone can suggest topics for discussion and debate; these topics are pinned on a board, arranged in a grid of timeslots and break-out rooms, and then the event begins and everyone is free to come and go, attending groups where they feel they can contribute or learn. More sessions might appear over the course of the unconference as discussions spark other topics. There is an expectation that attendees actively engage – no passive watching from the back – and come away buzzing with ideas, having not spent the day staring at dull powerpoints of limited relevance.  If you want to know more about unconferences, check out the Unconference.net website. I also found the article, Welcome to the Unconference (Inc.com) useful to get a sense of how they work in practice.

It was with antiuniversities and unconferences in mind that I went hunting for the unmuseum. I anticipated finding all sorts of online articles, perhaps using the phrase to describe audience-centric, or collaborative agendas in recent museum practice. I found zip. Instead, I discovered two very different versions of the unmuseum: a website for The Museum of Unnatural Mystery, where you can read about topics ranging from dinosaurs and aviation to cryptozoology and UFOs; and a multi-sensory, interactive gallery on the top floor of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center. The latter was created as a space for children to engage with contemporary art, and – unlike in a conventional museum – everything can be touched.

I had more joy when I went looking for the antimuseum. It turns out that being ‘un’ isn’t strong enough – our love of museums runs deep, and so must our hatred. ‘Anti’ seems to do a better job of capturing this strength of feeling. A few examples:

  • The Antimuseo of Contemporary Art in Madrid: “the objective of our research is to make visible the dialectic between institutionality and creation. To challenge conventions and hierarchies. To claim art as a space for possibility and freedom.”
  • The Antimuseum in Moscow, founded in 2016, is an exhibition project by Electromuseum. An open call is put out to artists of all stripes, with the promise of no curatorial control or genre constraints over the resulting exhibitions.
  • The Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky was going to be called the Anti-Museum. It was founded by an Australian called Ken Ham, author of The Lie: Evolution, who took it on himself to rename dinosaurs “missionary lizards” (I think you get the idea). A wonderful review, titled The Anti-Museum, on the National Center for Science Education website, gives a thorough overview of the museum’s founding and exhibits.
  • The Antimuseum is also an anthology, published by Cornerhouse, that addresses the many ways cultural practitioners have tried to break free from the institution.

So what about us? What would a museum unlearning programme look like? What would our work entail as museum antieducators? If we were to lead a radical overhaul of our practice, what would we keep and what would we jettison? Personally, I’d like to stop having to repeatedly justify the value of museum and gallery learning/engagement and just focus on making programmes as accessible, challenging, exciting, unexpected and interesting as possible. I’d like us to surprise each other more too, and move away from our established audience lanes (schools, families, young people, etc) and formats (workshops, tours, talks, etc). I’d take a leaf out of MCA Denver’s book and break away from the exhibition programmes – their learning offer responds to contemporary culture and is more like a sister than a daughter to the concurrent exhibitions. Or perhaps, as unlearning specialists, our role would be to deprogramme audiences – we’d remove all of their expectations and preconceptions about what a museum is and what to think and say about art, and then send them back out into the world reborn as curious, open, questioning individuals, ready to embrace all of life’s grey areas, contradictions and ambiguities.

What would you do?
IMAGE SOURCE http://thesteampunkbuddha.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/alice-in-wonderland-drink-me.html

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