It has been a while since I have cribbed from Nina Simon here. The time is right. Her recent post, Hack the Museum Camp, Part 2, was a lot of fun, with much good food for thought about our curatorial and management processes. In it she describes an adult summer camp for museum professionals and artists in which teams devised exhibits for an exhibition of work from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History collection. There are good lessons there about how to approach team projects, about the value of doing things rather than talking about them (I’m going to try to keep that lesson in mind for my workshops!), and about diversity. You might imagine that I was swooning in ecstasy over her observation, “Diversity isn’t just nice to have–it’s fabulous.” The discovery at camp was that the greater the diversity in each group, the better the result.
But there was one passage that stopped me in my tracks. In talking about what she would do differently, she observed:
I wish we had focused more on a theme like “make an exhibit that is completely delightful and surprising” and less on “make an exhibit that takes a risk.”
Her point here was primarily about focusing on the positive and on the museum attendee and less on the teachings of museology and the caution that comes with insider experience. However, I eventually tumbled to an application of this more generally for community engagement work. When curating with the community in mind, we should be imagining what would be delightful and surprising to them. That’s the magic of the arts. And it’s a way of thinking that feels far more comfortable to many (I’m sure) than focusing on community needs, even community interests. What I would add to this is something that I am confident Ms. Simon’s campers were thinking anyway, since that’s what we all do in this business, but I would add “inspire” to the list. That gives voice to what we are attempting as we seek to connect with a broader community.
The element of this that most appeals to me is that in order to “inspire, delight, and surprise” we must know the people we are trying to reach. We cannot do so otherwise and we are even intuitively aware of the fact. Attempting to do those three things immediately leads us to questions about who “they” are, what they value, what they know (and don’t). It humanizes what may otherwise be a faceless mass and forces us to get up, get out, and get to know them. Only then will be able to fulfill the directive.
Engage! (so that you can Inspire, Delight, and Surprise)