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Trouble In Paradise: Santa Cruz’s Museum Loses Its Way

Maybe my “Experience Museums” opinion piece in The New York Times last month has emboldened others who equally disturbed by some goings-on in art museums to speak up.

Over the weekend, I learned of one Bruce Bratton, in Santa Cruz, who took on that city’s Museum of Art and History and cited my article. He wrote:

SantaCruzMAHMAH’s NEWEST MEANING…Mostly Attendance and Happenings. Other folks among the numerous local residents sugggested Mostly Attendance and Hobbies. Then there’s Mediocre, Humdrum and all kinds of clever ways to re-name our gone to hell Museum of Art and History. We’ve lost the “Museum”, “The Art”, and “The History” concepts of what was once a professional institution with professional standards….

…Remember …when you could sit or stand and just think about the art pieces you were able to see in person? Think how many thousands/millions of students and artists were influenced by seeing circulating masterpieces or from the local collections…not now. Consider the impact on the next generation of art and history-lovers; the kids. Where can we take our kids now to learn how to experience a real museum; a place that challenges the attention span a little? There are experiential activities everywhere, as I mentioned but the former MAH was our only real museum environment that offered art in a museum context; a respectful place that created the sense that what you’re seeing is important, and worthy of your consideration. Not just something you whip through as you’re doing activities.

Bratton is, by some lights, a “Santa Cruz institution,” a columnist who has been “getting Santa Cruzans all riled up on a weekly basis” for decades. Now he has a presence online, which is where he published that opinion.

I commend him for mentioning another aspect of this whole issue: mission statements. Apparently, under newish executive director Nina Simon (who, he said, did not like my article), “The actual mission statement of MAH has changed and now we have what should be called our “second community center”. MAH Board members have been quitting over this, professional historians, curators and staff members have either left or are completely devastated by the community circus that Nina Simon has created in the two and a half years she’s been executive director,” he writes.

Later, he says:

The new mission statement is so stunning in its exclusion of any cultural references that you should read it… From the website; “Our mission is to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections”. What does that mean?? Where’s History, where’s Art, where’s Tradition, most important where’s any statement about inspiration and education???

The whole statement is here, and in fairness, the “vision” does contain those words:

Our vision is to become a thriving, central gathering place where local residents and visitors have the opportunity to experience art, history, ideas, and culture. We envision engaged members and visitors who are increasingly passionate and knowledgeable about about contemporary art and local history that celebrate our diverse community.

In contrast, however, the 2010 strategic plan for the museum says as its mission statement:

The Museum of Art & History promotes a greater understanding of contemporary art and the history of Santa Cruz County, through its exhibitions, collections, and programs, for the benefit of residents and visitors to Santa Cruz County.

It’s not hard to see the difference in emphasis between the two.

Simon, of course, has built her career on advocating participatory museum experiences. The MAH board must have known that when they hired her (if not, they were derelict — it was plain to everyone in the museum world). Why then, did they hire her, or why are they resigning now?

Bratton wrote: “Historians have told me many times in the last two and a half years that there are no longer any qualified historians cataloguing and curating and handling our MAH’s collections. Future generations will suffer from this.”

I can only agree. I urge others, in other cities, to speak up now before it is too late.



  1. It is often the case that boards think they want a change agent, someone to shake things up. And sometimes it is the activist board members who drive the hiring process. Then the new director gets chewed up and spit out. Seen it happen dozens of times. Nina is provoking some interesting ideas about what a museum is, should and could be. What does the community think? And what rules about museums are sacrosanct and what traditions can be bent? Is the new direction more sustainable? What do the operations look like today compared to the organization she walked into? This is a story with a longer tail. Pun intended.

  2. Dear Judith,

    I did not respond to Bruce’s column, but given your stature as an arts journalist, I feel the need to set the record straight here.

    I absolutely acknowledge your and Bruce’s right to your own opinion about what museums can and should be. I feel differently from you, as you, my board, and our community in Santa Cruz knows. There are many kinds of museums in this world for many kinds of experiences and participants, and I feel that we are stronger as a national arts community because of it.

    I also feel that it is unprofessional to produce journalism without checking facts.

    Here are a few facts:
    –In the past year, two board members out of twenty-four have resigned. This is the lowest board turnover at the museum in the past five years.
    –Professional historians, curators, and staff members continue to be committed participants at the MAH. We experienced 15% staff turnover in the past year; the average nonprofit experiences 17% turnover per year. The number of professional historians in particular who are involved currently as volunteers and partners has swelled over the past three years due to our focus on promoting researchers’ access to archives and collections.
    –The 2010 strategic plan that you cite includes BOTH the mission statement and the vision statement that you cite as having different emphases. Both preceded my tenure. I came to the museum in 2011 with a mandate to enact the new vision statement and lead the MAH to become the “thriving, central gathering place” that it describes. We waited until 2013 to revise our mission statement to be more in-line with the overall 2010 strategic plan. Our new mission statement (which is quite different from the 2010 one) is to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections. We feel that this mission is a powerful purpose statement that helps drive us towards the vision that was written in the 2010 strategic plan.

    To respond to some of Margot’s questions, during the past two years we:
    –went from five years in the red to two in the black
    –increased attendance from 17,000 to over 40,000 annually
    –increased membership by over 50%
    –received support from major national foundations specifically for our innovative approach to community engagement in art and history
    –launched several new programs to increase art and history learning in our county, including increasing by 30% the number of children engaging in art experiences with our educators

    I am proud of our accomplishments and our team. Most of all, I am proud of all of the artists, historians, families, businesses, civic leaders, organizations, and wonderful people in our community who have embraced and supported our evolution with enthusiasm.

    • You are entitled to your opinion, just as I am — I did not, however, charge you with unprofessionalism, as you so gratuitously did to me. It’s sad to me that you would devolve to that. This is a blog; it is not a place where everything that I repeat from others is double-checked; it is a place where I source what I am commenting on. That is not unprofessional, particularly as I went through the trouble to find out that some people, at the least, consider Bratton to be an institution.

      • Respectfully, Ms. Dobrzynski, you did charge Nina Simon with unprofessionalism. Using Bruce Batton’s article (which you quote from extensively and apparently agree with unreservedly), you imply that Nina is the reason board members are leaving in droves, that she changed the museum’s mission for the worse, and that — due to her influence — there are no more historians working in the museum. If the above were true, Nina would be an exceptionally unprofessional museum professional.

        However, none of the above is true.
        As Nina pointed out. Using facts. Respectfully.
        Which you dismissed as an ad hominem attack.
        Which is not, in fact, an ad hominem attack.

        You are an important art critic and journalist. It’s a shame that you repeated Mr. Bratton’s unverified — and indeed false — assessment of Nina Simon’s influence at the MAH. The problem here is not ad hominem, it’s your argumentum ad auctoritatem.

        • Sorry, but I disagree. I reported Bratton’s piece, said who he was, and commended him for raising the mission statement issue. Nowhere did I say that Simon changed the mission statement on her own — no director does that without the board in agreement. It is Bratton, not me, who says board members are leaving because of the issue. Simon’s own response is obfuscatory: it does not matter, in this instance, whether board turnover is normal; it matters why those who left departed. Nowhere did I say, or imply, that anything she did was unprofessional and, in fact, I put any blame — or credit, as you see it — on the board, which has the ultimate responsibility for what happens at MAH.

          What I would change in my post — if I were writing it afresh — is the addition of the words “If true” before my last paragraph, in reference to Bratton’s comments that historians have left. I would make it “If true, I can only agree.” Simon has refuted that, and I believe her.

      • Whitney Wilde says


        Having been involved for many years with the MAH (as a docent there), I see the changes as positive. At the time, it was very difficult to get a 4th grader to understand how what MAH showed was relevant to them and their life.

        I think it is good when you can bring art to people and make art accessible to anyone. Plus, the changes are getting people actively involved in the museum. Getting people to question, on their own, what they consider to be art and encourage them to make art.

        You have also not taken into account the uniqueness of a town that promotes its individuality. This isn’t New York or Los Angeles, where people come to see what is in the museum. When people come visit Santa Cruz, they are generally coming to enjoy the beach and nature. Our museum is mostly attended by our local community… and it is a quirky, creative community that has street performers, illegal parades, movies shown on the sides of buildings, and more. We are a town that expresses ourself artfully from head to toe, everywhere.

        The changes MAH has made seems to serve the community better – and isn’t that the point?

        And why did you only take the word of one old curmudgeon like Bruce Bratton? He is like the old uncle that you just humor as he endlessly spouts his opinions on every subject… sometimes you agree and sometimes you don’t.

    • Carol Trengove says

      Dear Nina,
      WOW what a fervor over such an interesting subject. The heart of which seems to be, “What is a Museum, What is Art, What/When is History?” Age old questions with too many answers for me to wrap my head around.
      But what truly caught my attention was your amazing (in this economy) statistics. Congratulations on a job well done. In those areas you sited you are certainly doing something very right. In addition, MAH seems to be filling many important needs the Santa Cruz community.
      However give the number of people weighing in on this issue, many of whom I agree with, there may be a larger question to ask. – “Is our job as Executives in the Arts to give our audiences what they want or what they need.” In my years with the Pajaro Valley Arts Council, I found that if we were to be a truly broad based community institution we needed to provide an exciting, interesting, and challenging mix of both want & need. If MAH were to try this, I think you might have a little of what everyone on this blog is asking for. A lot of work? Ya – Is it worth it? Ya – Would everyone be happy? No.

    • An RCA reader has apparently fact-checked this response from Simon (top of this chain) and points out that in this July 4, 2013 article, Simon says that “…Our board also changed significantly in my first two years. Seven of our current 22 board members were there when I was hired…”

      • That’s correct. Only two board members have resigned in the past year, but in the 18 months prior, several rotated off the board in accordance with our bylaws. When I started at the MAH, we had a board of 17, many of whom had extended their terms beyond the length permitted in the bylaws to manage the complicated circumstances of hiring a new director and dealing with financial crisis. Once we stabilized, ten rotated off the board in accordance with their term length–one group in December of 2011, one group in June of 2012. These trustees were dedicated, incredible people who gave blood, sweat, and tears to a very difficult time at the MAH. Not one of them resigned because of the direction of the museum; their terms were complete and they were ready to move on.

        I will also note that of the new trustees, we intentionally included several people who were involved in the museum’s founding–people who were “coming back” to the museum. We wanted to build a strong board that maintained institutional memory and acknowledged the importance of our history in moving forward. Our current board president has been on the board since 2009, and our board includes founding docents and trustees of the institution.

  3. Have you actually experienced any of the programming or exhibitions at the MAH? Or are you basing your critique on what others have reported? I wonder if it’s really as bad as you think in practice. This post and your original article both remind me of all the hoopla over the reinstallation at the DIA. Reading the critiques of the new interpretive systems, I expected to enter the galleries there and see wildly flashing lights, people shouting, words emblazoned over the walls and the art tucked away in a corner to be ignored in favor of spectacle. But what I really found was a very traditional museum experience with a few extras added on that in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the art.

  4. Clearly you are over 50 and have not been responsible for LEADING a museum in the last 10 years. This post is painfully out of touch and the lame attempt at “elitism” is just sad. Dig deeper, expand your mind, ask questions, learn about the subject- HINT: it is not merely changes in mission statements, it is WHY mission statements need to change. Small and medium size museums play a different role than large, encyclopedic ones. Vibrant institutions fill a community need, not cater to the social aspirations of a few wannabes. Nina Simon is an international sought after thinker/speaker for a reason. Times are changing. Adapt or die.

    • My position it not elitist in any way. That is an easy charge to make, a false one, a misunderstanding of what is truly elitist, an attempt to dismiss an opinion you do not agree with. Further, there is no need to make charges against me because you disagree. There is room for more than one opinion. And clearly you know nothing about me.

    • What a horrible post. Did you reslly just tell someone she was old and should die. If you represent the future, in such a cruel and vile manner, I fear most of us will wish we were dead. Shame on you. Wash your mouth out with soap

  5. Everything depends on our goals.

    What do we want?

    Many of us want to live in a place where the arts organizations – museums especially – are of and contribute to community. Buildings that have energy and where people want to be. Places where people come together and get to know each other better, strengthening the bonds of civic infrastructure through art.

    Everything that I read and see about what’s happening at the museum in Santa Cruz is exciting and appealing. It’s no surprise that attendance and membership are up – way up. If we want expanded and bigger audiences for our arts and artists, we should love what’s happening at the Museum of Art and History there, and pay close attention to what they are learning about creating fans and people who want to return – bringing friends and family along.

    After watching with enthusiasm from a distance, I had the great fun of visiting the museum with Nina Simon as my guide a few weekends ago. It was a quiet Saturday afternoon and there was plenty of opportunity for contemplation in the museum – for those what like it like that.

    But also, there was a great feeling of energy, and opportunities for me to share my reactions to the art – to feel that I was part of what happened and could contribute to the sense of community there. And these feeling are not unique to me. Everyone is invited to offer a comment on the museum – right out in the open. Here are two responses I loved enough to photograph:

    • “Thanks for trusting us.”
    • “I feel happy when I come here.”

    What could be better? People who feel this way about a place will tell others, will return, will bring friends. This sort of social capital = success.

    When we measure our success by happiness, the SCMAH is winning.

  6. Donald Myers says

    THANK YOU so much, Judith Dobrzynski, for your post, and also for your New York Times article. I have watched with dismay over the last decade what seems to be a tendency to turn art museums into anything but contemplative places, and also to give up the authority that a professional should be exercising (and is paid to exercise), in favor of the latest fad.

    I know that many who advocate for greater participation, both in terms of attendance and input on museum programming, are not actually antipathetic to the need for quiet, non-social, non-interactive experiencing of art, but the tone of the discourse seems to often devolve into either/or rhetoric where if you don’t agree, you’re accused of being old (which is NOT in itself a bad thing; some cultures recognize that experience can often bring wisdom), or being elitist. The latter is particularly galling, and unfair: virtually every museum professional I have ever encountered would LOVE if EVERY person in the world were able to have an art experience in a museum of the type that has, at least for me, been extremely moving.

    That has nothing to do with “social aspirations of a few wannabes” (to quote one of the more silly comments to your post), and has everything to do with wanting to preserve and promote a profound aesthetic and cultural experience. Times certainly change, but some things are worth preserving. “Adapt or die” (again quoting a post comment) is just a mindless slogan that ultimately promotes abrogation of the challenging duty of being a cultural leader who must balance the vitality of society and art with the need to respect what has already been achieved, and to respect the varying conditions that allow different individuals to fully and meaningfully experience art.

  7. Jen Oleniczak says

    Dear Ms. Dobrzynski,

    While I did not reply to your NYT piece, I find myself compelled to respond to this. As a journalist, art historian and museum educator, I question what interactive programs you have personally been a part of, and the critiques of such. My curiousity lies in the specifics-exactly what programs at what institutions are you so against?

    As a society, we should want more people to experience museums as cultural institutions. If new programming brings in new patrons, great. Museums are rich histories of humans-and everyone should experience them. Is your concern with museums experiencing over-crowding? The Barnes seemed to have a similar opinion earlier this year, if that is a worry.

    And as an educator, I have a hard time seeing how any of this is disruptive – or changes anything in Bratton’s ‘real’ museum environment. Again, could you or Mr. Bratton possibly elaborate on specifics?

    Jen Oleniczak

    • Dear Jen, thank you for your polite comment. I mentioned several examples in my original article, some of which I enjoyed, some not. They included Marina Abramovic’s piece at MoMA. My article did not refer only to experiential art. It also included such participatory efforts as crowd-curating, crowd-deaccessioning, crowd-conservation decision-making. Some I am not so keen on (conservation, for one) in the absolute, and some as an occasional thing are fine. It is the wholesale adoption of so many by so many that I think is worrisome.

      I can assure you, if only from anecdotes, that this is disruptive to many. I wish I could share with this readership the names of curators and other museum officials who have thanked me personally for writing the NYT article, but feel muzzled within their own museums and can’t protest. Plus, many more museum-goers have said the same thing. The NYT printed several letters saying so.

      • Jessica Baldenhofer says

        I do think Jen makes a good point here. Because in your article you cite examples of interactive works of art, designed by artists that you have a problem with. Contemporary art and performative pieces come and go in many museums and are not there to be “liked” by everyone. They are there as an artistic statement, by the artist, and meant to incite a dialogue. However, what this blog post is addressing (which is different from performance art) is the efforts of a museum to make their institution more accessible and more inclusive. Artistic visitor-centered works of art are not the same thing as institutional and educational initiatives to include visitors’ voices and personal experiences. They overlap, but they are not the same. In your article, you generalize a great deal about these types of programs and initiatives, which makes it very clear that you have not participated in (maybe any?) of the wonderful, inclusive, interactive, accessible programs my colleagues around the country are thoughtfully designing. The world and society changes, and museums need to adjust to these changes. There will always be a variety of types of museum experiences, for all kinds of people. But to criticize the great work of those who are trying to make a museum less dusty and exclusive, is irresponsible.

        • Not everyone agrees with you, and that is the point. My article was general because it was written for a general audience, not only for museum people. I find it strange that you would out of hand say that the article “makes it clear that” I have not participated…. You are dead wrong.

        • Thanks for your comment — I do think, however, that you should have disclosed that you both are associated with (e.g., full disclosure).

  8. What some of the “contemplative museum” advocates are misunderstanding is that the contemplative visitor is one type of visitor that participates in a museum. The hope is that museum directors and staff recognize that there is a rich, diverse community where their institution resides, and they attempt to address the important needs of those visitors to fulfill their experience. To only serve the “contemplative” visitor is disingenuous to your community (and unless you have a guaranteed exhibit draw 365 days a year, and from all visitor types, hurts the museum’s bottom line). I do not disagree that scholarship has it’s place in a museum, but you have to recognize that scholarship is not the only reason why people go to museums, nor should it be. A museum should be modeled after a forum, an agora, a plaza, or a mall, a navel where people commune over art and history. Museums are not temples of treasure anymore where a priestly scholar/curator dictates to the masses the gospel of art and history, information is much more fluid and participatory now than ever before. Museums have to adapt because it has to contend with the ever present lack of funding and arts support, and compete with the information overload from our everyday lives from smartphones and computers. There are people out there who would rather stay home and watch cat videos than spend money to go to a museum, we have to ask “how do we invite those people in?” instead of ignoring or dismissing them. There’s a battle here between contemplative and participatory museums when there really shouldn’t be.

    • I strongly disagree with your line “A museum should be modeled after a forum, an agora, a plaza…,” though I agree that a museum should serve more than one type of visitor. That is why I find current trends worrisome.

      • What I was trying to get at with my comment about the museum evolving into a forum space is a transparent place to exchange ideas rather than only having a authoritarian scholarly voice or shushed librarian galleries. The younger generations are used to forum spaces online and it’s important for museums to transfer that momentum into a visit to the galleries. There is a time and a place for “but that’s how it’s always been done,” but you have to start learning the language of the new visitor needs just to get them into the door. Show me a new way to interact with a space and I’m more likely to want to see the next exhibit.

        • Thanks for you comment — however, it is not fair to characterize those who don’t with the direction of the SCMAH as basing their objections on “but that’s how it’s always been done.” Their reasons – some of which I agree with — have strong underpinnings.

  9. Elisabeth Sommer says

    I’ve worked primarily with and for history museums, and am now experiencing life as an art museum professional. I also taught museum studies for three years at the undergrad level (with fantastic students). It seems to me that the primary trouble with this particular blog post is that it does basically consist of lengthy excerpts from another article, that, whatever the professional experience of Ms.Dobrzynski, is clearly the rant of a frustrated older gentleman who longs, as do many, for what he views as “the good old days.” Now I sympathize with that general frame of mind. I can be as cranky as the next person about the increasing dependence on technology, the inability of so many college graduates to write correctly, the appearance of completely inaccurately used vocabulary in published material, etc. However, in the course of civil discourse we need to provide the sort of specific information that Ms Simon gives in her response. As I read Mr. Bratton’s comments, I wondered, how many board members have resigned? Why did they resign? Who are the historians who have told him that there are “no longer qualified historians” curating the collection? What did they mean by “qualified?”

    Mr. Bratton is clearly very upset with the direction in which the museum has been heading, but one shouldn’t write a public column without calming down a bit before sitting at the keyboard. In turn, Ms Dobrzynski could have headed off some of the complaints had she added more of her own comments and appraisal of Mr. Bratton’s claims. In any case, simply throwing a rant like this out there to illustrate that others are upset too, isn’t the most helpful contribution to the conversation. Basically, much of this is a continuation of the “culture wars” of the 90s, and the ongoing controversy over the various standards of learning. Unfortunately all of this masks the essence of what we should be thinking about, and that is, how do we best accommodate a variety of learning styles, engage a new set of students with the art of the past, and incorporate new things we are learning about how the brain works (and some old things too—Dewey, Locke, and Comenius) in the way we approach museum design, exhibits, and programming. Finally, I want to point out that this sort of wrangling has been going on for quite some time. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you John Cotton Dana’s 1918 essay “The Gloom of the Museum.”

    • You may be right about what would have been most helpful, but Bratton’s rant is far from worthless. As I noted below, in another comment, since my NYT piece many museum professionals have said thank you to me for it — they feel muzzled in their own institutions. That’s sad.

      • Elisabeth Sommer says

        I have yet to read your piece, but my point about Bratton’s was not that it’s “worthless” but that it is not the best means of conducting a profitable civil discourse on a complex subject. I think that’s the essence of most of the comments on here (i.e. that the issue is complicated and Bratton’s reaction does not allow for this).

        • I understand, but I posted Bratton’s piece for two specific reasons (both articulated in the post): one, people who disagree with the participatory trend tell me they are afraid to speak up. I have been advised by at least two curators not to be intimidated. And second, he raised the mission statement issue, which I did not have room for in my original piece.

  10. Quentin Hancock says

    Dear Ms. Dobrzynski,

    I can understand why you drew from the work of Bruce Bratton to make your commentary. He is indeed a Santa Cruz institution. However, this does not mean that his views are representative of the community at large. And he is very much an opinion-driven journalist.

    A few things stood out as I perused your piece in the New York Times. First, you accumulated examples of art experiences as spectacle to give the impression that a wide swath of cultural institutions are largely abandoning their mission to educate the public and provide a space for quiet reflection and inspiration. It would be incorrect, however, to tar the MAH with the same brush. The MAH offers plenty of opportunities for patrons to engage in research and reflection. These activities are not at all overrun by the museum’s participatory programs. Second, you give the impression that responsibility for things such as curation and decisions on restoration are being handed over to anyone who expresses an interest. You seem to believe that museum staff are abdicating their professional responsibilities; and, in the case of the MAH, you’re suggesting that historians affiliated with the museum have decided to do the same, or have come to the conclusion that they have no meaningful role to play within it.

    Is it really so difficult to contemplate the possibility that qualified professionals are engaging in meaningful dialogue with individuals who wish to become involved with museums in their home communities? I suggest that you research publications from the U.S. Institute for Museum and Library Services, where you will find examples of mentoring and collaboration between museum staff and interested patrons. My educated guess is that many of these patrons are retirees.

    Your New York Times piece argues that museums are now buying into marketing strategies from the realm of commerce. The issue of expertise has more to do with the field of education. An increasing number of educational institutions and schools of education are recognizing that educators should act as facilitators of learning, rather than attempting to fill students with knowledge as if they were empty vessels. That emphasis is not a fad. The theory and research supporting that argument has been around for over 40 years.

    Finally, you argue that interactive displays “gamify” the galleries in which they appear. Would the world “trivialize” capture your meaning? Bratton’s remark about the “circus” at MAH certainly reflects this point of view. The first question I would ask is, how often do people retain the information from the written curation given for each piece? How often do patrons re-work that knowledge in some way and make it their own? I imagine there isn’t much research available on this topic. If so, the public is being asked to take it on faith that these written statements are making patrons’ experiences of museums more memorable.

    In general, it’s easy to characterize games and other non-traditional forms of instruction as less than edifying–precisely because the weight of tradition is against them. Thus, Brattton and anyone else with an axe to grind can make this argument without any solid evidence and expect most readers to nod in agreement. I certainly won’t. As a university lecturer, I’ve seen upper division students benefit from role plays. And, while the field of games in learning is relatively new, organizations such as the Institute of Play are building up a base of research, including documentation of field research from its Quest to Learn school. In closing, just because there is something timeless and universal about works of art does not mean that the reception of those works must be paired with traditional pedagogical practices.

    • You raise some good points, the most salient being the lack of research on most if not all of the questions you ask. I have advocated for good research for many years, but what little we have is, perhaps, a good start, but not good enough.

      One point of disagreement: you mischaracterize when you say I equate interactive displays with gamification. They may overlap, but not completely. Nor am I opposed, btw, to all interactive displays. As always, it depends how good they are and how intrusive they are.

      • Elisabeth Sommer says

        There actually is a fair amount of research that has been done and is being done to answer the questions Dr.Hancock raises. You can find this most particularly in the work of John Falk and Lynn Dierking, as well as Beverly Serrell, but the quest continues, as it always has.

      • I just wanted to echo Quentin Hancock’s reply, since you reminded me of two other authors we could add to the mix in tracing this history of interactivity far beyond the present day. The first is Michelle Jubin’s article, “Museum Education and the Pedagogical Turn” in which she traces this history back to the 1970s showing that these projects were often collaborations, not just between artists and educators, but among curators and academics as well (the article can be found here: The second is Wendy Woon’s institutional history of MoMA’s Education Department, tracing its roots back to the spirit of progressive education of the 1890s. I watched a live broadcast of this talk, and though the full talk appears currently unavailable, the introduction can be found here:
        I was surprised to see that many of the views about the role of the educator and the role of the museum that you express disdain for currently were alive and well even 120 years ago. With recent notions of “gamefication”, etc. the medium may have changed, but the message has not.

        Judith, I have certainly been to plenty of programs where the spectacle has overwhelmed my experience of the artwork, but I take this at a case-by-case basis, rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater and dismissing the entire project of the participatory museum.

        • Thank you for your comment — just one response: I don’t dismiss the entire idea of participation at museums. Of “participatory art museum,” probably yes, except for children. There is a difference between the two. Re: the first, it all depends on what is done and how.

        • A very interesting discussion about a power struggle in museums that has been going on for several decades at least. Thanks for linking to my essay, Greg. I wrote it a few years ago under the supervision of Prof. Claire Bishop who has published quite a bit on participatory art (as opposed to participatory programming and education, which is what is being talked about and critiqued in the main here).

          I’m interested no one has made a very simple observation – that this conversation is predicated almost wholly on some very entrenched museum hierarchies. When artists, curators and members of the academy suggest participatory strategies in the museum space, they are often lauded. To wit, Holland Cotter’s very good review of Tino Sehgal’s very good “constructed situation” at the Guggenheim in 2010: “I felt stirred up, but light and refreshed, the way I sometimes — but not that often — do when I feel that I’ve met art in some very bare-bones way. It really is about life. It really is about communication. It really does have no answers. And it really is addictive. I was primed to go back for more.”

          Critique of artists and curators (ie. those at the top of the pecking order in the art world) is usually founded on comparative examples, theory, precursors – in short, careful and academic consideration.

          Pablo Helguera, Director of Adult Education at MoMA NY said of the Sehgal work at the Gugg (and I quote from my essay): “Helguera reframes Sehgal’s use of an open-ended question—“What is progress?”—less as radical practice and more of “an accident” that the artist’s method so closely mirrors museum education “inquiry” techniques. He raised questions that had been on the lips of many museum education staff, not least those at the Guggenheim who had been told their services wouldn’t be necessary for the run of Sehgal’s show because the artist declared their practice too close to his own. While the show played out to rave reviews, he wrote a nuanced assessment of it, asking: “can you keep a secret? … the work is not really a performance art piece, and not so much of an artwork either: it is an education program … but to say something is educational is the kiss of death in art.””

          Nina Simon is an educator. Educators seem to be subject to a different set of rules when they talk about participation in the museum space, even though it was educators who began this as an ART practice in the late 60s/early 70s long before Relational Aesthetics, New Institutionalism, and participation became watchwords for artists embraced by the institution.

          I think the some of the discussion points raised on both sides of the fence here are valid, but I think the meta discussion – about who we “trust” to engage us in the museum – is perhaps the most revealing.

          • Thank you for writing. Equally revealing, imho, is the difference in comments here versus those on my original article in the NYT, where most supported my opinion. It does not seem that the public supports the participatory, experience museum.

          • Michelle Millar Fisher says

            I actually support your sentiment in many ways Judith – I like a contemplative museum experience too. However, there’s no one “public.” NYT readers are no more representative of a broad public than this thread, especially those who seek out and read an arts column or a discussion on museums in their newspaper. Maybe that’s the point? Museum audiences are heterogenous. There’s no one size fits all. We should leave room for many different types of engagement (even the worst “spectacles” and “entertainment” in the museum which, imho, aren’t edu-based at all, but the corporate hire – but needs must….). One of my most contemplative experiences was with Rika Burnham at the Met. An hour of quiet meditation on a painting with her is the closest I’ve ever been to this elusive “pure” museum state that seems to be on one end of the spectrum described.

            Let’s continue to have this conversation. It’s how the museum is shaped, debated, spoken up for, and rethought by all its users.

          • Michelle, I agree there is no one public — but disagree re: the NYT commenters. My article was published on Page One of the Sunday Review section, not in an arts section. No one had to seek it out — the Sunday paper has the largest circulation of the week, and many more people read it online. The ArtsJournal audience is much narrower and much, much smaller in number, and the RCA readership is narrower and smaller still. So, whether or not the NYT audience was “representative” of the public at large, it certainly was “more representative.”

  11. Judith,
    Thanks for that new and needed exposure to our Santa Cruz MAH Museum issue. I agree with my friends and readers who say that Nina is a very strong , interesting, and persuasive person. So much so that a weak board of directors over the last couple of years let her take complete command….and they still do. She has indeed improved the Museum’s financial status BUT it’s been done by getting grants and other funding from agencies that base their grants mainly on attendance. The problem is that those attendance- based funding sources dry up rapidly. In Santa Cruz the discussion about our MAH museum seems to be centering on age. It’s “you old folks want to keep art and history museums in the dark ages” versus ” we younger folk see changing museums into an event-experience-curcus-hobby-community center. Again, many thanks.

    • Will Ticknor says

      Dear Bruce and Judith,

      Thank you both for the stimulating commentary on the initial and follow-up articles. I’ve been in the museum profession for 36 years and it seems to me that despite all the commentary about museums being stuck in the past and gloomy cobweb haunts of old folks – I’ve experienced in my career a field that is in reality ever-evolving. Please allow me to say at the outset that working in the cultural art/history field is one of the best jobs in the world.

      I’ve also been reading Ms. Simon’s columns for years and it should be obvious to anyone who is familiar with her that she is always pushing the envelope. We need a voice like that in the field. I’ve often wondered how she would fare as a director of an institution, and now we see, that she has been very successful. I certainly don’t always agree with her. But as a director of a mid-sized museum system, I respect her professionalism very much. I am delighted at the dialog on these issues and can see valid points on both sides of the issues.

      There is one specific comment that Judith raised several times which I do agree with. In the profession, I have noted that alternative opinions to the latest trends are not well-received. So I believe that it is generally true that many in the field are reluctant to speak up in opposition. Sometimes this results in us going down a path for awhile that doesn’t do our institutions or our audience much good.

      I admit that I am not always comfortable with some of the trends in the field, but I’ve come to realize over time that, if you don’t like what’s going on in museums, just stick around for a few years and it will surely change.

    • Bruce,

      I’m over 50 and a fairly long-time Santa Cruz resident. I had given up on MAH several years ago as being a field-trip-only museum. The history display never changed and was only ever viewed by children forced to see it on school field trips. The art was rarely interesting—I could see better in any cafe in town. I’ve visited MAH more since Nina took over than in the previous 10 years—I even joined MAH as member, which never would have occurred to me to do with the old MAH.

      MAH still has a contemplative museum spirit during the week. The “circus” you decry is mainly Friday night events and Saturday activities for kids. Although few of the events that MAH does appeal directly to me, I laud Nina for making the museum part of the city, welcoming to kids and retirees alike.

      I think that the curation of the art exhibits has improved under her direction also—there have been a few exhibits actually worth the time it took to see them.

  12. I see the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History as an experiment.

    Nina is putting to practice her research of more than fifteen years museum work, blogging and speaking. It took tremendous courage for Nina to take the job as Museum Director and many in museum field watched closely. Many hoped she would fall flat, many hoped that she would succeed. She has succeeded in changing the museum field. She has increased attendance and righted an institution about to close. Many outside the museum field do not see the struggle happening in museums. Museums are closing at alarming rates, museums are closing their exhibition departments and laying off staff. Even in this desperate climate Nina has reenergized the SC Museum of Art and History and the museum is now on solid financial ground, kudos to Nina.

    Museums now in a “survival” mode, and doing whatever is necessary to survive. The big question, “survival at what cost?” By putting to practice Nina’s work of the “Participatory Museum”, she is changing museums as a whole. The change from museums being inward facing to outward facing is a paradigm shift and Nina has been one of the leaders of this change in museums.

    I have visited the museum and participated in their programs, I would agree that the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has lost some of it’s “museumness”. But the museum’s doors are open and people are enjoying the exhibitions and programs. From my point of view it is easier to reinstall a museum culture in a still open museum than a closed museum. I believe that Nina can take the recent news articles as constructive criticism and add Art Handlers, Historians, Researchers and more “museumness”, to her already very successful experiment of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

  13. I don’t think the discussion here should be splitted into “you old folks want to keep art and history museums in the dark ages” versus ” we younger folk see changing museums into an event-experience-curcus-hobby-community center” as Bruce Bratton says. Being over 50 I’m not under suspicion:) As a museum professional, I think the issue here at stake is what’s the role of (art) museums today?

    Museums have long ago ceased to be those temples of revered wisdom to become places where knowledge and creativity is stimulated and shared, where visitors are not passive recipients anymore but actively involved. Places to be inspired, good connectors between collections-knowledge-art-audiences. Museums that offer a wide range of content, services and resources, both digital and non-digital, to allow the visitor to use them how and when it best suits him/her and in the planning and realisation of them the visitor will have been invited to participate. Museum distributors of knowledge and experiences, not merely directors of it. Museums part of the community and “appropiated” by the communitty they serve. Museums connected and, yes, participatory! In this, Nina Simon has truly excelled.

    • Thank you for raising that first issue. It’s not right to dismiss people because they are older, and the adjectives regularly hauled out to describe them — cranky, crabby, etc. — are neither fair nor productive.

      I do disagree with parts of your second paragraph, as you can well imagine.

  14. “Surely there are other museums who are succeeding without …….” Is this an educated guess on your part? Are there factual studies you can reference which will provide a less speculative rejoinder?

    All cultural institutions: Symphonies, Ballet Companies, Performing Arts Centers to name three, face financial challenges that have already caused far too many of them to fail. The SCMAH was also on the verge of complete financial ruin when the Board turned to Ms. Simon to rescue it.

    “….losing their actual museum character” is a phrase loaded with presumptive insinuation suggesting there can be only one acceptable character for the museum as cultural institution. The Oxford Dictionary adds new words each and every year. That doesn’t mean they erase the old words. The two, old and new, co-exist quite successfully. So let it be with “museum character.”

    • Well, I can cite one blazing example — Crystal Bridges. It is less than two years old and has succeeded against all the nay-sayers who said people in the NW Arkansas region wouldn’t appreciate great art. Many great museums are succeeding without becoming experience, participatory, whatever word you want to choose. (To people who disagree with me, any word I choose seems to be a matter of debate.)

      Re: all cultural instituions, you are correct, but my piece in the NYT and my post here were specifically about art museums. I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all strategies for art museums, let alone all cultural institutions. That should clarify my feelings on your last point. Let’s not devolve to semantics.

      • Dear Judith,
        Thank you for starting this discussion, I for one love the contemplative aspect of museums. Visiting the Chichu Art Museum in Japan and spending time with five Monet paintings is a transformative experience.

        Using the examples of Crystal Bridges, Benesse (my example of the Chichu Art Museum) or DIA. Are all examples of the “old school” wealthy Art patrons sharing their collections. I LOVE all three of these museums, each an example of contemplative “connecting with the muses” experiences. I don’t think the discussion is of Crystal Bridges or Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Visitors need both types of experiences, but we are now in a would of choices, museums are closing and their are very hard choices being made. For me the rich can continue to fund Crystal Bridges, Benesse and DIA and smaller organizations like Santa Cruz will struggle to keep their doors open.

        Respectfully, Mark

        • Yes, well, CB came to mind off the top of my head. I agree that SCMAH and CB are not exactly equivalent (understatement). But believe me I am not advocating only “contemplative” museums — I feel the balance is off at some art museums, and I see the whole art museum community drifting toward experience museums and participatory everything on what I believe is the false assumption that it’s the only way to draw young people.

          Speaking of Japan, I was astonished — and not positively — when I visited the national museum in Tokyo in June. At the entrance to the galleries, it had posted a sign that says “Please keep quiet in the galleries; please be considerate of other visitors; be aware that loud footsteps from high heels and other hard-soled shoes may disturb other visitors; slippers are available for loan – if necessary. Please ask. Mobile phone use is prohibited within the buildings. Thank you for your cooperation.” I took a photo of it.

  15. Hello, all, thanks for the thoughtful polylogue. I am a friend and supporter of what Nina’s doing, and have collaborated on her with various projects. Many of us are watching the MAH with interest and admiration, and many of us have real questions about how and whether this kind of work will evolve and enrich, deepen, extend the role of museums. Interesting, Nina is one of the most avid questioners, as even a cursory look at her museum 2.0 blog will show. There is a kind of dialectic going on in our field as we grope our way toward building museums that will last into the coming generations. Nina’s proposing one model, and testing it out. Seems to be doing pretty well by most measures, including audience, finances, and the esteem of the field (which is recognized, despite bratton’s assertions, by the kind of large scale grants Nina has been successful in securing.) There are many other models at all scales and all of us know who is pushing the boundaries in one direction or another, and who is minding the traditional shop.

    Is is possible that MAH’s experiment will turn out to have flaws? Almost inevitably. I know that Nina and her team are more than smart enough to make modifications as they proceed. Its good to have folks like you to point them out, but it sure would be better if Bratton checked his facts. And it is disingenuous of you to blandly distance yourself from his inaccuracy by claiming that blogs don’t have to be accurate, and that you are simply citing someone else’s opinion piece.

    I am very very grateful that people still care about museums enough to get upset when a museum doesn’t meet their expectations. I can assure you that those of us in the field do this freely and frequently. As one old dead male wrote “without contraries there is no progression.”

    • I take issue with a couple of things. First, you are coming from a science museum. I was speaking about art museums only. Two, esteem in the field can not be measured by the “kind of large scale grants Nina has been successful in securing.” Many foundations are pushing this line — that does not mean that her approach as gained esteem at large. Foundations are well-known to have an activist, social-change bent — that is why they exist. As for “the field,” I don’t know that there is consensus. As I have said before, more than a handful of curators have told me privately that they cannot voice their true opinion in public or in the museum without repercussions (not being a team player, etc.). They are not all “crabby, cranky” people opposed to change, to use the terms many apply to them. They, too, are professionals who care.

      As for Bratton, and my repeating of his “facts,” the standards of blogs, which are opinions, differ from the standards of a publication. I didn’t say blogs don’t have to be accurate – I was explaining why I posted his remarks (not all of which have been “proven” to be false, btw — we have various assertions of “facts”) without “checking.” I’ve been posting here for years, and I certainly do not fact-check every article/post I reference. I could not write this blog, which is free to the public and unpaid to me, if I were expected to fact-check. My obligation was to check that the source was legitimate, which Bratton is, and to post what he said accurately. I did that. When I make true errors, I correct them or allow commenters to correct them. Would I deliberately link to something I thought was false? Of course not. Did Bratton’s post ring true to me? yes.

  16. the nameless eye says

    I for one am disturbed not so much at the news that Santa Cruz has lost its way, but much more at the strident and rather unkind tone of the comments that have been directed at Ms. Dobrzynski. It is ungrateful to someone who, for no pay, creates a forum where issues that are important to all of us can be examined. This blog and its comments section have been consistently characterized by intelligent, civil discussion. That is until now.

    • Thank you.

      • Barry M King says

        I agree with the nameless eye. I have worked for a major urban encyclopedic museum for 15 years now. I have heard of, expected to be a part of, and been coaxed into “new” ways to redefine what our goals are for visitor and community. I highly respect Ms. Dobrzynski for her pith, candor and eloquence on a matter that will certainly continue well into the 21st century.

  17. Stephen Slade says

    I am not a museum professional, just someone who sometimes visits and enjoys museums, including, over the years MAH. Living in Santa Cruz I got curious about the buzz around the museum. I have visited twice and it was, in fact, packed with excited people. The exhibits didn’t do much for me, but that’s okay. It does seem strange to me to measure a museum’s success by attendance. You could fill it daily with offers of free beer and, in fact, the party atmosphere on its most popular nights seemed to me more about being seen out and about than about what was in the museum. It is simply the “in” spot of the moment — or at least that is my casual impression. We’ll see if that lasts. “In” spots usually don’t.

    • Traditionalist says

      Great analogies, Stephen Slade! And thank you again, Judith, for raising important issues and offering a forum to others to speak out.

      Yes, mere attendance figures say nothing about the quality of ones experience. That is the root of the dilemma, in my opinion. There seems to be the idea that simply entering a museum is a worthy thing to do, as though partying and gaming in the galleries is somehow more edifying than doing so elsewhere–as though one is passively baked into a better confection by passing through the museum’s oven.

      As Greg Stuart in his post above indicates, contemporary trends to “engage audiences” arise from the same thinking and parallels the experimentation that has muddled American public school education over the past few decades. Tried and true methods have been dispensed with, in the politically correct name of “different learning styles.” Meanwhile, the levels of literacy and factual knowledge among American public school students has dropped plummeted catastrophically. But nobody blames the experiments–instead, the trends just keep going farther and farther away from the tried and true, to the great loss of American public schoolchildren, and to our culture at large. Compare the subject mastery and general literacy of an average American public-schooled 12-year-old with that of a boy the same age schooled at Eton, where traditional methods of schooling persist. Our American kids are getting shortchanged. We had better literacy in the 1950’s. The mania for “progress” persists in the U.S. One would think the historic preservation movement would have put an end to this, but no. Now that we have demolished our buildings, we are determined to demolish our institutions.

      Unfortunately, so many museum/education “professionals” (as administrators like to call themselves) keep trying to reinvent the wheel. It feeds egos and advances careers to be up on the latest trends. I maintain that our cultural institutions have been hijacked by politically correct theorists who are without an overarching sense of history and who have a limited philosophical point of view. In my opinion, the trend-setters do not fully appreciate what traditional institutions actually offer, and what will be lost when we remodel them in the name of progress. Perhaps many of the hijackers have good intentions. But good intentions, as we know, often lead us down the road to hell.

      • Don’t lose faith, Traditionalist. Just last week, the NYT published an article saying E.D. Hirsch and his cultural literacy ideas, were coming back in vogue, that some people think he was right all along:

        The prevailing theory you cite can be thwarted and reversed.

      • As a British citizen, let me offer you this insight: the road to hell is paved by the British class system, of which institutions like Eton form the very core. There is no comparison to be made between a public-schooled American child and a child who goes to Eton. One child has parents in the top 1% of a hierarchical system based on birth. The other does not.

        Please think carefully about the comparisons you make. This is an interesting discussion and is not served well by disproportionate and sensational comments.

        • That’s fair, but both sides are making sensational comments!

        • Traditionalist says

          Agreed, Judith, a bit of rhetoric on both sides, for emphasis. But Michelle Millar Fischer, I find your opening statement also a bit simplistic and predictable, in the trendy anti-elitist fashion which intentionally distorts and denigrates anything hierarchical. And yet you feel comfortable imperiously chastising me for contributing opinions that don’t fit into your rigid framework of an “interesting discussion.” In fact, I have indeed thought carefully about the comparisons I make. They are informed by my having spent several years as an American within the Oxbridge environment, and having observed first hand the differences in literacy between Britain and the US, and in the consequent level of cultural dialog. Your ability to articulate issues is evidence that you have benefitted from this milieu yourself.

          The traditional British educational system as exemplified by Eton and Oxford/Cambridge works. Your assertion that Eton is home to the children of parents in the “top 1% based on birth” (is that statistical fact, or your own hyperbole?) in a way proves my point. Eton’s methods are embraced by those who know what is valuable and who will tolerate only the best.

          My point is that with the methods used at Eton available as a ready model, there is no reason children of lesser socio-economic status should be consigned to wheel-reinvention experimentation that doesn’t work.

          The same applies to museums, the actual topic of this blog. The traditional quiet environment of museums allows for contemplative experience. Focusing on carefully catalogued collections of artworks and other interesting specimens is a tradition that goes back to antiquity, embraced by those who had every option available to them. (And I agree heartily with Judith in response to Amanda B. above that the agora is a completely inappropriate model!—There were antiquarian collections in ancient Greece and Rome, as described by Pliny and other classical writers, and they had nothing to do with the marketplace.) This tradition of scholarly connoisseurship is a joyful endeavor that opens the mind to higher philosophical ideas which transcend the everyday. Unfortunately, as you have suggested with your trashing of the hierarchical, we are no longer allowed to value anything that goes “above and beyond.”

          The expansion of public museums in the 19th century was designed to offer this elite experience, previously the province of only the leisured class, to people of every background. We have flipped it around now, and are aiming to make the museum environment less special, more familiar. Why, when we already have shopping malls and sports arenas, do we need to remodel museums into more of the same? Where, if not in museums, are people meant to go to have this special kind of human experience? Where else are children supposed to learn how to have this experience?

          It is time to retire the argument that interprets anything elite as an instrument of oppression. What is elite needs to be perceived as an inspiration. The job of our cultural leaders should be to open minds, not to close them to avenues of experience valued throughout civilized history.

      • As a former college professor who experienced the transition from a traditional teaching style to the “experiential” mode of “not filling their heads but facilitating learning,” I can honestly say that I welcome a return to traditional teaching. Engaging students in discussion is important, but they have to have a basis of knowledge before they can discuss, otherwise all they give is simplistic opinions not grounded in facts. Our schools have lowered their expectations, to the point where students graduate without being able to read or write. Teachers are expected to entertain students, rather than “fill them with knowledge.” Are museums following this path? Contemplation is not an elitist exercise, as some have tried to portray it; it is a form of learning that requires observation, reflection and introspection. Too often focusing on “experience” is merely an excuse for not doing the hard work of learning. Experience may be just another word for entertainment.

  18. the nameless eye says

    I do not see how the comparison Traditionalist makes is sensational, though it may need revision. The analogy holds even with comparison between American public schools and British comprehensive schools, and is really a detail within the many valid points made. Again, such accusations serve to lower the tone of this discussion.

  19. Allan Molho says

    I have been following Mr. Bratton’s comments with interest . I am a former board member of MAH (10 yrs ) and past president of the Museum. I wrote the vision statement for the strategic plan though it was rewritten in more modern language .We had a great museum that we were very proud of offering great art shows and outstanding history exhibits. Our only problem was we were slowly going broke. I envisioned a museum as a gathering place for learning and for cultural experiences. My personal epiphany came about when we did a show on skateboards and skate art. I saw people in skater clothing being wowed by our permanent history collection. I felt we needed to be relevant to a new world and Nina Simon came along to show us how to do that. We could have remained as Bruce liked us for a short time longer, but does a bankrupt museum holding firm to its past as it goes down do anyone any good, I think Nina and the staff have done a great job. I don’t agree with everything that goes on there but the results tell the tale the public likes it. A museum for a few dilettantes to contemplate art is a waste compared to a vibrant community where many people are exposed to art and history in ways that might “ignite ” a long term interest. I am a historian and a certified old fart , and I say bring it on! Whoever says we don’t properly care for our collections is nuts , we don’t have a paid archivist , but we have many volunteers and a great curator , our collections are in the best shape they have ever been in, and I would be delighted to show Mr. Bratton or anyone else the real story.
    Allan Molho Past president and board member of Mah current member o the collections committee.

    • Thanks for your comment. I think, however, that you have sketched out a false dichotomy. And no one who has commented here, to my knowledge, wants a “museum for a few dilettantes.”

  20. John C. Rumm says

    As I read through the original blog entry and all the subsequent postings and replies, I was struck by how several of the points raised parallel or at least echo issues that the late Stephen E. Weil touched upon and discussed in his “A Meditation on Small and Large Museums,” which he first presented as an address to the Western Museums Conference in September 1987. The essay appears in his anthology of collected essays, Rethinking the Museum and Other Meditations (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), pp. 27-41. Weil was a thoughtful and insightful commentator on museums, and his essays sparkle with wisdom, wit and trenchant observations. Though written a generation ago, they still seem remarkably fresh and relevant.

    Weil suggests, for example, “that the small museum might be uniquely structured to play a leading experimental role in helping us to explore whether this museum field of ours can move itself at least a little way toward being . . . somewhat less ‘object-centered’ and somewhat more ‘community-centered'” (37). Considered in that regard, perhaps it might behoove us to take a deep breath and give Nina Simon, her board, and her staff more time to conduct their ongoing “experimental exploration” at Santa Cruz, before rushing to pass judgment on it

    Weil also offers a paradigm of small museums being more community-focused and large museums being more object-based, and suggests a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship between the two ends of the spectrum. Andt I think his concluding comments are well worth reading carefully in the context of this blog entry’s ongong discussion:

    “[T]he conclusion of my own meditation on small and large museums is that we do our field a tremendous disservice when we fail to recognize, first, that small and large museusm tend to have different strengths and weaknesses, and second, that at this historical moment it is the particular strength of the small museum–likely to be more flexible in its management and less burdened by the weight of a large collection–that might be uniquely important in moving the American museum community toward a more socially relevant role than its official object centeredness currently permits it to play. For those of us who think that some movement in this direction is important, the small museum may well be our very best hope” (p. 40).


    John C. Rumm

  21. the nameless eye says

    Is social relevance a valid goal for a museum? I am not at all sure that it is. There are myriad other institutions that deal with social and political issues in an intelligent way. The concern I have is that if museums–object-centered institutions–lose their focus on the objects, what differentiates the experience there from that in a community center? We have many of those and they serve their purpose well, but they are not museums. So if that object focus is lost, it seems most logical to call the institution something else besides a museum.

  22. Such a strange read for me. The MAH was the first museum I ever interned at, and Bruce Bratton was a coworker at a radio station where I DJed from 2010-2012. For full disclosure, I am currently a candidate for a Master’s in Museum Studies at New York University.

    I was interning under Marla Novo (the Curator of Collections at the MAH) both before Nina Simon’s arrival as Executive Director and after some of the dust settled around her changes (from approximately March 2011 to June 2012, though I was an Education Department intern there as well from Sept. 2010 to March 2011). As someone that saw it firsthand, I could not disagree with Bratton’s argument more. Nina’s response was spot on.

    Nina focused her response of the quantitative data, but I’d also like to point out that she (and the rest of the staff at the MAH) care deeply about the qualitative data about their audiences. So many of the comments on this article zero in exclusively on attendance numbers, but I know for a fact that the Museum puts so much time and energy into listening to their visitors and caring about that more than anything. For instance, it wasn’t until Nina started at the Museum that a magnetized wall was incorporated right by the Museum’s main entrance and exit, complete with papers, pencils, and magnets that encouraged visitors to voice their opinions (good, bad, and ugly), as well as share artwork or poetry that was inspired by the exhibitions. I distinctly remember seeing Nina personally leaving written responses on these cards and seeing many of them hung around her office as references to keep in mind during her days. I don’t know many Executive Directors who care and give that much.

    Since the MAH taught me the value of listening to your audiences, I thought I’d share some qualitative information.

    Before she got to the MAH, the primary audiences at the Museum tended to be children’s school groups (though of course there were others as well). I remember, while interning in the Education Dept. and helping lead history workshops, children would tell me how they already knew the answers to our questions because they already had done school trips to the Museum in past years.

    To put it bluntly, the Museum felt stagnant. As an alumn of the University of California, Santa Cruz, I can also say that almost everyone I knew from that population didn’t know the Museum existed and, if they did, they had no clue or interest as to where it was or visiting it. This is a rather saddening truth, especially since the Museum is located in the downtown area of Santa Cruz and is incredibly accessible to this student body.

    Let’s look at the 2010 Mission Statement again. “The Museum of Art & History promotes a greater understanding of contemporary art and the history of Santa Cruz County, through its exhibitions, collections, and programs, for the benefit of residents and visitors to Santa Cruz County.”
    In my opinion, one of the most crucial aspects to this Mission Statement is “for the benefit of residents and visitors to Santa Cruz County.” How could the Museum have truly accomplished this if it was not reaching entire populations of its residents?

    I feel like this is a common case with local museums sometimes. There was a very small population of people who were engaging with the Museum in one very narrow, specific way, and the Museum was in major financial trouble. Nina Simon came in and worked hard (along with the rest of the great staff members) to transform the Museum into an institution that really attempts to serve its ENTIRE community, rather than just one very small portion.

    • Thanks for your comment. But I seriously doubt than anyone who is part of this conversation wants a museum to engage only with a small part of the population. Nor is there one “narrow, specific way” they are advocating. Those who disagree with Simon’s initiatives are not arguing for stagnancy or no change. They, and I include myself, have issues with some of her changes. That is legitimate.

  23. As a long-time local Santa Cruz resident and radio documentarian specializing in historic topics, I have watched with interest the developments at the MAH. On one hand, I have gone there more often, not, I should say, to see the exhibits, but to see free music, shmooze with friends, and be part of the fun. Perhaps this experiment is a victim of its own success. During a recent night that was supposed to honor the local music scene, there were bands whose sound overlapped causing a din, an ocean’s activity area for kids making things, and the premier of what should have been its own special exhibit night, a show titled “Santa Cruz is in the Heart” by historian Jeff Dunn. It was crowded, chaotic, noisy, and nobody was staying long anywhere because there were too many people. In the music business, that’s a nice problem to have, but if you have spent weeks putting together a moving exhibit about your own town, it seems disrespectful to compete with marimba bands, jazz quintets, and a ukelele jam all on the same night. Bands do not get paid to play and they are “doing art” in their own way. Perhaps what the community is really saying is that it wants a downtown community center, and as a venue for music, the MAH is really inferior, and not set up for such. I applaud change, but I wonder if “attendance” is being measured by special events where not everyone even gets upstairs to see the installations. I will wait until a quieter day to go back to feel the “heart” part of Santa Cruz. Change for change’s sake is just that.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience at our music-themed 3rd Friday. I encourage you to come back during daytime hours to experience Santa Cruz is in the Heart–and other exhibitions–in a contemplative, quiet environment.

      The MAH is striving to be a museum of AND, with a diverse menu of experiences for the wide range of creative and cultural interests in our community. We are open 40 hours per week. 4 of those hours–usually on Friday nights–are dedicated to festival-style programming that is often loud, chaotic, and crowded. We intentionally bring together diverse presenters at 3rd Friday festivals to encourage people to make unexpected connections–between marimba and hiphop, or quilting and graffiti art. Those events are fabulous ways for people to engage with local artists, creators, and historians, but they are lousy nights to deeply engage with exhibitions. I invite you to come any of the other 36 hours to experience our exhibitions in peace.

      I think this is ultimately what some of the debate is about: is the change an OR, where we have replaced one type of museum experience with another, or is it an AND, where we expand the menu? I would argue that our change–and change of this nature at many museums–has been about adding, not replacing.

    • Allan Molho says

      I am the presenter of the music on First Fridays , and indeed, it is noisier than other nights, We average about 800 people a night during the music hours, but we can’t possibly fit them all in the atrium where the music is presented. What we are achieving, is exactly what I hoped for, a kind of cross pollination that exposes people to many other experiences often not what they came to see . I watched over the ten years as we presented great shows of art and history. We would have an opening spike in attendance and then it rapidly tailed off. We were, “the place across from Trader Joe’s”. Now there is a “buzz” and everyone knows where MAH is. If we’d continued on that older path we would have been bankrupt . I agree with Nina, there are many hours for contemplative enjoyment and our results show that many more people are enjoying those exhibits than ever before.

      • Perhaps you are right. but also, perhaps, the people who attend your music part only of FF should not be counted in museum attendance, because if you took it away, they wouldn’t be there, would they?

        • Allan Molho says

          I am not sure what you are getting at, The music is a cultural experience every bit as valuable as an art show or a lecture all of which we provide. We have a vibrant living museum that is reaching new audiences every day. Everyone here seems to be focused on our public programming we are far more than that and we have extensive collections that we care for at a high level , We also own and manage a historic cemetery which has an extensive plan for preservation and restoration in place and being executed by another group of dedicated volunteers. We also own and care for a historic jail building in another part of our city. All this focus on programming overlooks the many activities of our museum . Perhaps we should also delete the attendance
          at our wonderful Memorial Day festivities at Evergreen Cemetery. I posit that Mr. Bratton was spouting off without
          looking at the entirety of the what we are doing at MAH I would welcome the opportunity to show him and you around. Just for the record I am 71 and I love what we have created.

          • Your use of the word “care” in relation to the collections is very telling, it seems to me — and very passive compared with the enthusiasm for activities that, to many people in this discussion, are or should be the core mission of SCMAH. I wonder what the attendance number would be solely for visits to the galleries.

            And btw, age has nothing to do with this — or shouldn’t have. I am tired of people calling those who disagree with them crabby, cranky and old. Or old-fashioned.

          • Michelle Millar Fisher says

            Just an FYI – “care” is exactly what a museum should be doing to its collections! “Curator” descends from the Latin “to care.”

          • OF course I know that — but it’s passive. While care is the basis of what museums do, it’s not the only thing they do with art, thank goodness. They also present it. And preserve it, and study it, etc.

        • Surfer Dude says

          I’m a local Santa Cruzan sympathetic to the Judith/Bruce criticisms, but maybe the simple answer is that Santa Cruz is getting the museum that it wants/deserves? If the old model wasn’t sustainable and the new one is, then perhaps there aren’t enough like-minded re$ident$ to support the old model. Santa Cruz is a very low-brow kind of place (and small), and it’s somewhat surprising that the local community can sustain any sort of art museum at all. We have a thriving open studios program here, but the local art on display is overwhelmingly provincial (the two major categories being Middling Seascapes and Stoner Art. The consolation for me is that if the museum had closed completely, there would be no opportunity for locally-produced museum exhibitions at all, whereas now at least there is a remote possibility that once in a while there might be some museum-quality art to experience locally.

          • Roger Paige says

            I think Surfer Dude is partially right: Santa Cruz has the museum it deserves.
            A good part of the reason the so called “old model” could not support itself was, and still is, the size of the building itself which is ridiculously bloated for a town the size of Santa Cruz. I’m not
            sure, but seem to remember that the money to build it came from the federal government as part of the earthquake recovery program. The money was available only if it was spent on something like a “museum” and the decision to use it to build such a huge building had more to do with not passing up federal largesse than on the actual need for such a huge “museum”.
            Instead of constantly having to invent new ways to pay the bills, it might be better to keep a sustainably sized portion for the museum and simply rent the rest out to sympathetic shops or offices.

          • Traditionalist says

            This piece of information from Roger Paige about the expensive new building is key. One of the great dilemmas for cultural institutions is that it is easier to raise funds for bricks and mortar than for estoteric scholarly functions. This relative ease of building buildings, together with the populist ideological climate of the past few decades, has induced museums to construct expensive new buildings to “attract audiences” without clear forethought of what will be the perpetual costs to staff and maintain them. Museums are now compelled into a vicious cycle of staging still more expensive attention-getting blockbuster shows to justify and pay for the expensive bloated buildings–and the bloated bureaucracies necessary to run them.

            In my opinion, this vicious cycle has been led by an administrative mindset rather than a professional (i.e. scholarly, curatorial) one. I would like to draw a distinction between the two, since the term “museum professional” keeps being used, mostly by administrators.

            The corporate model introduced to museums (and universities) by career administrators is based upon the business model, which pursues never-ending growth. I believe this is an inappropriate model for scholarly institutions.

          • Regarding your point about raising money for buildings, museums need to work at changing that. Please see my post of January 28 about Dan Monroe at the Peabody Essex museum. (I’m on the road at the moment and can’t copy the link, but I will when I get to a computer.) you can search for Dan Monroe.

          • There is another “museum” for locally produced art: the Santa Cruz Art League, which has been around a lot longer than MAH and is where the Open Studios show is centered. So the claim “if the museum had closed completely, there would be no opportunity for locally-produced museum exhibitions at all, whereas now at least there is a remote possibility that once in a while there might be some museum-quality art to experience locally” seems a bit uninformed about art in Santa Cruz.

            Disclaimer: about the only time I see the exhibits at the Art League, other than for Open Studios is when I go to a performance at the Broadway Playhouse, which is in the Art League’s building.

  24. the nameless eye says

    In his most recent post Mr. Molho repeats the disaster scenario that people are attempting to sell to museum boards: a higher attendance number at any price is the only solution to a perceived financial crisis. The problem is that higher attendance only increases gate receipts, which are not a wise thing to depend on–the public, as wonderful as it is, and which we all serve gladly, is notoriously fickle in terms of where its members put their disposable income. In this scenario the core mission of the institution is to be sold off in the service of an idea that will lead to further instability.

    • Allan Molho says

      Dear Nameless,
      First off it was not a perceived crisis we were very close to closing the doors. Secondly, we get very little revenue from the public. Perhaps you didn’t read my post very carefully, what I said was the changes have revitalized the Museum. We have more interest in everything we do. We have a great History show up at present and because of the spill-over from other events we are achieving the kind of cross pollination that I hoped for when I was President of the Museum. I resent the remark that we have sold off the core mission, when, in fact, we have enhanced our core mission. I am a historian and very sensitive to such remarks as we have been working extremely hard for a number of years towards accreditation for our collection practices.
      Public programming is not the only goal of our museum. We depend on a dedicated core of volunteers to achieve
      much of what we are able to accomplish and the majority of our revenue comes from an equally dedicated core of donors. So you can see we don’t depend for revenue on that fickle public you seem to disdain. We want them to come and participate!

      • the nameless eye says

        You are quite right, sold off was not quite fair. Diluted is a better word. I should say that I do take service to the public quite seriously, far from disdaining it. The point I was making is that attendance increase alone will not solve a financial crisis. This was in response to your comment “if we had continued on the older path we would be bankrupt.”

  25. Ashley Hartwyk says

    Dear Ms. Dobrzynski,

    I absolutely agree that it would be unreasonable for anyone to expect you to fact-check the information you discuss on your blog, in most cases. But I think that when we’re discussing negative statements about the work of a specific, individual person, which could do unwarranted damage to that person’s reputation or career, it would be fair for those kinds of statements to be subject to more scrutiny. I appreciate that this post opens a conversation about contemplative vs. participatory museums. I think that some of Mr. Bratton’s more inaccurate statements were a distraction from that discussion.

    Ashley Hartwyk

    • Thanks for your comment. Rest assured that I do not post things here willy-nilly, without scrutiny. Whether or not the details of Bratton’s post were precisely accurate I could not discern without the fact-checking you agree that I do not have time to do. The overall drift of his arguments rang true to me, based on my own awareness of museum world currents and Simon’s well known positions. I sincerely doubt that her reputation has been damaged.

      • Ashley Hartwyk says

        Dear Ms. Dobrzynski,

        Thank you for replying to my comment, I appreciate it very much. I do think it makes sense, in general, to post things that ring true. I think that, unfortunately, misstatements and errors that seem possibly true have the potential to do much more damage to an individual or an organization than those which are clearly preposterously false. I think that they have much greater potential to create untrue and unfair perceptions that can be very difficult to correct. Ultimately, though, the statements came from Mr. Bratton, and the truth of what he writes is his responsibility. I think that he was trying to spark a worthy conversation, but I think inaccurate statements do a disservice to serious conversation.

        Thank you again for the opportunity to talk about this here.
        Ashley Hartwyk

  26. Andrew French says

    “I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

    ― Richard P. Feynman

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