Museum Experts on the Proximity of Culture to People: “Don’t shy away from becoming a Disney Land”:
Linda, Vaiva, what projects are you working on? Can you tell us a little about your interesting professional experience?
Linda Norris: My work is at the junction of the museum and social work. I’m an independent museum expert; I work as a consultant, I’m active in journalism, and sometimes oversee exhibitions. But two kinds of activities are paramount for me. The first is public good—specifically, making museums an important part of civil society. I am also a co-author of the book Creativity in Museum Practice. It’s about how creative practices can help museums improve and become more meaningful and useful for society. Incidentally, the book has recently been published in Ukrainian. I also teach the online course International Experiments in Community Engagement at John Hopkins University.
Vaiva Lankeliene: My work is tied to museums too. I am currently working at the Ministry of Culture of Lithuania. But I worked for almost 12 years in a museum, where I oversaw international projects, was head of the international relations department, and was responsible for strategic planning. There, I learned how to organise exhibitions, train and evaluate museum personnel around the world.
Now I am responsible for all museums in Lithuania. We work mainly with the regulatory framework of the museum sector, with various strategic plans. We help develop methodologies and advise museums. Therefore, we need to know everything—from laws on museums and right up to accounting issues. That’s not easy, but it boosts your personal and professional development.
In autumn, you met with Ukrainian cultural operators. What was your impression about our country’s cultural sector and its specifics?
V.L.: I think no museum in the world can boast having no problems, achieving all its goals, having enough money, and being fully staffed. Even the Louvre lacks funding, and it wouldn’t hurt if it had more visitors.
For example, a hypothetical Ukrainian museum may have a great collection, but here’s a question: How do you present it to society? How do you prove that there is more to this museum than just cold walls nobody cares about? Here’s where various events and activities come in. Museums have certain artefacts, they have collections that people should be proud of archaeological finds, beautiful paintings in the National Museum, etc. People need to see all that.
Everything depends on how museums present their potential: through exhibitions, educational programmes or engaging in cooperation with locals. It is necessary because you have wonderful museums and they all have spaces. The director of the Bulgakov Museum told us that they established the museum knowing how to develop it in the future. It’s like a suitcase with several empty compartments: you fill two, but you know that you have space for development.
Talking about the development of museums, I don’t mean the building housing it. It’s the people, team, collection, community. And if you know in which direction to move, and you’ve identified your mission, “the museum’s life scenario”, then everything will be just fine. I think that Ukrainian museums have huge potential. But I also feel that you need to change your mindset.
L.N.: Listening to you, I remembered the American museum scholar Stephen Weil, who said that museums should not just be dedicated to something, but they should also have their own audiences. This change happens slowly in Ukraine. Very slowly sometimes. But nobody will do it for you. Museums are created not for those who work in them. They are for the people and that’s why they should work with the audience. Their job is to engage the general public. I’ve met people from Ukraine who say: “We’re turning into a Disney Land!” There are some of these in every country.
Engaging people does not mean turning into Disney Land. I get mad when people say: “What we do is too serious, the general public will not understand us.” People can understand a lot of things and take interest in many things. Ukrainian museums may have beautiful collections, they may have compelling stories, but many of them remain untold. No-one is giving thought to what the public would like to see at an exhibition.
I always try to attend exhibitions when I’m in Ukraine. I would like to note two very interesting and original projects, which have impressed me in the past few years. Both were presented at the National Art Museum of Ukraine. These are the exhibitions Heroes: An Inventory in Progress and Special Fund 1937-1939. One of the museum’s employees, who accompanied me to the Heroes exhibition, said to me: “You know, usually people who come to the museum are very quiet, but at this exhibition, visitors were constantly talking to each other.”
Special Fund showed that museums have their histories too, and in Ukraine, although it’s complicated and complex, it’s interesting. But if you are ready to accept this history and you make sure people understand it, then the results can be excellent. I talk a lot to my colleagues around the world about museums and I always recall the Heroes exhibition, because I believe that such a project could have been organised anywhere.
That is, in general, are Ukrainian museums on the right track?
L.N.: I think that it can objectively be said that some Ukrainian museums are on the right track. In many of them, we are seeing some improvements, but there could be more of them. Professional networks and cooperation in the sector are still very poorly developed. I think that it’s always easier to do something together than on your own, but for some reason, you don’t work that way.
The article was drawn up in cooperation with the EU-Eastern Partnership Culture and Creativity - http://culturepartnership.platfor.ma/muzeyniyeeksperty/