Sometimes in your life an event happens that changes your thoughts and gives another perspective on what you want to do in the future. Or it inspires you. Or it provokes you to action.

This happened to me while I was working at a museum in the role of PR manager. Together with my colleague, I took part in a project management training for museum workers. It was an unusual experience for me, since museums are non-profit organizations and I have a marketing degree and experience in the for-profit area. Now it’s pretty common to apply business practices in the cultural and public sectors, though it has its own intricaries that change generally accepted entrepreneurial approaches.

The Role of Museums

During the project management seminar, we learned what “a museum project” (also known as an exhibition) is and what are typically the main goals for it. The speakers also explained to us that museums are not just collecting, preserving, and presenting artefacts from the past. Rather, museums are now a fundamental base for modern social functions, interconnected with each other.

The goal for the modern museum is to build the bridge between the past and the future, to provoke problem-solving and to motivate you to look for answers, for new ways, for changes—at least in our lives but, at their best, in the whole world. A museum's projects should be relevant and in line modern challenges. And museums are among the first educational institutions for children, where they can be in very close touch with the world and easily learn about it. 

After the project management training, I decided to continue my professional career in this fascinating field. I've had many experiences visiting museums in different countries, including the U.S., and I'd like to share those experiences with you.

Experience Through Feelings

People’s feelings can be incredibly powerful. Our feelings are strong and often have more effect on our behavior than our brains. An emotional experience at a cultural institution, if it is well thought-out, could bring visitors to unexpected findings and reflections. Very interesting point of view about sense of touch expressed in the article by Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection in London.

I used to dream of restoring works of art, so, for me, I found a video about the most innovative way of restoring an old Greek vase at the Chicago Institute of Art really attractive. Though it didn't involve problem solving, the high level of laboratory work shown in this video impressed me—explaining in a very short and simple way how the restoration process worked. It felt closely tied to childlike curiosity, and was a great addition to the exhibit. There was also an educational moment that explained all of the ancient ewers displayed in the exhibit. Sometimes through the process of creating/restoring a art piece, you realize the scale of work that went into it.

In the Saint Louis Art Museum I was able to touch paper made in the most ancient way, which was used for creating manuscripts. That exhibit was truly for kids, who always learn something new through touch and taste. However, adults also love to be like kids. And if the majority of the elements in an exhibition are off limits to touch, it’s always an advantage to have something that you can feel with your hands.

Sometimes the feelings we experience through art aren't positive, especially if we’re talking about historical or memorial museums. To be able to represent the saddest moments of history and ask people to comprehend it through feelings is the hardest thing to do. When I was in Oswiecim, the former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, the sunny weather readied me to visit that place with friends. But it wasn't easy at all.

In one of the buildings the installation was done so smartly, that in one moment I realized the whole horror of what happened just 75 years ago. It was in a darkened room, painted in white with written sentences and people’s shadows in human size. Men, women with children, and grandparents holding hands were standing around me. And the projector above the people showed a slideshow on one of the walls. It made it appear that your shadow was going to another room—your own shadow, made to appear between others' shadows on the wall by the projector. You appear among them, in their place. These feelings, though sad, are incredibly important because history repeats itself if we don’t pay attention to the past.

In general, history museums are the hardest to organize. It's difficult to present the historical facts without coloring them by our own interpretation, and simply allow visitors to make their own conclusions.

I think a pertinent illustration of the topic of what a museum project or exhibition should be is represented in Intersections, the ArtPrize 2014 dual Grand Prize-winner by Anila Quayyum Agha, which was displayed at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. This piece used a similar approach to interaction and communication with visitors as the previous example. Only here the viewer gets positive emotions from the combination of their own shadow with the space where he/she stands.

The shadow of the cube crossed with the shadow of the visitors, who on one hand were able to create a new picture with their own shadow, and on the other hand were able to read the artist statement and try to see the piece through the artist's point of view. Then they could interpret it through their own life experiences.

The same is true of other museum projects (exhibitions), where the idea and instruments used cross with the visitors' perception, based on a variety of personal experiences. And the ultimate goal for the museum is to not only encourage visitors to take "user pictures," but also to inspire them to reflect on their own lives and experiences.

Stay tuned—in my next post I'll discuss museum project examples from Norway, Ukraine, Russia, Estonia, and Grand Rapids.

Photographs: Iryna Bilan, Gary Dumbrill.

By Iryna Bilan on