Today I continue the conversion about museums and the visitor experience. To some extent, these examples could have been included in the previous blog posts. Still, I decided set them apart in this post because of their common idea: being inspired by our own creativity—though in different ways.
The first museum is from the beautiful Scandinavian Norway: Norsk Folkemuseum. It is one of Norway’s largest open-air museums of cultural history, with a large indoor and outdoor collection. Imagine yourself walking through the museum among all kinds and styles of traditional Norwegian architecture from different centuries, as though you’ve traveled in time. And then you see very interesting indoor collections, which relevantly represent the lifestyle traditions of those times.
My visitor's story takes place in the cold of late November, when my friend and I weren’t expecting any interesting activities in the museum and were deeply concerned about art pieces—and warming up in the exhibition spaces. Imagine our surprise when we felt warm and saw a real live woman in one of the oldest houses, standing near a real fire place. She had been preparing the traditional Norwegian bread, lefse, using a special stone griddle and other tools. Of course, she suggested that we try it, because she had some already made. While she was chatting with us, she told us that this kind of flatbread was usually made just for the holidays, as it consisted of butter and milk, which were expensive for daily use in old ages. Can you imagine how impressed we were after leaving this warm “live museum”?
But that was not the only one surprise from that day. While we were walking among other buildings, we found one made from bricks of a pretty modern style. Inside we met a young couple. The woman was knitting and the man was reading a newspaper. They told us that they were a family from the 1950’s, and their look with all the interior details told us the same. On the floor we saw traditional Norwegian rugs, embroidered cloth and towels all around, and the couple was dressed up in warm woolen sweaters. Because it was almost winter time, the woman was wearing arm warmers while she knitted a scarf for her “husband”. All of these things were very traditional for Norwegians. “The young family” suggested that we drink a cup of tea with them and talk a little bit about their lifestyle and daily routine. One more nice moment that gives a better understanding of what Norway’s culture is all about.
The second museum which really impressed me in Norway was the Munch Museum. This museum doesn't usually have a permanent exhibition. I would say that this is because their exhibition space is pretty small. But the main reason, I think, is that they are always trying to be interesting to visitors -- not just to tourists, but also to the local community. So we saw Munch’s famous "Scream" and "Summer Night's Dream" of course, but in the technique of drawing.
When we visited this museum, they were showing just drawn artworks of the artist with a simple theme: Munch on paper. The first thing that impressed me within this exhibition was the art scavenger hunt for children. Children received a map of the exhibition and a number of stickers with an image of part of the picture. So, their task was simple—while their parents were trying to enjoy the exhibition, children stayed engaged and weren't bored. Instead, they were involved in the process of trying to find which of Munch’s drawings would best match with their stickers.
Another activity that seems to have been developed just for kids also brought adults into the creative process. How would you like to have your work displayed in a museum for a while? Even though you’re not an artist? The organizers of the exhibition gave that opportunity. They simply changed the first word in an exhibition theme and wrote it on the wall—You on paper. In the middle of the last exhibition room, they set up the drawing booth—comfortable for the youngest artists and for adults as well. Anyone was able to draw his/her own portrait using a mirror, drawing materials and their own imagination. To the word, in the first room just one picture was placed: a self-portrait of Edvard Munch. That was like a play on words—on one hand “You” meant your portrait, while on the other hand it meant your drawing—like the rest of Munch’s drawings in the exhibition. You could even draw something other than a portrait, as my friend did (no one would try to catch you on it). In the end you just put your drawing on the wall.
It is fun, of course, to draw yourself and then hang your work on a museum wall. At the same time, especially if you’re an adult and have already “forgotten” from school how fun it is to draw, this is a nice way to understand the exhibition and Munch’s mastery better, and to return to creativity for a moment in such an easy and simple way.
Munch’s exhibit was the first that came to my mind when I visited the Grand Rapids Art Museum at the beginning of this past winter. There were two exhibitions displaying drawings from the Minneapolis Institute of Art and GRAM’s collections. In one corner, there was a similar space for visitors' creative time. I guess this is an interactive zone for most exhibitions in a museum. There was a still life composition and drawing materials set out, as well as a separate wall for hanging visitors’ artworks. The idea was pretty similar—to give the visitor a better understanding of what nature drawing actually is—after seeing some of the world's best examples.
By the way, not everyone tried to experience it by themselves, but I did. One particular case— returning to my past—was when I was taking drawing classes before applying for architecture studies. Since that time, I've had rare opportunities to draw just for myself. That’s why this experience was very emotional for me. And I believe there were many others who found connections within their own lives and previous experiences through the exhibition. I think a museum is just the perfect place for this moment with yourself.
At GRAM I saw several good examples of interactions with the audience. What I really liked was the cooperation between the museum and the students. The goal was to encourage museum visitors to “dig deeper” when they were viewing an artpiece, and to see the artist behind the work as a person. One time the museum, together with the students, choose one of the ArtPrize 2014 works on display and set up a little voting station near it. There were five facts about the artist and his artwork with a call to the audience to make a choice—what was the most exciting thing to know about him? A very great idea, I think. I would even recommend continuing this practice during future exhibitions.
Going back to my first post about the feelings that museums try to give us -- During the last GRAM exhibit, Edward Burtynsky: Water, the interactive area on the second floor was set up with a “relaxation” station, where you could take one step under a circle and listen to the water—a nice thing for a meditation moment. Isn’t our life happier mostly because of these little joyful moments? In another corner of this space was a wall with reflection stickers on it. People expressed their view on why water matters. I think at the end of the exhibition, that information could be very useful for a case study on some of the environmental speciality students.
For me, one of the nicest and most unexpected things at GRAM was to see in a permanent exhibition a sculpture of a female body, made by my countryman Alexander Archipenko -- one of the founders of cubism in sculpture. But more about him in one of my next blog posts.
In general, museums are supposed to orient on the audience, who can draw conclusions from what they see and go from the museum with questions in their heads. I just want to encourage you to feel like Sherlock: every time you visit a museum, try to find this little (or big) “addition” that gives you a better sense of the exhibition. Don’t be afraid to go through this experience. You never know when it’ll be useful.
And make sure you see the live, free “museum” on the Grand River this season. I’m referring to the fish ladder—one of the most impressive things I've seen in Grand Rapids this spring. The way that the fish purposefully and enthusiastically overcome each of the steps encourages us to think about our own lives in comparison to theirs.
Photographs: Iryna Bilan.