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The case of the Santa Cruz MAH

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) is a local museum in California that has, in just a few years, experienced a radical transformation at the hands of its director, Nina Simon, considered to be one of the most authoritative people in the field of museums in the United States.

The author of two very influential books —The Participatory Museum (2010) and The Art of Relevance (2016) —, her theories on how to make museums more relevant for society as a whole, participatory museums and design centred on the audience can be summarised in the following way:

Open New Doors

To New People

In New Ways

The MAH is a traditional art and history museum in Santa Cruz County, with a permanent collection and its own temporary exhibitions programme, but which has redefined its mission in an innovative way:

“Our mission is to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections. To do this, we find, spark, preserve, and trade stories, ideas, and elements of creativity drawn from people across Santa Cruz County. We bring people together around art, history, and culture to build a stronger, more connected community.”

Since Nina Simon’s arrival in 2011, the number of visitors to the MAH has tripled. They have been able to connect with new groups of people (more young people, of diverse cultural identities, from traditionally underrepresented areas…), 90% of their programme is the result of the co-creation and collaboration with other partners in civil society and they have gained an important place in the civic and community life of Santa Cruz.

Some of the data which illustrates the change:

In the talk “TEDxPaloAlto” from 2017 (12′) Nina Simon explains the delicate circumstances —economic and reputational— of the MAH when she arrived, and how they straightened out the situation by inviting, involving and above all listening to these groups and sections of the population, considered outsiders until then, so they could make the museum their own.

Amongst all the initiatives put in place by Nina Simon and her team at the MAH, one of the most interesting and transformative of these were the “Community Issue Exhibitions” which I will proceed to analyse.

“Community Issue Exhibitions”

The MAH organises a biannual temporary exhibition based around a transcendent social theme “of” the local community, organised “by” and “for” all the parties who were involved.

The first of these experiences was “Lost Childhoods” (from July to December 2017), a show about the transition to adult life by young people who have left social care.

The exhibition was co-created by young people who had left social care, centres and foster families, organisations that work with young people who have left care, artists and local creators and those who defend the rights of children and young people.

From the whole enriching experience —which produced measurable changes in society and in which there were more than one hundred collaborators!— a manual was written which was made available to any cultural institution who wished to co-create inclusive and relevant shows “of”, “by” and “for” the community: the Community Issue Exhibition Toolkit (PDF).

Simply put, we could say that these types of exhibitions are:

  • A platform for learning and creating dialogue around a topic which has local importance and interest.
  • An exhibition of art and objects that explain stories about the chosen subject.
  • An exhibition, co-designed with the participation of all involved parties, affected groups, promoters and supporters of the topic in question.
  • An exhibition co-designed with experts on the subject, who at the same time help to organise parallel activities and expand the reach of the show’s social impact.

On the other hand, the benefits of these types of exhibitions are:

  • To involve, in a genuine way, sections of the population who are traditionally difficult to attract.
  • To establish credibility as the organiser of projects that revolve around crucial topics that affect the community.
  • To build solid relationships with local leaders and political figures.
  • To increase recognition and reputation on a local and national scale.
  • To support the role that culture plays as a catalyst of change.
  • To attract new sources of financing.
  • To strengthen the community.

The second “Community Issue Exhibition” from the MAH , “We’re Still Here: Stories of Seniors and Social Isolation”, will be inaugurated on 5th April 2019 and on this occasion they explore the loneliness and isolation experienced by the elderly in Santa Cruz County.

OF/BY/FOR ALL

The lessons learnt from the “Lost Childhoods” exhibition are at the heart of OF/BY/FOR ALL, the new project from Nina Simon, for which she will leave the position of director of the MAH in order to devote herself exclusively to it.

This exhibition demonstrated that in order for the co-creative projects to be “for” the community, they have to be “of” and “by” the community involved. If the MAH is a small, local museum, the model and formula that were developed on this occasion are applicable and scalable to bigger museums and other types of cultural institutions.

Exhibitions of citizen inclusion can mark a real and measurable difference in the way which a community deals with its most crucial problems; ultimately, they can be a catalyst for transformative civil initiatives.

For this reason, Nina Simon and her team have developed the first free and confidential tool for cultural institutions to be able to evaluate themselves and be capable of identifying their strengths and weaknesses in order to become a force for change “of”, “by” and “for” the citizen.

The aim of OF/BY/FOR ALL is for the maximum number of museums and cultural centres to join the movement and apply this model, so that within two years they have involved one million new members of the public (more young people, from deprived backgrounds or recently arrived communities…) in the culture to build, amongst other things, a more inclusive world.

See the OF/BY/FOR ALL presentation that Nina Simon made at the London conference “MuseumNext” in 2018 (37′): video.

Conclusion

The world is very divided; museums and cultural centres are ideal places for becoming inclusive and relevant spaces that allow positive interaction with people who are not like us. This occurs both by having a workforce which represents this diversity and by attracting new partners so that all citizens feel represented and implicated.

To open ourselves up to new collectives, we need the complicity of those collectives that currently don’t feel represented by the cultural institutions, so they can tell us what we can offer them within the framework of their values. Becoming a more relevant cultural institution – opening museums to new stories – is not a marketing operation. Above all, it is an exercise in empathy, generosity and humility that should be approached from all levels of the organisation.