An international view of regional museums

By Eric Dorfman

The last few weekends we’ve been visiting some of the regional museums in our area. It’s been a great excuse to explore places we wouldn’t normally have a reason to go, and to learn historical stories told with the authenticity of local voices.

Despite the lure of the world’s large and glamorous institutions, regional museums are extremely important, comprising more than ninety percent of the museums in the world. While it’s true, most regional museums cannot compete with the treasure-rich vaults of the British Museum, Te Papa or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they have the opportunity to do something that many of these urban giants do not: to distil and preserve the identity of a local community.

This was recently discussed by the American art critic Bill Wittenbreerin in his analysis of Peter Lund’s 19th Century painting Logged Over Hills, North Minnesota.

Peter Lund: Log Over Hills, North MinnesotaArt museums, such as the Minnesota Museum of American Art, that collect and display the artwork created by local and regional artists do more than tell the story of the region’s art. Often times, such museums may treat the work of art as a piece of the region’s history… When this happens, the collections of these museums provide an intimate insight into their area’s social, economic, and cultural conditions.1

Regional museums have the opportunity to form a critical link between society’s past and future, playing a key role in regional social development. Additionally, smaller museums find a new role in society: to help drive visitation to local communities. (Especially true in New Zealand, as we slowly inch our way from an agricultural economy to one based in tourism.)

However, lack of resources frequently puts limits on what’s possible for these museums to achieve, even potentially threatening their existence. And the situation is the same world-wide. In the UK for instance, the House of Lords’ Select Committee on Science and Technology has pointed out that while regional and national museums have a vital role in inspiring young people and provide novel outreach opportunities that foster engagement, the funding situation is “precarious”.2

While a lack of funding wouldn’t be news to anybody associated with a regional Museum, there is also a positive slant to the situation. Hartmut Prasch, the Austrian ICOM senior councillor and champion of regional museums, considers that lack of resources in local museums leads many to finding new methods of communication, presentation and promotion. New ideas and outstanding communication methods are the main tools establishing the “public quality” of museums. He suggests that this is a perfect incubator for innovation and creativity.3

Here are a few useful strategies that are being used to create cost-effective innovations. Many of these ideas can be seen in New Zealand exhibitions already. For interest, here are a few examples from regional institutions overseas:

Fresh perspectives: objects or works of art can be repurposed in unexpected ways, using the power of surprise to add depth and interest. An example comes from the exhibition Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things from the Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, USA. Through it, they suggest innovative ways to ‘upcycle’ common objects, initiating a conversation through art about the environmental impact of today’s society. By extension, recycled materials themselves can take the spotlight, giving an important message about sustainability. Exhibitions like Treasures from Trash, from the Museum of Croydon in the UK, explores creative recycling from around the globe.

Clever combinations and juxtapositions: Using collections in unexpected ways, such as focusing on their colour, shape or composition,

extends the possibilities of interpretation. An example comes from the Vitra Design Museum in Berlin, with their exhibition The Essence of Things. Design and the Art of Reduction, celebrating simplicity in design. Here, everyday anonymous objects sit beside products created by named designers.

Community involvement: Using communities as a source of stories, ideas, objects and skill can sometimes provide sometimes much-need capacity. More important, though, it actively involves communities within institutions, which has many positive spinoffs for both. For example, the Portland Museum’s recent exhibition, Inspiration China displayed contemporary student art creations influenced by Chinese artefacts.

Regional museums face many challenges in providing services and programs to their communities. Both in New Zealand and globally, a fundamental change in a attitude is needed, fully acknowledging the importance of regional museums in maintaining a healthy and vital society, and providing commensurate support. Until then, lack of resources will force the investment to be more than money, requiring time and effort, creativity and new ways of thinking.

[1] Bill Wittenbreer, Regional Museums: Their Collections and Local History

[2] House of Lords, 2008, Health of the Discipline in the UK: Professional Taxonomists, Volunteers and Recruitment

[3] Hartmut Prasch 2010, “Innovative Ideas are Born in Small Museums: the role of regional museums in future museums development”

Eric DorfmanDr Eric Dorfman is a Wellington-based author of popular natural history books, short fiction, articles and documentary scripts. His critically acclaimed book Melting Point (Penguin 2008) explores New Zealand’s responses to the issue of climate change. He is also Director of Eklektus Inc., a collective that produces strategic and visitor experience services to the international cultural sector, and a Teaching Associate in Victoria University of Wellington’s Department of Museum and Heritage Studies.

Twitter: @eklektusinc