Rebecca Nagy: How to keep museums real in the virtual era
Published: Monday, December 3, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 11:07 p.m.
Can a bricks and mortar art museum remain relevant in the Internet age when so much art is available online?
It's a question that academic museums take seriously, particularly as learning becomes increasingly diffused and digital. With an explosion of online course offerings, many students take classes from the comfort of home at any time of day or night, while others study at satellite campuses or in programs abroad.
It's hard to feel relevant to this cohort of students and it begs a question: Is it important that students experience works of art in person at the museum, or can a virtual experience be equally enriching?
All kinds of museums are grappling with that question, and we're racing to keep up with evolving technologies and the expectations of our audiences. At academic museums we know that students — digital natives — want immediate access to digital images and information on collections, exhibitions and other goings-on. But will putting more art and information online actually motivate our students to visit their campus museums for meaningful, firsthand experiences of original works of art?
We know people crave authentic first-hand experiences, often in the company of crowds. They eschew early voting to experience democracy in action in line on Election Day, shell out big bucks to see favorite musicians on stage, and flock to Broadway to experience live theater. So, other than required class visits and assignments, what draws students to our museums?
Although some seek solitary encounters with works of art, for most a greater attraction seems to be the excitement of gathering with friends, the chance to look, share ideas and interpretations, play, laugh, and experience art together. Facebook and Twitter notwithstanding, this kind of interactive experience is not replicated online.
All the same, to appeal to students from a range of backgrounds and areas of study, we have to loosen up, be less stuffy, and relinquish some curatorial authority over how art is presented and interpreted. We need to let them participate and get them excited about art and museums during their college years. This way we can inspire them to be life-long museum-goers and arts advocates.
In a conversation of several museum and art administrators at the University of Florida earlier this month, we analyzed statistics showing that engineering students attend visual and performing arts events in greater numbers than students from any other academic discipline.
Here at the Harn Museum of Art a recent Art in Engineering night brought out 792 people to celebrate the creativity of engineering students and faculty. They sang, danced, fashioned games for children and showcased their paintings, photographs, race cars, robots and other engineering projects.
The engagement of engineers with the arts on campus reflects their inherent interest in creative endeavors. However, their full-on involvement with the museum and other arts venues is encouraged and facilitated by Dean of Engineering Cammy Abernathy, who had art history courses in college and says they changed her life.
She and other faculty in her college get it. They know their students' experiences of visual and performing arts ignite their creativity, leading to better engineering solutions and to products that have aesthetic appeal in a competitive global arena. They want to put the STEAM in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART and Math).
The Harn also has the full support of the University of Florida administration. Last year, we received a great new opportunity to reach students from all academic programs in a common freshman humanities course called “What is the Good Life?” Now more than 7,000 freshmen each year spend time at the Harn grappling with some of the fundamental questions of existence through study of great works of art from around the world.
We're getting them through the door for academic work and they're coming back for fun, to share experiences with their friends and participate in programming.
Thinking back to those far-flung students accessing images and information about our collections online, they may not be able to visit the art museum on campus all the time. But, we can motivate them to visit other museums, galleries, sculpture gardens or public art installations wherever their studies and careers take them.
Academic museums play a special role in shaping citizens who value the transformative power of the visual arts and the role of museums in making art accessible to everyone.
Rebecca Nagy is director of the Harn Museum of Art at UF. This column is adapted from a blog she wrote for the Center for the Future of Museums of the American Alliance of Museums.