AMMAN- Since their inception, museums have been known as institutions that mainly care for and display significant objects. However, as the world continues to witness radical shifts in cultural, social and political realities, it becomes essential to speculate how the role of institutions that carry cultural, historical and artistic significance will continue to evolve.

To begin with, museum evolution can simply advance through its ‘devolution’. A devolution process that can be developed from within the museum’s strategies to become more inclusive, relevant and experimental. Such anticipations are based upon a selection of relevant trends and strategies that institutions globally have employed in the past few years, that have indicated a move towards sense-making and value creation in cultural production.  

Essentially, the exhibition planning process could involve more diversity and insight from communities by relying on the participation of the public at a relatively early stage in the research process. 

Empathy Museum. 2016. The Human Library. London

A participatory approach to curation may apply to different themes and topics. The Empathy Museum in the UK hosts a series of participatory art projects focusing on storytelling and dialogue, including The Human Library. Instead of borrowing a book, visitors are encouraged to borrow a person for conversation. In the London International Festival of Theatre 2016, a refugee playwright, ex-prisoners, interior designers, an urban planner, and a Calais Jungle volunteer participated in the Human Library. Collaboration and inclusivity offered a safe and stimulating space for people to challenge their perceptions about each other by gaining insight into other people’s experiences and opinions by taking part in the project. 

View from The Women’s Museum in Dubai, courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Exhibitions celebrating women artists are more likely to display the work of prominent and upcoming female artists. They could reflect upon the tensions and duplicities of living in a ‘post-feminist’ age by inviting females from different backgrounds to actively and voluntarily participate in a series of brainstorming sessions to generate and contribute towards themes for exhibits; moving from a passive into an active audience.

The Women’s Museum in Dubai sets an interesting example of cultural and artistic institutions that are directing their efforts towards celebrating the role and contributions of women within different sectors including arts, academia, business, culture, politics, and society in general. The museum is dedicated to empowering women and inspiring younger generations by appreciating the achievements of earlier female generations. It does that by hosting on-going exhibitions by established and emerging female artists from the UAE, and through its Women’s Studies Center. The center has an archive of documents for Women’s Studies in the UAE and the rest of the Arab region, and a database that is being developed to provide access to a wide range of documentation and research about women. By documenting and tracing back the achievements of women throughout different times and fields, the museum acts as a source for connectivity and inspiration between female generations in the region.   

Scene from an interactive event at the BeMA as part of Mathaf Mathaf/Chou Hayda exhibition, 2018.

Another central issue to the devolution of museums is their efforts in preserving historic works of art. That is linked to relevance, where works of old works of art will become a reference point for audiences in contemporary times. 

In 2018, the Beirut Museum of Art (BeMA) launched ‘Mathaf Mathaf/Chou Hayda’, a project that served as a conversation between the contemporary and the old museum. People from different backgrounds and interests, including non-regular museum visitors, were invited to participate in a workshop at the Beirut National Museum. Contributors were presented with an art object and were asked a series of questions prepared by artists who recorded their responses to generate content for a video. Collectively, individuals in Beirut co-created a work of art by participating in the audio work that revealed the multifaceted social, political and even personal meanings that are associated with artifacts; exploring the appropriation and reception of objects within different times and contexts. 

Image of Ask Brooklyn Museum App, courtesy of widewalls.

Through implementing enriched digital strategies, The Brooklyn Museum launched the ‘ASK’ app in 2016. The app allows visitors to upload a snapshot of artwork and ask any corresponding question they may have through a live chat with a dedicated team of art historians and educators who are familiar with the collection. The project sets a basic example of micro-projects that museums could launch to rejuvenate interest in old works of art and to foster interactions between museum staff and its visitors. It also emphasizes on the pedagogical value of art that can be regained through curiosity. 

Another way to envision the devolution of institutions is through exploring the emergence of labs and incubators that are operating as and within museum departments. Many museums are establishing new methods to generate opportunities for cooperation, interaction, and learning. 

A non-traditional case is The Museum of Happiness in the UK that is challenging the stigma around relevant issues in society by combating loneliness and mental health issues. The non-profit social enterprise offers a variety of interactive experiences, workshops, and events that teach the art and science of happiness to help people discover practical techniques to boost mood and build connections. It achieves this by inviting people from different age groups and backgrounds to attend workshops and events by designers, researchers, and teachers. Topics in these sessions include stress management and resilience classes, decoration and stitching workshops, sound meditation and talks about self-love and compassion. 

The Dali Museum Innovation Labs Brochure, via Behance.

Furthermore, The Salvador Dalí Museum in the US launched the Innovation Labs, which combine Dali’s work, philosophy and methods with creative problem-solving. The innovation lab encompasses Foundation Labs that consist of three-hour interactive gallery experiences designed to provide a curated view of the artist’s work and his ingredients for innovation. A Skills Lab that focuses on problem-solving, communication and team building. A Solution Lab that helps individuals in applying surreal approaches to real-world problems. As such, the museum approaches its prevailing collection in a new light, by translating the artist’s values into actionable targets for people in different fields.

The Palestinian museum Gardens, courtesy of the Agha Khan Development Network
The Palestine Museum. 2016. The Palestine Museum Gardens. Birzeit, courtesy of museum website.

Potentially, a museum’s garden may be considered as a learning space. The Palestinian Museum in Birzeit which opened in 2016, designed an online manual for its garden that encompasses sixty-nine types of plants. The manual includes a map of the garden that is colour coded with themed areas, and listed below is a description of each plant, it’s origin and its benefits. Museum visitors who get the chance to see the garden can experience by smelling and seeing aromatic and medicinal plants, together with traditional crops and wild fruit trees that may vary depending on the season. Through studying, maintaining and presenting the agricultural landscape in which the museum operates, the museum offers an interactive way for individuals to learn about the history of Palestinian vegetation and agriculture and its link to cultural preservation. 

Ultimately, devolution in museum-making policies could become a step-forward to ensuring the long-term effective impact of cultural institutions. The future museum could be envisioned as a manifesto that travels through different times and places to challenge and merge already existing collections, tools, spaces, teams and audiences to make better sense from what has been already done in the past for future generations. Fueled by experimentation, inclusivity and relevance museums might be able to encourage and implement mega-ideas, values, and communities.