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Downtown Lecture Explores Museums As "Authentic" Public Space

Amy Bowman-McElhone and Nick Croghan

Amy Bowman-McElhone, Nick Croghan, and John Markowitz present "Museums as "Authentic" Public Space" as part of the UWF Downtown Lecture Series. Bowman-McElhone and Croghan joined Lindsay Myers in the WUWF studios to discuss it.

Lindsay Myers (WUWF): “The title of this lecture is ‘Museum as “Authentic” Public Space’, Amy do you want to talk first about, what is a museum?”

Amy Bowman-McElhone: “Well I guess if you were to ask people on the street what a museum was or is you would get a number of different definitions. And I would describe that a contemporary museum, the institutions we are engaging with now, are multivalent. Historically, they’ve been places that house collections, for research. And then the modern museum proliferated the exhibition format which is the presentation of those objections in an exhibition space, so that the public can engage with it. So I would ultimately say museums are institutes of knowledge, similar to universities and libraries and archives, they’re also community spaces, spaces that can be activated by bringing differ ent audiences in and engaging them not only the objects, with artists, with their histories, with their lives really.

Nick Croghan:  “I agree I think the museum has evolved to be a space that is not just a one way transmission model of communication but a place for a dialogue to take place.

Lindsay: “In this lecture we have the words “authentic” and “public space.” Both the Museum of Art and the Art Gallery at UWF are part of UWF which is a public institution. How does that change the mission, or does it change the mission of the museum? And what does it mean to use that word, “authentic”?”

Nick: “[Authentic] is certainly a loaded term, and as we will talk about on Thursday, museums are a construct. And we’re trying to use almost a meta form of investigation, looking at our own frameworks and looking at the history, the aesthetics, the socio-political dynamics o f that space and maybe deconstructing what “authentic” means.”

Amy “absolutely, as Nick said museums are actually constructed spaces, which is the opposite of authentic and, in fact, museum design in terms of the way exhibitions are presented, I’m thinking specifically of the white cube, with the white walls, you think of a typical, displaying modern and contemporary art. It’s meant to be this neutral space but underneath it’s not neutral. There’s a lot of ideologies that are intermixing there. The other component too is this notion of a museum as a temple, almost of a public sacred space, a civic space, that’s intimidating that you go in and you have to be quiet and you have these meditative moments with the objects, and that again is a construction and that kind of, assumption of the museum makes it an intimidating space and I think moving forward museums in the 21st century are very interested in deconstructing that, as Nick had mentioned,  creating more of a participatory environment. And then in terms of public space there’s many definitions and there’s a whole discourse on public space but we’re thinking of museums not just in terms of brick and mortar but as a concept and so, being attached to a university in particular, education and pedagogy are sort of always at the center of the missions of public museums, but being attached to the universityreally puts that to the foreground. So what does that mean? How does a museum as a public space, how does that function? And these are all questions we are sort of feeling through, what presence do we have in terms of social space, in terms of dealing with issues of injustice, what voices do we allow or do we not allow? And that’s the biggest thing, when you’re curating you’re selecting so you can engage in curatorial omission where you leave out narratives but you highlight other narratives. And that’s really powerful so trying to point at those frames, when people  come into the museum, I think for me, with this lecture,  getting them to think about the framework of the museum and getting them to question them and push on it, is ultimately what I would like them to take away from it.”

Lindsay: “Nick, your museum is here on campus, talk to me a little bit about if that changes what Amy referred to as “the framework of the museum”.”

Nick: “Well I think what we’re really trying to get at is that there’s this root of elitism and we’re trying to push past that and trying to make people aware that the museum as a public space is welcoming and it’s really built for them, so we’re to address what are our strengths and what are the community needs and how can we meet those needs.

“Right now what we’re doing, we’re creating not only exhibitions but also public programming which engages them, hopefully in a multisensory way, allows them to answer their own questions about what a museum means.”

Lindsay: “Yeah, I think sometimes when people enter a museum they think, especially an art museum, it can be an intimidating experience. Sometimes you feel like “I’m supposed to like ‘get it’ and if I don’t ‘get it’ I’m missing out somehow.” What would you say to people who either feel like they don’t get it or they are just avoiding the space because they assume they aren’t going to quote-unquote “get it”.”

Amy: “The way I approach that is, as someone who has been studying art and art history and museums for, oh, 18 years now? I, and I’m working on my PhD in art history, one person can not know everything there is to know about art. So the one thing that I’ve learned in my studies and working at museums and galleries it that you’ve need to have curiosity, you’re not going to know everything but you need to start from that point of curiosity. I think too many times, museums, especially art museums, make the assumption that they’re talking to limited audiences and not making the work accessible. Really, through public programming and looking at gallery spaces as inherently pedagogical spaces you can bring in a dynamic that cultivates that curiosity so that people aren’t intimidated and that they will start asking questions instead of closing off.

Nick: I want them to leave with a smile, I want them to feel that they were part of the dialogue, that their curiosity is amplified, if we can start them off at that point but then let them leave with more questions and being comfortable maybe with a  little uncertainty, that’s important.

Amy: “I completely agree with that Nick.”

Lindsay: “Is there anything else you would like to share about your museums?”

Amy:  “I would just like to encourage everybody to come down to the PMA, we’re doing a lot of exciting things, we’re really trying to engage with the diverse audiences of Pensacola and the region and trying to make connections between the campus and the community. In particular, from an educational standpoint we have programs such as open studio on Saturdays, that’s basically an ongoing drop in session, to create, we’re putting making back in the museum, to creating art that relates to the different exhibitions that are up. We’re also working to develop low sensory days to make the museum more accessible. Our exhibitions that are up right now, Katrina Andry “Depose and Dispose (Of).” Katrina is a New Orleans art, printmaker and her work engages with the lived experience and the history connected to people of color and it’s a really amazing show and that’s in relationship with “Youth Art Focus” which highlights the art of Escambia County art students and educators. So again, trying to cultivate a community space, trying to cultivate a space that is engaging and, as Nick said, experiential, allowing people to engage with ideas and objects and art and histories through different sensory engagements and just trying to create this community space that’s welcoming, fun, and just a joyful experience.”

Nick: “Yeah, I look forward to talking about the museum as a public space that deals with poetry, politics, but also just playfulness. Currently at the Art Gallery we have a show by Michael Deas and Gregory B. Saunders that investigates some of these issues and if you visit the exhibition you’ll see paintings, drawings, that are both aesthetically beautiful but also humorous, they reference art history but you don’t have to have a background to appreciate those nods.”