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In Conversation with Nina Simon

nina simon conference

It’s been six years since Nina Simon, the Executive Director of Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) released The Participatory Museum.

That book went on to become one of the most influential publications in the museum sector, pushing participatory practice into the mainstream.

This month she published her second book The Art of Relevance, which builds on and in many ways goes beyond the first, exploring the importance of relevance to the museum sector.

Every museum will of course think that it is relevant to it’s audiences, but The Art of Relevance makes you look again and realise that relevance is a much more complex subject than you might imagine.

MuseumNext’s Jim Richardson caught up with Nina to talk to her about the book.

Jim Richardson:
Your new book is about relevance, how did that come about?

Nina Simon: If you’d asked me a year ago for a definition, I would have said that relevance was connected to the interests and issues of the day in a particular community.

But, last summer we did two exhibitions at MAH, and they made me question what relevance is. I felt that both exhibitions were very relevant to our community. One was about the beginning of surfing and one was about the Grateful Dead.

MAH is in Santa Cruz, and it’s a hippie town and a surf town. I thought that both the surf exhibition and the Grateful Dead exhibition were relevant to our community. Because we had them at the same time I saw a difference in how people responded to them both in terms of the number of people who came and in terms of the emotional intensity and the resonance of the projects.

It was one of those things where we didn’t know how to describe it or measure it, but everybody on our team knew that the surf project blew the Grateful Dead project out of the water, but we couldn’t really say why.


This got me very interested in this question of “what is relevance?” Because if we don’t have a definition then how do we know how to pursue it and how do we know whether it’s worth anything.

More broadly, over the last few years my museum has grown tremendously in terms of the number and diversity of people involved. One of the criticisms of what we do is people say ‘that’s just numbers, you’re just getting bodies in the door but does that really matter, are they having a meaningful experience?’

I became very curious whether relevance was a superficial connection that just brought people in, or whether it actually mattered. And I wanted to explore that more deeply.

Jim : Do you think that museums have a relevance problem?

Nina : I think that every museum is relevant to somebody. Where the problem comes in is if you feel that you’re either relevant to the wrong people or not enough people.

There probably are some museums that don’t have a problem at all; they’re relevant to the right number of people who can support them who they feel fulfil their mission.But my experience is that most museums either feel that they’re insufficiently relevant to enough people in their community or that they’re relevant only to a very particular segment and they feel they ought to be relevant to more.

I think that it’s okay to say we want to be relevant to these people and not to those people, but it’s not okay to say we want to be relevant to those people but we’re not actually going to do anything about it except pretend.

And we can’t say “we exist for everyone,” if the people coming in the door do not look like everyone in our community.

Jim: One thing, which seems to come across more in this book than in The Participatory Museum is the idea of mission. Do you think that’s because you’ve now been Director of a museum for quite a length of time and so you see the importance of mission more than you might have done before you were doing that?

Nina:   I don’t know if I see the importance more, but I think that’s because The Participatory Museum was more about design tools, tactics and strategies for inviting people to be active participants in your mission–whatever it might be.

Whereas I think what I’ve learnt since then that there are some quite significant differences between different institutional missions and what it means to be participatory within that context or what it means to invite relevance within that context.

I actually think that participation is not necessarily for everybody. I think that’s a choice. I think though that every institution wants to be relevant to someone, wants their mission to matter to someone, and so I think that you have to be very serious about understanding what your mission is if you want to invite people to make a meaningful connection with it.

I certainly know that at our institution as we shifted towards a real focus on our audience and some of the questions that came back were, what about mission? What about your core collection? And that even belies this preconception that mission equals collection, or mission equals traditional activities.

In our case we changed the mission statement, and our mission statement is to ‘ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections’. That could be with objects, it could be with people, it could be with art, but we basically said, you’re right, let’s find a mission that really represents what we are actually about.


Jim: The two books seem to dovetail because with The Participatory Museum you wrote about being more relevant to people by including them in the process. Do you agree?

Nina: Yes, although there definitely are stories in this new book of institutions where their visitors are in a more passive role, but they’re still presenting work that is extremely relevant to that audience.

One of the things I learned in writing this book is that if something’s really relevant to you you’re likely to feel empowered as a participant with it and so it does make that connection in that way. You’re more likely to feel like you’re passive the experience it’s actually not that relevant to you.

Jim: How can a museum ensure that it’s being authentically relevant rather than pretend relevant? One of the examples in the book is a museum holding a Dragon Day to attract Chinese families.

Nina: I’m always amazed at how many times people will say, “well we did our Dragon Festival and Chinese people came then but they wouldn’t come the other days. How come they only come on their day?” And it belies the fact that all the other days belong to white people. I think that idea that they get a small piece of the museum, and this other group gets the big piece of it, is really problematic.

So I think that it starts by asking who are the audiences or the communities I really care about, what do they value, what’s relevant and compelling and urgent for them, and then how can I invite them based on their values into what we do in a way that is authentic to the objects and the mission and the story that’s inside this room?

In the book I share the story of the London Science Museum working with deaf families to shift how their programmes worked. Sometimes it only takes a small number of changes once you’ve really had that sincere engagement with that community and sometimes it takes quite a lot.

I’ve talked to a lot of immigrants and people of colour who’ve said that museums are a white place, that’s not for me. And so the number of steps to take to open the door for that person are more significant than for somebody who’s closer to the experience.

Nina Simon'a book The Art of Relevance

Jim: The example you’ve got with [Porchia] in the book is just terrible.

Nina:   Yes, absolutely, it is. There are a couple of examples like that in historic houses with extreme racism, and at the end of them I’ve written, this is shocking but it really happens. And I had a couple of content reviewers call me on that and say why are you saying this is shocking, you know, this is real life.

Jim: The western world seems to be becoming more and more polarised, but do you think that museums and empathy have a role in kind of doing something to heal that divide?

Nina:   I absolutely think so. The work we’re doing in Santa Cruz—and many of the organizations in the book are doing–is to really try and build those bridges across those divides.

However I think a lot of arts institutions actually reinforce the values of particular groups, reinforcing insularity instead of building bridges. When I go to museums and see which objects are defined as art objects, which objects are defined as anthropological objects, and how does that divide how we see the humans who made these objects?

If we want museums to be places of empathy and gathering we have to also take a really careful look at how are we showcasing the diversity of cultures in our collection, in our community among our visitors and not drawing those same lines that are being drawn in the political sphere.

Jim: And you’re taking real steps to do that in your museum, asking that staff can speak Spanish as well as English to make sure that everyone in your community can be welcomed.

Nina:   Yeah, absolutely. We have to do the work. We all need to cultivate our generosity in opening this up, and we need to courageously invite people to come in.

Jim: What role do you think that the public can play in making museums more relevant to them?

Nina:   I think that it’s actually kind of a weighty thing to ask the public to do. Mostly I think the onus of responsibility is on the staff to go out and to meet people in their communities, to be at events, to learn about what matters to them and make sure they are heard.

We’re very used to our long time members, our trustees, our stalwart volunteers making their opinions known.

And so I think we have to figure out who those outsiders of interest are, listen to their voices, and really understand and respond them.

Jim: One of the ways that you say museums are doing that in the book is to have an advisory committee?

Nina:   Right. We run this group called the C3 which means Creative Community Committee. It started out as an advisory group for the museum, and we said let’s find all the most interesting people who are networked in very different communities in Santa Cruz county: farmers, bike messengers, artists, and city council people.

And one thing that we found that was interesting was that we’d send out an email saying the next meeting will be about how we might shift our youth programmes and a subset of those people who would come were the people who were parents, librarians, worked with youth in some way.

And we were frustrated by that because we really wanted the diversity of all the voices to weigh in. So we reshaped that group and said, ok, instead of it being all about us and advising us, what if we instead create a creative leadership forum for our community, a kind of creative think-tank, and we’ll just be the host of it. That way, we’re going to get good stuff out of it, but we also know that the person who runs the film festival or the person who runs the bike coalition is going to get something out of it too. And that’s been a much more sustainable model for us.

I’ve seen a lot of different institutions look with very creative ways at how to form these kinds of advisory committees that are not just one way, giving to the institution, but where they’re really getting something out of being part of that community.

Jim: How do you reconcile the desire to be inclusive with reaching a wide range of people?

Nina:   I think that one of the measures of how inclusive you are is the diversity of the people who come into your museum. So if you have a lot of people coming in, but they all look exactly the same, that’s nice but that’s not inclusive.

We often talk about being populist, and that we believe that the more people that are involved the more opportunities there are for people to be empowered through art and history history. So we care about volume. We’re proud of big audience numbers. But we also have said that for us the metric of success is ultimately really not about the number of people, it’s about them being representative of the diversity of our community.

We literally use the census, and we say we want our audience to be representative of the age, income, and ethnic diversity of our county, period. That’s not to say those are the only diversity measures that matter, but they’re ones that are measured for our community, and we can measure them with our visitors, and if we match then we can say not only are we proud that all these people are here, but we’re especially proud that they represent the diversity of experiences here at this community.

Nina Simon addressing a group at Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

Jim: Your book’s full of lots of great examples of museums becoming more relevant to their audiences, can you share with us a favourite?

Nina:   A favourite. An easy answer would be Derby Museums because I think that the Silk Mill Story is just such a great textbook example of an institution that closed and then took the time to investigate, not “what institution could we stick here”, or “what could we sell to Derby”, but really by asking “who are the people of Derby, what are we passionate about, what are we proud of, and how do we build from that?”

One of the things that I talk about in the book is this idea of addressing both community needs and community assets. I am very glad that the museum field generally is moving in a direction that’s saying we need to be responsive to societal needs.

But I also think that when we talk about needs we can get a little sanctimonious, saying “you need culture,” “you need education,” and I actually think that rooting our work in assets is often much more powerful because, instead of saying “you need culture,” I can say “you have culture, and I want to showcase it.” That’s very powerful.

And I think what happened in Derby. My interpretation is they really identified people there are proud to be a city of makers, to be an industrial city with a very long history of making and innovating. And so they made the Silk Mill a museum that celebrates making.

Which in some ways is very similar to what an industrial museum is, but it is a shift that roots the institution in that pride and that sense of affiliation of what it means to be a person of Derby. I think that really changes the sense of empowerment and ownership that happens there.

Jim: It’s easy to think for yourself as a maker than relate to the jet engines that used to sit there.

Nina:   Yeah, and a consumer of somebody else’s product. We spend all our lives being consumers, and so to be invited to engage based on what we’re proud of and who we are, I think that’s very powerful.

I will also say that I think that the examples in the book that for me are most interesting are the ones that are the ones that I really struggle with. So, examples like the repatriation story at Glenbow Museum. Would I put the resources into years of work to change the relationship with the indigenous populations in our community? Or Odyssey Works. Would I make theatre for an audience of one? I’m not sure.

One of the chapters I think is pretty controversial actually is the one about entertainment versus relevance, asking this question of if it’s entertaining is it actually a smokescreen that is keeping it from being more relevant. I really continue to grapple with that.

Jim: The hot digital trend this month is Pokemon Go and I struggle with that for this very reason, who cares if the game gets people through the doors if they’re there to look at their phone, is it enough just to get people through the door?

Nina: Right. And I think that’s a perfect example, in terms of thinking that it shouldn’t be enough to get people in the door. And I think there is an argument to say when they’re in the door doing Pokémon Go is there a way we could create a relevant link that might unlock more meaning, or are they really just getting the points for playing the game and that’s it.

And I think that we have to both be honest about the fact that some of these doors lead to a very narrow vestibule from which people will quickly leave, and others actually are invitations.

That’s something that I continue to be curious about, because frankly when you do work that’s about populism and inclusion often the critique is that you’re just putting on a circus, of course people will come in if it’s fun but this is not the real museum.

So I think that criticism comes up a lot, and so I get very curious about those questions. I feel like often that argument gets used to cut off innovation or experiments before they start.

Maybe Pokémon Go is a great way to start getting certain kinds of folks in. I always say whatever standard you’re going to have you’ve got to apply it universally, so if the ladies who come to your museum to go to the café count, why do they count but not the Pokémon Go folks.

Maybe there are good reasons, and maybe there aren’t, but we already have some idiosyncratic things like that that happen.

Jim: 10 years ago with Twitter and Facebook I could see the potential to engage and to be relevant that those platforms offered, but with Pokémon Go I’m not seeing it at all.

Nina: Any of these tools could unlock a powerful connection, or they could be very superficial. And so I think it’s incumbent upon us if we’re going to invest in these tools, that we do so in a way that unlocks meaning.

But I think we also have to do that with our traditional tools, with our labels, with our tours. We shouldn’t give them a pass just because we’ve always done it that way.

Jim: That’s taking everything back and thinking how does this work against my mission.

Nina:   Right, and where is there meaning to be unlocked here. Again and again we’ve found that sometimes the way that you unlock meaning can be very traditional. But when you’re working with outsiders for whom that tradition doesn’t unlock a door that’s relevant to them, there might be a very different door that is completely valid and powerful.

The very first story in the book is about this project that on the face of it really looked like a grab at something. ‘Let’s do a surf demonstration!’ That seems almost embarrassing.

But it wasn’t, because it really unlocked meaning for people in a way that I didn’t even understand until I was there. And it was not because it was a museum doing a surf demonstration. It was because we brought these objects that told a story about being a Santa Cruzan that was very powerful for people. It’s not about being where the people are, or being on the right devices or the right platforms, it’s about adding something meaningful in those spaces, in those doors that people are already opening.

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