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Film: Where the Sidewalk Ends : Museum Grounds as Public Spaces

Whether situated in pristinely manicured botanical gardens, wedged between skyscrapers on a bustling city street, or nestled in the woods on an historic site, a museum’s grounds reveal much about the institution. This was the subject of a presentation at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015 from Dr. Elizabeth Kryder-Reid, Director of the Cultural Heritage Research Center, Laura Holzman, Assistant Professor of Art History and Museum Studies at Indiana University and Scott Stulen, Curator of Audience Experiences and Performance at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Laura: Hi, I’m Laura Holzman, as you’ve heard, Liz and I are on the museum studies faculty at Indiana University’s Indianapolis campus.

In our research and our teaching we work with a number of community partners, including local museums so, even though we’re based in academia we’re not entirely removed from what happens in museums on a day-to-day basis and with that in mind and with our colleague, Scott, today we’d like to open up a conversation about the role of museum grounds as public spaces. We’ll consider this theme in light of a current issue in Indianapolis, we’ll explore some museum history and we’ll examine some recent projects at a handful of other museums that shed light on the complex status of museum grounds as a permeable membrane between an institution and its publics.

We’re going to start with a quote from media scholar, John [Ipilodo], he wrote that “It’s a lot easier for museums to give lip service to the commons than to tear down the stanchions keeping the [Manets and Monets] at arm’s length, yet museums must question their identity as gatekeeper if they are to remain relevant”. So, in the interest of examining the museum’s role as gatekeeper we want to spend some time thinking about the gateway. Others have looked at the role that museum architecture or museum lobby areas play in shaping a visitor’s experience and what we’d like to do is to take a step further back and think about the grounds. We are interested in the place where the sidewalk ends and the museum begins.

Liz: Great, so this is the audience participation portion and we would like to start by asking you a question about the words that you use to refer to the spaces around your own museums, so how do you describe your museums and with a simple show of hands, we’re going old school here, how many of you use the word ‘campus’? How many use the word ‘garden’ or ‘botanical garden’? How many of you just describe it as your grounds? Okay, and anyone use the word ‘park’? Alright, the other category, some other term, the driveway, the sidewalk, the parking lot? Terrific, well we’re asking these questions because what to call the space around the museum and how to think about that is something that’s been kind of a hot topic here at the IMA recently.

Laura: So the museum recently implemented a policy that changed access to its grounds, so the museum’s 152 acre campus is, oh, the little, I don’t, I think it’s the back one, this is a different … okay, well anyway, as you can see on the map if you use your imagination the museum’s 152 acre campus is situated between 38th Street along the bottom, Michigan Road, which is the diagonal strip and the white river which is that snaking river that loops along the top part of the image. Previously it has functioned like a de facto public park, so based on the way that people used it and the way that the museum managed it, it was essentially open access. Now the museum is trying to recreate a portion of it as a private botanical garden and that’s the area that you can see outlined in yellow.

As part of that shift the museum changed entrance routes to its grounds and now the museum charges admission to access both its galleries and this garden area. The 100 acres are a nature park which is the sort of larger portion of the museum grounds that’s not included in yellow, still remains open and un-ticketed, but the recent changes generated substantial public discourse that focused almost entirely on the shift in access to the gardens area. If we look briefly at this public reaction we can see the undercurrent of power dynamics that are involved in positioning the grounds as either public or private.

So several statements from community members raised concerns about elitism and privatisation, there was the perception that this change was exclusionary. A sampling of comments on social media illustrates the public perception that an increased level of surveillance was unacceptable and that resources were being taken away from the public. Of course not all of these comments were critical, some were very aware of the challenge of balancing providing public resources and paying for them too. Taken together, these responses illuminate attention between public and private that has existed since the beginning of museums.

Liz: I think we all know that museums trace their origins to the public and the private formation of collections and I think it’s useful to remember that landscapes follow that same lineage. In the US churches and libraries and other public culture organisations clustered on or near civic spaces such as commons or town squares or greens and at the same time elites crafted designed landscapes around their residences that complemented the architecture and also displayed their taste in wealth and status just as their collections did.

And then as museum It’s a lot easier for museums institutions have developed over time we can trace these same kinds of lineages in the evolution of their landscape designs, the civic spaces of the Smithsonian Museums along the national mall in Washington and the manicured, walled gardens of the governor’s palace in Williamsburg, and these lineages of museums located in public and private spaces are evident in contemporary context as well such as the museum campus in Chicago and the botanical gardens crafted as sort of separate galleries at the Huntingdon

Now this history of museum landscapes is not simply a design genealogy, it’s an essential expression of how museums are located in their communities, physically and ideologically, it speaks to each museum’s distinctive calculation of the exchange of social, political, cultural capital as well as the economic context that’s negotiated, navigated and communicated in and through the landscape.

Laura: So essentially we could say that we have two logics at play here, the logic of the public commons and the logic of the private collection. Examining museum grounds can reveal how these logics are entangled in contemporary institutions in ways that can reflect the relationship between a museum and its audiences. So we can take, for example, the sculpture garden which is a clear extension of the logic of the private collection. At the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC it’s basically an outdoor gallery, a place to get a carefully curated experience.

Just a block down the national mall at the National Museum of the American Indian, we see a very different use of the museum garden. Here the museum has invited native farmers to plant crops like tobacco which has then been harvested and used in repatriation ceremonies. This is a way of using the grounds to cultivate community connections, it recognises the museum grounds as common space by inviting an embodied, physical engagement with the land. Somewhere between the sculpture garden and the NMA [Island] is a project like the bedsit garden installed outside of the Hollytrees Museum in Colchester, UK. This was part of a programme in which area museums collaborated with people who had experienced homelessness. One goal of the project was to more deliberately welcome people who had lived homeless into the museum community.

The collaboration here produced an outdoor exhibition of household furniture transformed into garden space. It involved looking at, and moving through, a carefully designed and labelled display but the creation and exhibition of the garden was done in partnership with and in the service of the public interest. Ultimately this project directly addressed the museum’s position in the landscape of homelessness in this town.

Finally, we know a lot of museums are inviting people to practice yoga on site but this activity takes on a particularly strong inflection of inclusiveness. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art where the grounds have historically been used as a site for exercise which was made famous in the movie ‘Rocky’. In a way the Philadelphia Museum of Art embraces that aspect of its identity and that sector of its public by inviting people to participate in yoga on its grounds. But welcoming exercise at the museum doesn’t just employ a logic of the commons because what is a yoga class but a carefully curated physical experience led by an expert.

In each of these cases we can see threads of the public commons and the private collection intertwined, so even though these logics are often discussed as at odds with each other, we know they operate hand in hand at most museums today. And for institutions that are striving to become more inclusive, it can be particularly valuable to think about the balance of these logics, especially with how they correspond to each institution’s unique landscape culture and history.

The tensions between these logics is especially potent of course in a climate of financial pressures and so with that in mind we have another question for you.

Liz: So thinking now about your institution’s policies, your own institutions, how many of you charge for admissions to your grounds, to your landscape? So how many of you offer that access for free? The vast majority, okay. Now a parallel question, how many of your institutions charge for high resolution images from your collection, is there a fee for that? And how many of you offer those images gratis, for free? More 50/50.

Laura: That’s really interesting. This all brings us back to our own local museum where images policies that evoke the spirit of the commons now collide with a new way of treating the grounds that looks more like a private collection. As museum leaders and audiences have acknowledged, this tension needs to be seen within the context of financial pressures and funding models. But it also needs to be seen in light of other kinds of capital like the social capital an institution builds with its communities. So in this kind of climate, what’s the opportunity to think about museum landscapes and inclusive practices differently? And here’s where Scott Stulen can help us out.

Scott: And I’ve been set up to be the rebuttal of this debate. So just prior to these changes at the IMA there was actually a new division created here which I am the head of, which is the audience and experience and performance division and our charge is actually to make more experimental, accessible programmes here for audience, kind of be an R&D department for the museum and you’ll hear a little bit more about that tomorrow. Part of that is to bring in new audiences and it might seem diametrically opposed to this change on campus but I think that is thinking a bit far too simplistically.

So I’m certain that most institutions that are represented here, if not all, no matter what size you are, are dealing with some of these same challenges of financial troubles and also being able to leverage your assets and it’s to balance those realities and also the pressure that we have to have blockbuster exhibitions, more public programmes and also increasing the amenities that we have. And it’s trying to figure that out in a climate where we know that a lot of the traditional fundraising models aren’t what they once were. So what we’ve striving to do in this is to find that balance and I think within that is also finding that balance between the private and private, including the public in that conversation.

So back to the specific example of the IMA, so admittedly there were some hiccups and some mistakes in that transition along the way, particularly in messaging it to the public. Two things the public really do not like, change and surprises, and this included both of those. And so I think that is one of those things that could have definitely been handled in a different way but I think through all of the kind of conversation and some of the outrage that came up with changing the grounds, there came a lot of really interesting things as what Laura and Liz outlines.

I think it’s also really highlighted as how the public felt differently about gallery space versus garden space and ground space and I think that’s something that I think really kind of came out in this process, we kind of knew that but it came out even I think more a clear way. So in that debate what was interesting is there were some valid criticisms and concerns but there also came out just as many notions of people not quite understanding what ownership is of certain properties, how funding works and also the sustainability for cultural organisations. So, for example, here at the IMA we receive less than 1% from any government funding and I think that’s something that was surprising to a lot of people to find out as well.

So from my perspective of our department it’s about balances too and this isn’t necessarily a new concept but here we have a grown up summer camp, which took place about a month ago out in our art and nature park, people paid to take part in the summer camp which included coming out and actually making breakfast with the chef and foraging the grounds, the chef that you’re actually going to experience tonight at Cerulean, came out and made breakfast with everybody. We did projects with artists, we actually had an opera out on the pier which is what you’re looking at right here and that was a paid experience for a small group of an audience.

On the other side is our new truck, our art ex-truck for programming to go out into our neighbourhood, into the community, to go to schools, to go to the fairs and festivals, to bring free programming outside of the walls of the museum. Doing programmes on the left help make programmes on the right possible, that isn’t a new concept but I think it’s something to kind of remind that we do offer some of these things to provide financial support so we can do those other things out in the community.

So in closing with this, the IMA right now is actually taking head on a really big challenge of righting ourselves and being financial stable going into the future, at the same time trying to figure out the future of museums and changing all of our programming and we’re doing that on the fly because we can’t just stop and build a new museum, we need to try to figure this along the way. And there’s going to be adjustments along that path and it’s not something that happens overnight, this is going to be a long process to do this. It’s a process that we need to bring the public into as well and be part of that and get their buy in on things and want to get their investment. So I think the one thing that’s really clear to me in all of this, is when we think about grounds and think about the museum going forward, it doesn’t actually stop at the barriers that we have, the kind of highways that go by us, and I could use the easy joke here, I’ll let you write your own, but we’re bounded by a cemetery and a country club here and that’s sometimes illustrative of things that are here, right.

But this is a destination, it isn’t a place that people are walking to so we’re drawing them here, but I really think we need to be out into the community and extending what it is the grounds into our neighbourhood and getting that buy in from that neighbourhood as well. So thinking about not these physical barriers but more about how we are kind of permeating that out into our community. So with that we have a few other questions here to close.

Laura: So with all of this in mind, the big question that emerges for us is really how do museum leaders today navigate these legacies and logics of the private collection and the public commons? As museums are seeking to make their institutions more inclusive, so to bring the logic of the commons into the galleries traditional logic of the private collection, we believe that museum grounds can be instrumental in finding the right balance. But instead of imagining it as either public common or private garden, it might be useful to shift the language. There is a value is recognising the museum landscape as an object to be curated and an amenity to be commoditised or perhaps as a membrane between museum and community that extends beyond physical space and of course crucial to all of this is the question of who decides. So we might have time for one question, so we now invite, if anyone has a question or a reflection on your own institution that you’d like to share.

Female Voice: I was sort of curious about the perception of value, I’m from a free institution, our grounds are not that extensive, but if you’ve had any changes in this city about how people are like “Oh, wait a second I might want to come there”?

Scott: I guess that’s me. Yes, and I think this is one of those things that’s highlighting value, so I think you can look at it two ways, partly as the response to this actually people being so vocal about things I think highlights that value, that people do find it to be valuable. And secondly we are by far at our highest membership tolls we’ve ever been here at the institution too. So I think people are … we have, I think both of those things reflect that value and I think for us it’s also the challenge that we’re adding more to it. So I think the one thing when I’m kind of talking about things about the museum is that you can have this static museum that kind of just maintains, like it could probably be this free and open thing or we could pay a slight bit and have this thing that’s far more cutting edge, changing constantly, we’re adding programmes and amenities to it all the time, so which one of those two do you want? And we’re opting obviously for the latter, that we can make this thing as far more I think a inclusive because there’s more things for you to come and do and can reach out into the community at the same time but that is I think where that, you know, to your question, I think it’s really being illustrated in both of those hands.

Laura: So it looks like we’re out of time, we’ve got our red flashing screen but we would really love to continue this conversation with all of you out in the hallway or over dinner tonight or even on social media so please, please share your thoughts with us and with each other over the next couple of days and also once we disperse to our home institutions.

Thanks a lot.

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