The Art of Relevance

During the past 100 years, museums evolved from buildings to networked incubators, from being mainly centered on collections towards a service-centered approach. From the curators or collectionneurs’ little private empire to the much aspired ‘participatory’ museum by Nina Simon. Tribe member and cultural innovator Jana Kerremans shares her personal reflections on The Art of Relevance. 

As a museum professional, I often ask myself the question how a museum or heritage institution on itself could participate and contribute to society. How can your museum be a changemaker? And how can we add relevance to our everyday practice, towards other communities than those already well served by our work?

Step one: Start small

In Kazerne Dossin, the team decided not to ‘reward’ itself with a Christmas/ New Year gift, yet to invest this amount of money (budgeted) in a social cause. For instance, in 2017 the entire amount was invested in a refugee organisation. The fate of refugees in Europe  and all over the world (f.e the borders of the US) is an irrevocable relevant cause for a museum reflecting upon discrimination, mass violence and genocide.

This year’s New Year's gift is a personal take: not only do we reduce ticket prices for the less fortunate, in 2018 our guides are sent actively to those organizations who help people in poverty. Thus so, we lower the barriers a priori, and get Kazerne Dossin into the visitor’s life and his or hers ‘safe circle’, before inviting them to visit our collections. 

All charges for guide retribution for this special visit are on our conto. Nina Simon states it perfectly in her inspiring book The Art of Relevance. The most direct way to be relevant has nothing to do with what’s inside your room. 

'The most direct way is to go outside, personally and institutionally, to learn from the other rooms and people out there.'

Nina Simon

Then: Get out

Also, when your audience consists mostly of scholars & students, consider not only accommodating these groups, yet try to find them in their peer environment. So get your museum onto that smartboard, get your guides, audience crew and hosts in those classrooms & workshops. And as shown by the above example: this matters even more to these other communities you want to give a chance to visit your museum, because they are rarely offered one.

And: Show off

Last but no least: don’t forget to communicate what you do. Museums too often hide their good work, while retail brands are desperately trying to celebrate their ‘good’ causes, as Jim Richardson pointed out in the Museum Next network last year. So recognize what you do, and recognize those you serve. Just don’t forget to check in with them whether they want to be a part of that communication!

Not to forget: Reflect

Let go of the sell-fulfilling mission statement and try to think about: what does your museum of cultural organization really stand for? Inviting everybody in, or forging new ways of entrance, while escaping your own walls? We so often forget to make time for this. Pleading guilty here, most of the time, while keeping a museum’s financial balance and team-wellbeing in shape.

Follow Tribe member Jana's next stories on the social impact of museums.

Jana is We Are Tribe’s cultural innovator, on hours an avid museum and heritage professional and a freelance panel host, off hours a cultural omnivore with a soft spot for long walks in the woods, literature and personalized Spotify-playlists. Earlier on, Jana was in charge of the collaboration between the city tourism services of Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Leuven and Mechelen, while trying (and ever so often failing) at seeking the relevance of the tourism practice.

Read more on the topic in The Art of Relevance & on MuseumNext

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