Why Do Art Galleries have to be so Hipster?


White Cube aesthetic typical of art museums. Personal photo by author.

White Cube aesthetic with little to no interpretation historically typical of art museums. Personal photo by author.

I recently read the Globe and Mail’s article about the Glenbow, Primed for a renaissance, with great interest. In it the director of the Calgary based museum, Donna Livingstone, spoke about a revitalization she plans to implement by re-framing the museum and it’s collection as an art gallery. I’m guessing she read the article in the Economist, Contemporary Art: On a Wing and a Prayer, which talks about the popularity of Contemporary Art Galleries over other types of museums and the move of many galleries to add or emphasize the contemporary art in their collections.

I don’t have an issue with Livingstone trying to breathe new life into her museum which has been bleeding money and jobs – her predecessor was kicked out of office on a no-confidence vote from the staff. It’s clear something needs to change and good on her for making a plan of action. What I do have an issue with is that part of the plan involves putting a large part of the collection on display with absolutely no interpretation. I thought we were past that, sigh.

Livingstone’s plan to have a changing exhibition of the permanent collection every three months is pretty great. Museums have such massive collections and only 3-5% is showcased in their public galleries. What a wonderful way to share more of the treasures in the storehouse with the public! What I do have an issue with is how Livingstone plans to make this feasible. She explains in the Globe article –

There would be no curation, no label copy, no fancy mounts or anything. We’d just say: Here’s all our cameras, or here’s all our jewellery, or here’s all our quilts. So the visitor would…have to do the work. They’re going to have to make the stories around what they see.

We should be breaking barriers down, not building them up – asking visitors to make sense of objects and come up with their own stories with no help is yet another obstacle they don’t need. I understand that it could be very expensive to have to make new interpretive labels every three months. But there are other ways to deliver content.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has digital labels in some of their exhibitions and have shared the open-source software that they built them on. Why not have digital labels installed which can remain in place but have different content with the changing exhibitions (it can be updated from the comfort of a staff member’s computer)? Yes it’s expensive to get the initial hardware and install but perhaps worth the investment. And if there is no staff time to research and write constantly changing labels then the Glenbow could repurpose the content they already have online in their collection, library and archives databases.

Another option is to deliver content to visitors’ mobile phones so you don’t have much hardware to invest in. It’s now possible to set up iBeacons using Raspberry Pi’s which is very inexpensive. There’s even a DIY tutorial on how to make a PiBeacon. With the iBeacons set up there would still be a need to create an application to detect the signal and push out content so there is cost there. But having an editable application could be useful to more than one museum. Why not join up with a few museums and pool resources? We’re seeing this with museum games like Green Door Labs Edventure builder which uses a common platform that can create a variety of games by adding different content.

To transform this history museum into an art gallery you don’t have to go all hipster – removing all the context so that only those in the know understand the objects. Please do orchestrate a renaissance for the Glenbow, but don’t leave out the interpretation – give the museum visitors something to craft their stories with or risk alienating them.


One thought on “Why Do Art Galleries have to be so Hipster?

  1. Jane Audas (@JaneAudas) says:

    The time to write a basic label, print out on nice paper / or do it in vinyl and put in a case is minimal. Have yet to see a digital label back-end that is as simple as promised but perhaps the V&A ones are? Either way, staff time is a poor excuse IMO. The Glenbow approach sounds to me no more informative for the visitor than going to a carboot sale to look at old things – shame on them.


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