Monday, October 6, 2008

Denver Redefines "Community Museum"

maria mortati, gyroscope inc, museums I am a passionate believer in the power of community. Small, large, microcosm- it doesn't matter. So I get pretty excited when I hear about projects such as the Denver Community Museum ("Present Day Artifacts Made by the People for the People"). Thanks to Brent Carmack of the Fort Collins Museum for bringing this to my attention. From their site: "The Denver Community Museum is a temporary museum located in Denver, Colorado. Carried out in the form of a pop-up gallery, the museum will exist for less than one year - an institution with an expiration date. Contents for the Museum's monthly, rotating exhibitions are based entirely on community submissions. The Denver Community Museum is a not-for-profit project, which is free and open to the public." Basically, they put out a call for entries... to the neighborhood. Such as "Mummify something you would like to preserve - any shape/size, using any materials you desire. Share any relevant mummy stories, facts, accoutrements or charms for display." They accompany it with a photo suggestion, and then put on a show at the end of the month of submissions. Here are some of the things I love about this idea: - their identity is specifically in line with the community: it's about them, literally - they have created a ritual around the exhibits changing on a monthly basis - they have also created a sense of anticipation + surprise - each new exhibit will reveal something about the people around you - it's temporary - it's free Here's what I'm not so excited about: - it's temporary - it's free Founder Jaime Kopke was quoted as saying: “The idea is to create a community archive that is both accessible and relevant to Denver residents... The fact that the DCM is a limited time only engagement adds a level of excitement that you may not normally experience in a museum.” I love that someone wanted to make a museum that was purely reflective of and relevant to its community... but why does it have to be temporary? Shouldn't finding new ways to engage your public be a persistent curatorial goal? Is it the deadline that forces public and staff alike to stay on schedule and focused? How might other institutions adopt this deadline strategy? Who says we can't be exciting?!? Also, free is nice, really, but these days, not so sustainable (and I don't mean in the enviro sense). What about sliding scale admission? I think the Met uses this approach. Enough quibbling- this is a great idea, and I hope many local museums take notice. I know larger institutions have grappled with community engagement, but the intimate scale works too. It's just more... neighborly. This brings me to a point which I'll be writing about soon-- that is small + nimble institutions are perfectly suited to maximize on community engagement AND web 2.0 technologies. PS: I hope to visit in December, but if you have any photos to share, let me know.


Nina Simon said...

Their "challenge" structure is similar to SAAM's current Ghosts of a Chance alternate reality game initiative, which has received several lovely, intricate submissions.

Here are some of my reactions to this DCM project:
-Is the lack of an institution a good thing (no preconceptions) or a bad thing (no positive authority with which to be associated)? -What will motivate participation? Is the potential of being displayed for a few hours per week in a non-museum enough? Or do they need more--a narrative, an audience? How are they making "the community" aware of the opportunity to create and share?
-If it's a community museum, why are the hours so limited? That drives me nuts.

Maria Mortati said...

Hi there Nina,

>>-If it's a community museum...

I completely agree with you. My take on this project is that it's first an experiment, and second a way for the Denver maker/design community to show their chops. It seems to be a highly selective reflection of the neighborhoods in which it temporarily lives.

I haven't found any posting of photos on Flickr or other evidence of articles, outreach or blog postings (other than the founders blog:

That said, I do like the idea, and it does a good job of providing a point of inspiration for other institutions. In terms of providing meaningful impact and being an actual reflection of the community, it appears to fall short.

Again, I hope to visit it in December, and will let you know what I find.

Terah said...

What is most important to me about DCM is they are trying to engage the community. I like the idea of community members submitting content for the exhibitions - they are by the community, for the community.

Here's I'm wondering, though. Why is it temporary? What, if any, interpretation will be in the gallery? And while the first two challenges pose really interesting ideas, why not choose prompts that are more locally relevant? If a prompt relates to the community member's daily existence, wouldn't he or she be more likely to be involved?

Maria Mortati said...

Terah, I love the idea of posing more locally relevant challenges. That's a great idea, and one that I think a lot of local history museums could benefit from.

jaime said...

Hi Nina, Maria and Terah,

I am the curator for the Denver Community Museum and perhaps I can answer some of your questions. First, thanks for the kind words regarding the project, I am glad it’s getting some attention and generating discussion beyond our city.

For the first exhibit the DCM received 41 artifacts. I have just posted photos and info about these on the website. The project is not at all selective, nor is it only the crafters/artists who have contributed - which is wonderful. The whole idea is to allow anyone in the community to have a voice and share a piece of themselves - their thoughts, stories, history etc. It is meant to truly be a present day depository for Denver. I am hoping that as people visit, they will see that the museum is very accessible and will create their own artifacts to share.

The museum is open three days a week, which includes after work hours and weekend hours. This allows people plenty of options for planning a visit. The project is run solely by me and I have a job I need to work at too! Also, the museum being free is one of the fundamental principles. Museums should be free, it increases community engagement and interest. While I understand many permanent institutions cannot operate this way (for many reasons), the fact that the DCM is temporary allows it to exist without a cost for visitors or participants.

The museum poses a lot of questions that cannot always be explored in a conventional institution. One of those is temporary vs. permanent, another is past vs. present (and future) and finally fact vs. fiction. Can spaces that have an expiration date be more exciting? Do present day artifacts have more relevance to a local audience? Does everything in a museum have to be real and factual or can the imaginary be placed on a pedestal as well? The DCM does not try to answer these questions for the audience, it provides a platform for them to be presented and discussed.

Each artifact is submitted with info about the participant, their age, neighborhood, the materials they used and any relevant info/stories the person wants to share. I have found these to be the most interesting part of the whole project! While this round the artifacts were all in the form of objects, the challenges are designed to be open to interpretation. Results can come back in any form - objects, written stories, videos, public installations etc. The challenges are also designed to be low-cost to make to increase participation.

Terah, I will consider doing a challenge based on something related to Denver itself, however the fact that everything is made by people who live in the same geographical location makes it locally relevant! Why not pose challenges that are fun and out of the norm for our town too? Thanks so much for all your thoughts and feel free to ask me any other questions. Maria, I hope to see you in December, I have a great challenge in mind for that month!


jaime said...

oops, not sure why it signed my name with the extra letters- just Jaime!

Maria Mortati said...

Hi Jaime,

Thank you for giving us the backstory on your project. It's a great idea and I look forward to seeing it in person.

I like that the museum is free, I just have a hard time figuring out how institutions that are permanent could reach that threshold-- as desirable as it is.

I'm thrilled to hear that you have non-makers producing and contributing pieces. How have you solicited entries?

The model of being open (when I imagine you are also available!) evenings and weekends is a great draw for a younger demographic- Science Gallery in Dublin does this and has been very successful.

I like the "expiration date" notion- there is definitely a sense of urgency that comes with it which can be a draw. That said, the biggest draw from my point of view is the info that the contributors are providing. I imagine that many would be curious to find out about what their neighbors are thinking about.

Your point about questioning what's on display made me think of Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA. Have you been? It's wonderful.