Why would a cultural venue install a swimming pool? Alexia Jacques Casanova charts the evolution of inclusive and participatory practice in museums and shares advice from Bozar in Brussels.
Founded in 1928 in Brussels, Bozar is a multi-disciplinary cultural centre that has undergone its own little revolution since Paul Dujardin was appointed as its CEO and Artistic Director in the early 2000s. Walls were brought down – both literally and figuratively – in an effort to make this cultural venue a welcoming and dynamic place.
Sophie Lauwers, Director of Arts and Policy, joined the institution 16 years ago. She has witnessed and participated in its successive transformational waves, including a recent one that brought Johan Van Roy as Head of Marketing and Communications on board.
“We all create exhibitions with our audience in mind, but are we really putting ourselves in their shoes…?”
“The bigger the institution, the harder it is to be inclusive and work in an inclusive way, or from the bottom up,” says Van Roy. Hard but not impossible. According to him, for participation to work, it needs to be implemented at the very start of every project. Involving non-Bozar people during the planning phase of an exhibition or an educational programme is key.
Essentially, it is a transformation taking place within the organisation first. “It takes loads of discussions with internal stakeholders,” argues Van Roy. “It is a big change in management that needs to happen within the institution.” He stresses the importance of transparency in this process, reflecting on and expressing clearly why we do what we do, and also giving opportunities for everyone, visitors included, to see where and how their input can have an impact. “Bozar has a big agora and a great debate culture,” explains Van Roy, “so we are often able to have a dialogue with our audience.”
Inclusion can also happen within the works that institutions choose to show as Lauwers explains: “Many museums are making efforts to be more participative, but I think the work of artists especially is changing and evolving towards more participatory and inclusive practices.” Encouraging participation is also about giving those artists a platform.
Know your audience
One of the biggest challenges is knowing who the audience is. To successfully adapt to the needs of their audiences, cultural institutions must first find out who these audiences are. Unfortunately, many will assume they know the answer and overlook the importance of thorough research.
“We all create exhibitions with our audience in mind,” says Lauwers, “but are we really putting ourselves in their shoes or are we asking them the right questions?” Lauwers and Van Roy both stress Bozar’s efforts to maintain a constant dialogue with their audience. They are constantly searching for ways to involve visitors before, during and after the event, and to get feedback on all three phases of their experience.
“The trick is, you can’t just create a mailing list to collect this type of feedback,” says Van Roy, “you need to install new digital touch-points, and you need people with the expertise to collect, analyse and act on that feedback. You always have to analyse your audience. We have great tools to do so. Social media is one of them – it is a platform for measuring and feedback. The most important thing is to always bring your results back to the core and mission of your institution.” Which brings us to the next point.
Remember your purpose
Lauwers warns against trying too hard to please an audience and losing the institution’s purpose. “You need to give visitors a chance to discover more, and not only offer them what they want. We adapt to our audiences by creating new familiar entry points and then we try to take them further.”
“Creating different entry points and flipping the model upside-down,” adds Van Roy. He mentions a previous exhibition celebrating 35 years of urban art and hip-hop in Brussels. Bozar had partnered with the arts collective Pool is Cool to create an open-air swimming pool within a container in the grounds of the museum.
It was a way for Bozar to open discussions about urban art and development, as well as its role as a cultural centre. “It was a huge success. Families were coming to the museum because it was sunny and they wanted to be in the water,” Van Roy recalls. “So what seemed at first like something not so connected to our museum attracted new people and the storytelling of hip-hop came along with discussion about what makes the city.”
The importance of partnerships
Almost all the programmes and exhibitions were carried out in partnership with other, often smaller, local organisations. For instance, with Next Generation Please Bozar put 200 young people from local schools and youth centres in contact with European politicians. This dialogue lasted a year and resulted in a series of self-produced films, performances, installations, sculptures and short stories.
Partnerships are key to building more inclusive and participatory projects, but keeping those relationships alive is even more so. “It is not because a project is over that you should stop caring about the audience you served,” says Van Roy. “It is really hard work, but you have to keep the conversation going.” Lauwers adds: “We must also remain critical of ourselves and stay open to our audience’s concerns.”
A recent initiative called Hacktivate the city included the creation of temporary STEAMLabs within various neighbourhoods of Brussels, with the aim of inviting young people to imagine solutions to current societal issues, using new technologies such as 3D printing.
The initiative was a success in terms of attendance yet Lauwers stresses the need to remain mindful and open to self-criticism. “We had locals saying that these initiatives could be experienced as colonising. I was not prepared for this type of feedback, yet I think it pushes us to reimagine ways to meet new audiences without establishing a relationship based on dominance.”
Sophie Lauwers and Johan Van Roy will be speaking about participation, co-creation and interactivity at the Communicating the Museum conference in Brussels from 27 to 31 May.
This article is an advertising feature sponsored and contributed by Communicating the Museum.