It’s really exciting to have this opportunity to share how the Detroit Institute of Arts is re-thinking its interpretive practice, specifically in terms of community engagement. In “The Spirit of Rebirth,” we believe this new model will make us more relevant to our visitors, new and returning. And we also anticipate that it will contribute to important conversations around best practices that are happening in the field right now—and that will certainly be taking place at the Annual Meeting in Detroit this September.
Over the last decade or so, the DIA has honed its visitor-centered interpretive practice: permanent collection spaces and special exhibitions are developed collaboratively by cross-departmental teams. At the core of these teams, curators and interpreters work as partners. Furthermore, audience research plays an essential role in how we work. We consistently test concepts and interpretation throughout the process with target audiences, letting their reactions inform how we refine certain ideas and experiences. Bringing diverse voices into the process has helped transform the DIA into “America’s most visitor friendly art museum,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
However, while this approach purposefully listens to outside voices, it limits the scope of their involvement—in other words, we ask visitors to react to our work, but we haven’t included them more comprehensively in the planning process. This is changing. As part of a major project to reinstall our Asian collection, visitors are serving as “community consultants,” helping the project team brainstorm and shape early concepts for the galleries.
As the interpretive planner on this project, I’ve felt simultaneously stimulated, humbled, and challenged by the community consultants I’ve had the opportunity to work with thus far in the process. As short-term team members, they attend 1-2 weekly meetings at the DIA for 10 to 16 weeks, depending on which area(s) of the collection they are working. These are not voluntary positions—community consultants receive a stipend for their hard work.
During the sessions, we learn about and discuss objects from the checklist, hear from outside content experts, and brainstorm potential themes for the gallery. Everyone has an equal voice at the table. Again, the big shift is that now we are working alongside members of our community to co-create concepts as well as a shared vision for the galleries instead of solely asking visitors to react to work we’ve already done.
While our community consultants are likely to visit museums in their leisure time, they are not required to have any training in art or art history to participate. Rather, for this position, we value a variety of experiences, professional and personal. Making space for this diversity of perspectives to inform the stories we tell in the galleries is an essential step in helping all DIA visitors make personal connections with the art.
For this particular project, we selected individuals who are actively involved in one or more Asian communities in the area. As ambassadors, the community consultants will go on to promote the new Asian galleries among their personal networks. Asian visitors comprise just 5% of the DIA’s annual attendance of ~650,000, but the Asian population in the Metro Detroit area is growing and we aim to attract more Asian visitors to the museum through this reinstallation project. Our community consultants will play a critical role in this effort.
To date, we’ve piloted this new approach with four community consultants, who worked for 10 weeks early this spring on developing concepts for our Japan gallery. In August, we will be joined by a new group of seven community consultants, who will help us with concept development for the rest of our collection, which includes art from China, Korea, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. As you can tell from the photos, the experience has been highly rewarding, and we are excited for this work to culminate in 2018 when the Asian galleries reopen to the public.
The DIA is also excited to be stop on the Muse Cruise during the Annual Meeting! While the Asian galleries will still be a long way from completion, you will be able to visit our famous Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera as well as explore our new Ancient Middle East gallery, which opened in 2015. Enjoy!
For more information on the Muse Cruise and other events scheduled for the AASLH/MMA 2016 Annual Meeting, see the Annual Meeting homepage and the Preliminary Program.