Guest post from Lowell Walbank, Events Supervisor at the Museum.
Earlier this year, the people behind the “Museums At Night” festival published a series of Arts Council funded reports (A Culture of Lates / An International Culture of Lates / Late like a Local) on the future and culture of “Lates” in Museums and other cultural organisations.
To accompany these findings, the Brighton-based Culture24 charity hosted a conference in London’s National Gallery to look at the challenges facing the sector and the future of cultural organisations in the “Night Time Economy”. Before the conference started, I was fortunate enough to spend a day in the Victoria & Albert Museum, an institution that pioneered the format of late night events in Museums at the turn of the Millennium.
After checking the South Asian, Islamic and Japanese collections, it was time to visit the latest temporary exhibition “Fashioned From Nature”. This exhibition explored the complex relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to the present day, presenting fashionable dress alongside natural history specimens, innovative new fabrics and dyeing processes, inviting visitors to think about the materials of fashion and the sources of their clothes.
I thought the balance between the historical usages of natural materials and the examination of the future of fashion and sustainability was struck perfectly, and resulted in an engaging and thought provoking exhibition. I also really liked the novel use of soundscapes, bringing the exhibits to life with the sounds of songbirds, whales, waterwheels, cotton looms, tropical forests and machetes. Seeing the production of fabrics made from sources as diverse as plastic, grass, mushrooms and grape skins, gave an interesting insight into possible future developments and zero waste clothing.
The following day, I made my way to the National Gallery for the first annual conference on “Museum Lates”, which welcomed 24 speakers from 3 continents to discuss the ever growing strand of the Museum sector.
With a new director in place, and a major redevelopment programme about to start, it is an exciting time of transformation for Manchester Museum. Our late night offer is something that will be developing and changing too, so this was invaluable opportunity to hear from people who had tackled various different challenges to deliver dynamic and transformative events in their organisations.
Kim Streets from Museums Sheffield delivered a compelling keynote speech, which really reinforced the need for culture change in people using Museums as late night social spaces. The change may be gradual, and in certain cases could be a loss leader, but her message was a positive one, asking always what is possible? The “Alive After 5” website compiles everything happening in the Sheffield city area after work hours, and encourages people to explore cultural institutions on weeknights to great success.
In her words, evening event programming should always be “looking for permission to play and a giving people a chance to get their hands dirty”, a sentiment echoed by artist Aowen Jin, who said it was important to disrupt the “no touching, no talking rule” inside Museums. Some of Jin’s installations have included UV artworks in The Horniman, which are only revealed under the torchlight of visitors, and huge phosphorescent rice fields in the Compton Verney chapel. These works asked visitors to interact and engage with the work, instead of merely passively experiencing them.
Neil Mendoza, author of the “Mendoza Review” into Museums in England spoke of the need for organisations to respond to the perceived lack of time for cultural leisure time in an experience economy. Compared to approximately 15 hours a week on mass media, people tend to only spend around 1 hour a week on “cultural activities”. The challenge then was how to reimagine the place of museums in this landscape and reach out to new audiences by answering the questions that they are asking, such as “where can I go after work?” and “where can I take them on a date?”
A key point raised by the review was how to deliver a cultural education, and during his speech he used a great quote from Alain de Botton to stress the potential of Museums in modern life, stating:
‘Museums have replaced churches as places of rest and inspiration. In the past we sought solace in religious art and it taught us how to live our life, why don’t museums teach us how to live our lives?’
He also touched on various aspects of his review such as adapting to today’s funding environment, growing and diversifying audiences as well as dynamic collection curation and management.
Something that was repeated throughout the day was the need for partnerships and diversity. Partnerships with other organisations, with artists, with local government, with city managers and with sponsors and businesses such as Air BnB is the only way to develop Museums in a night time economy that is constantly changing. Bill Griffiths, the organiser of “The Late Shows” in Newcastle put it best by saying: “If your programme is more diverse you will engage more people… if you do what you’ve always done you get the people you always get”.
The consistency and convenience of programming was also a common feature amongst successful lates. Ashlie Hunter of Sydney’s Art Gallery NSW has a weekly late, with shuttle buses running from the centre of town to the gallery. People know they can turn up every week at the same time and something would be happening, which she said was key to it’s success. Another example was “Noches de Museos” in Mexico City. This is a monthly festival of lates with bikes available to travel between venues. Their website also groups Museums and galleries together based on proximity, suggesting circuits in different parts of the city, making it easier to engage with what could be a huge an overwhelming programme.
It was a great opportunity to hear from so many people that have done so much to promote the ideas of lates in Museums and gave me lots of food for thought moving forward. Check the work that Culture 24 does on their website.