Laura Rhicard, who works in our Daura department, just got back from a trip to the 2010 Art Museum libraries symposium and wrote it up for us, as follows:
Your Museum Has a Library?
This question and more were some of the issues discussed at the 2010 Art Museum Libraries Symposium, held at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, MA September 23 and 24. The symposium was organized by Sidney Berger, director of the Phillips Library at the PEM, and his planning team, who secured a grant from the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) for the event. Funding was also provided by the Kress Foundation, to which I am grateful for providing a scholarship for my attendance at the symposium.
When I arrived in Salem on Wednesday, everyone was pleased to see that the warm weather had followed me from Georgia, and I was somewhat surprised to observe that Halloween prep was already in full swing in the small New England town dedicated to all things “witchy.” Apparently Halloween is very publicly celebrated throughout the month of October in Salem, and revelers flock from far and wide to participate. It’s like Mardi Gras, just with more fake blood and Victorian frock coats.
The PEM, however, was projecting more of an Imperial China theme, with its current special exhibition of “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City.” On view to the public for the first time, the exhibition showcases items from the Qianlong Garden, a long-forgotten 18th-century compound hidden within the Forbidden City. You can learn more about it in this video. Another highlight, the Yin Yu Tang House, dismantled and transported from southeastern China and reconstructed piece-by-piece at the PEM, adds to the museum’s extensive collection of Asian art and provides the opportunity to study the artistic and cultural heritage of rural China. I very much enjoyed touring the house, which was built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and is the ancestral home of the Huang family. You can explore the house yourself on the PEM’s award-winning, interactive micro-site.
But I digress! The symposium, which was held in the PEM’s auditorium, consisted of two keynote addresses and six sessions presented by 15 insightful and entertaining speakers from the art museum and museum library/archives fields. The main reoccurring theme across the sessions seemed to be “collaboration,” as in, how can art museum libraries better work together with their parent institutions to support the institutional mission? Other important points I came away with were:
• Today’s art libraries (and museums) must be flexible in serving audiences the way they want to be served, not the way we think they want to be served.
• Art museum libraries must strive to find the right balance between serving internal and external museum audiences.
• By making our collection info more accessible and searchable, we can inspire greater use of our holdings by a larger audience.
• Contributions to museum exhibitions by the library and archives both broadens the audience and provides a powerful vehicle for developing closer relationships with other parts of the institution.
Two presentations I found particularly interesting were given by Michelle Elligott, museum archivist at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA), and James Forrest, web creative director for the PEM. Elligott recounted the history of MoMA’s institutional archives and provided several examples of how these archives have been very successfully integrated into exhibitions, promotions and even retail opportunities at the museum. Forrest, speaking during a session on “Data Unity in the Institution,” stressed the importance of always keeping the end user in mind and of a positive user experience as both the library and institution’s main goal. As you can see from the links I’ve provided earlier, the PEM utilizes high-quality photos, video and what Forrest referred to as “focused data sets” on its website to deliver “curated” experiences to the user.
How they are reaching out in this way ties in well with what PEM deputy director Joshua Basseches brought up in the Future Trends wrap-up session of the symposium: with the level of information accessibility today and the way in which many people are acting as their own curators (think about all the personalized iTunes libraries and playlists), museums will need to meet this demand for customization by patrons wishing to self-curate their museum experience. And this is where libraries and archives can step in to organize and provide the necessary content! The patron still may not know the museum has a library, but at least now the library is serving the museum’s mission in perhaps a more active way.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the Art Museum Libraries Symposium, and I look forward to helping implement some of the ideas presented at the GMOA library when the building project is complete. As for Salem, I think a second trip is in order, seeing as I did not have time to visit the Witch Museum! (Or the New England Pirate Museum, or Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, or Dracula’s Castle Haunted House, or my personal favorite, The 40 Whacks Museum: Lizzy Borden’s Story….)