By Tan Kim Ean, The Edge
Art lovers lament that one full day is not enough to visit every room in the Louvre in Paris and contemplate its magnificent collections. You will need three, say The New York Times reporters who did just that.
This underscores the point that cultural tourists spend more and stay longer than other tourists in the US. Museums are a US$192 billion industry in the country, Ford W Bell, ex-president of the American Alliance of Museums, said in a CNN Travel interview last July. They are as essential to communities as schools, libraries and utilities. Many of them “are filling the social service gaps created by the recent economic downturn”.
From programmes for special needs children to English courses for new arrivals to US and computer skills for the workplace, museums are extending their roles and connecting with communities in new ways, Bell notes.
Lonely Planet’s list of the 10 most-visited museums around the world in 2016 has the National Museum of China in Beijing in the lead with 7.55 million visitors, a growth of 3.6% from the previous year. The National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC comes a close second with 7.5 million visitors. Third placed Louvre had seven million visitors.
Increasing attendance bodes well for museums around the globe, but there are still many who fight shy of stepping into these intimidating buildings. Dr Chang Yui-Tan, former director of Taiwan’s National Museum of History, touched on that at a recent Tea Philo (short for philosophy) session at the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.
He emphasised the role art museums play in education and how they are engaging with visitors through technology and sharing resources that rightfully belong to the public.
Like Larry Daley in Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum, Chang often took the night shift at Taipei’s National Taiwan Museum, covering for married colleagues. Unlike the security guard who is given the runaround by artefacts that come to live when the lights go out, nothing unusual happened during Chang’s watch, which ran from 1980 to 1983.
But being alone at night in the echoing building gave the biologist, who was caretaker of the fish specimens, time to reflect on the meaning and value of museums. After three years, he changed gear and became a museum curator, a decision that led to a career of four decades.
Now retired, he enjoys sharing how people can create rewarding museum experiences for themselves and let works of arts speak directly to them.
Starting on a light note, Chang says some people go to the museum to wait out the rain, enjoy the air conditioning, have a date or meet up for a family gathering. But for many, an art museum remains a formidable place that frustrates.
Feeling uncomfortable in a museum many not be a bad thing, John Idema says in How to Visit an Art Museum(2014), because it means you are at the edge of your comfort zone and something new is going to happen.
Chang and his wife Aven Kuei translated the book into Chinese and published it under their company, Five Senses. The first thing to remember is there is no right or wrong way to visit a museum, he says. Follow your instincts and be prepared to enjoy what excites and delights your heart and mind. Museums offer a great opportunity to be with the masterpieces, so take your time. To quote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “ Treat a work of art like a prince. Let it speak to you first”.
A museum visit does not end once you step out the door. Take some memory of a favourite work home with you and it may change your life in the future, adds Chang. He believes parents, teachers and schools can play a part by bringing children to museums and making it a life habit.
The education, culture and tourism ministries can join forces to publicise exhibitions and highlight the important of artists’ works. Social enterprises step in to provide transport and meals for students who live far ways so they have a chance to visit.
Museums in Taiwan arrange camps and workshops for teachers during school breaks so they can familiarise themselves with the available resources and relay that knowledge to their students. Four institutes of Museology have been established to offer more masters and PhD courses and raise the literacy and professionalism of graduates, who can then work in the museums, Chang adds.
A museum can also organise shows and events in response to pressing social issues, or serve as a space for public debate on what is happening in the community.
Immigration is one issue many museums are concerned about, he observes. Taking the lead, the National Taiwan Museum has immigrant volunteers serving as guide to show other immigrants and guest workers around. Various museum have published brochures in foreign languages so that visitors can access their collections.
Taoyuan City, northern Taiwan’s industrial base, has more than 110,000 migrant workers from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, its Department of Public Information states in a March report. “We want to establish a museum of immigration in Taoyuan to tell the community that we are all immigrants and should treat each other equally,” Chang says.
Allocating funds for research and new technology is a task for the museum director. The National Museum of History attracts one million visitors on-site yearly and another two million online. An online manager and a digital collection manager are necessary to create an environment for digital interaction.
As these are new jobs from different disciplines, museums have to be prepared for change. “Within 10 to 20 years, we will not have traditional curators,” he adds.
Changing mindsets and allowing people access to museum resources is another trend that is catching on.
In Europe, museums are already making their collections available to independent curators, who can select things from different museums to create new exhibits. “It is beneficial to the museum as well because when you have only your curator, the (scope) is limited. If you open the collection to private curators, they can make good use of the items.”
Similarly, businesses can be allowed to create merchandise using the museum’s collection, which belongs to everyone because museum are built by the government and taxpayers, Chang says. “We should make our collections accessible to the public. And technology will help us do that.”
Tea Philo is a series of intimate sessions organised by Taipei Economic and Cultural office in Malaysia and produced bu INXO Arts and Culture Foundation. It aims to build cultural and social capital through salon talks with tea.