Friday, 30 May 2014



As you all know from your museum studies courses and from your professional experiences in museums, one buzz word and continuous aspiration for cultural institutions today is relevance. All museums, from the Met in NYC to the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, North Carolina, wish to be relevant to their audiences. This is all good and well until we venture to ask questions such as: “what does it mean for a museum to be relevant?”, “what do audiences consider relevant?”, “who are the contemporary audiences”, and the list can continue. I ask you to think about relevance because of the complexity of the questions which it implies but also because I believe that relevance cannot be understood unless we take a historical and cultural approach. Both my questions and reflections on this topic have been inspired by my encounters with the history of the Art Gallery of Ontario in the Libraries & Archives of the museum.

AGO First Thursday
Edward P. Taylor Library & Archives, AGO, Toronto
And since we talked about annual reports and bulletins on Musings recently, I will make reference to these valuable archival documents as they reveal a wealth of historical information about the AGO’s projects to transform itself into a hub for community relevance. To show you an example, I start in 1946 with a note from the AGO President’s Report which describes Wednesday Open Nights at the museum – “open nights are designed to show the Toronto citizen that an Art Gallery can be fun! The Programmes consist of Tours, Informal Lectures, Artist Demonstrations, Films, Slides, and opportunities to “Try your hand” with paint, clay and various art media”. This brief quote from mid 1940s gives us a clue about some elements of continuity between AGO in the 1940s and contemporary forms of entertainment in the museum, for example AGO First Thursdays, where party goers can tour parts of the museum, chat with curators, make art and have a margarita or glass of Prosecco. While we are used today to think of museums as exciting hubs for entertaining, where art, food, drinks and music coexist almost naturally, imagining the museum of the 1940s in the same way is not something we are used to. But only by looking at museums historically can we understand that every current cultural manifestation has a history and recycles something from the past.
To continue my conversation with Annual Reports, in 1967, the AGO Director wrote in his report that “today, especially in North America, the art museum is an educational and social instrument of surprising complexity with many different aims…perhaps what is unbelievable is the fact that this programme [reference to public events such as the Wednesday Open Nights] is conducted in an art gallery designed at a time when none of these activities were planned or perhaps even envisaged”. 

So I leave you with a question and an invitation. First, the question (but feel free to reflect on the question while enjoying the invitation): from your experience in museums, what makes them relevant today? And, for an example of relevance which of course has to do with food, take a trip to Fort York this Sunday (June 1) to celebrate Burger Day. Our iconic burger deserves a celebration and what better place to do so than a historic site famous for its foodways program? If you go, make sure to take some pictures (with you and your favorite burger/slider) and send it our way. Bon appetit!

Burger Day Fort York


  1. My great difficulty in responding to this question, I think, speaks to the challenges museums face when trying to define what "relevance" means to them -- and also that there is not one "true" way of defining relevance. But I think in acknowledging that there is not one single answer for what makes a museum relevant helped me to reflect on what characteristics I consider "relevant" museums to have: a great diversity in programming, activities, exhibitions, or really any output of the museum that could appeal to more than simply one subset of a museum-going audience.

    When we talk about "the audience" in museums, in many cases this is still a narrow group of the population at large. But the greater this audience can become as the museum welcomes and appeals to different tastes, levels of education, etc. -- the more relevant the museum is. It harkens back to the AGO director's statement in 1967 that the art museum has a "surprising complexity with many different aims." With this in mind, the celebration of the burger and the history of the war of 1812 make sense together in an otherwise unusual combination.

  2. One issue I often have when trying to address if/why/how museums are or can be relevant, is that the word "museums" refers to a diverse group of institutions with different missions. I do not think the question has an answer because answering requires a generalization about experiences with "museums." Then, when talking about relevant to who, it seems odd to generalize about individual experiences.

    In response to Katherine's comment, I wonder if a larger audience does mean greater relevance. Is an institution that welcomes and appeals to diverse tastes necessarily more relevant then an institution that appeals to a specific subsection of the population?

  3. Robin & Katherine, your points are very good! My take on relevance is through a very thorough knowledge of the institution itself (be it a large art museum or a smaller historic site) - doing my research on the AGO really transformed my understanding of the current state of the Gallery. All institutions have different ways in which they can be relevant to their audience (and, as we often discussed in class, different aspects of an institutions will be targeting different publics - this is one main advantage of living in a post-modern period :). I think relevance is a discourse which all cultural institutions integrate into their mission or scope but relevance manifests itself so differently depending on the institution itself and the expectations of contemporary museum goers.