Simon’s Art of Relevance a critical and necessary book for building 21st Century Museums

Recently, during an interview for a job, I was asked what I thought was the most urgent issue facing museums.

My reply was the need for our work to matter to more people.

It’s an issue on the mind of many museum professionals these days.  For many of us this work seems urgent given the results of the last presidential election.  If only our museums were relevant to more people then museums could fulfill an important role of creating a more just society.

Nina Simon’s second book, The Art of Relevance, is a passionate exploration of relevance—what it is and how relevance will change museums to reach out to new communities and audiences.  It is part philosophy, fervent arguments, valuable counterarguments against the naysayers, and examples that will spur thinking about how you can create new relevance at your museum.

This book is destined to become one of the most important books in the museum canon and is a critical and necessary book for building museums to serve our 21st century, multicultural, globalized world.  Here’s what I carried away on my first read:

Defining relevance
One of the most important contributions of this book is its definition of relevance.

Simon begins by offering cognitive scientists Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber’s two criteria for something to be relevant:

  • Positive cognitive effect, which allows the information to yield new conclusions that matter.
  • Effort, or the ease with which new information can be obtained and absorbed. The easier the better.

Relevance is about helping people make connections that unlock meaning.  Simon shares the beautiful thought that the greatest connections we can make are to those things that exist within ourselves and outside of us.  In other words, the things that unite us as part of the shared human condition.

Think of the great possibility that already exists in museums to do this!  Of course, our objects and collections have incredible potential to help people make connections and unlock meaning.  But to do so we must view our priority as using our collections in this way rather than for academic exercises.  Or, looking for how we can frame research in ways that connect to our humanity.

The key is interpretation.  I was thinking about Freeman Tilden’s thoughts and principles of interpretation as I was reading Simon’s book.  Tilden said that interpretation is revelation of a larger truth.  Those truths often exist within and outside of us.

Tilden’s first principle of interpretation is that “any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.”  One of the major points Simon makes in her books is that museums need to find out from communities what are their personal connection points to the museum’s collections and programs.

A question about building knowledge and relevance
Simon presents one bit of information that I’m still wondering about:  there are some relevance theorists who contend that relevance is not about connecting something new to info one already has.  It is connections to new information that creates relevance.

There’s a lot of information in our field about how people build knowledge on the knowledge they already possess.  Am I confusing relevance with knowledge building / learning?  It’s something I want to know more about.

Entertainment:  relevance or irrelevance?
There is a lot of discussion in our field about the need to make experiences entertaining.  The thinking is that people come to museums during their leisure time and will be more likely to learn and participate if they are entertained as well.

Simon warns that entertainment can be a distraction.  Museums should be in the business of helping people make meaning, not putting on a show.

I believe that making meaning is a universal human desire.  People want to do it and they seek out opportunities to do it in many places:  churches, theaters, and museums.  Simon encourages us to embrace and enhance our unique ability to help people make meaning without distracting them with a type of entertainment that may get in their way.  And she reminds us again that we must first find out what’s important to our audiences and communities if we are really going to help them make meaning.

Community engagement
In graduate school, I took a course about community engagement.  The central theme of that course was community engagement is about museums going out into the community, finding out what the community needs, and then working to serve those needs.

What makes this idea so radical to some in our field is that it is so different from the business model of many museums.  Most begin with collections or mission as a starting point to serve the community.  The starting point in community engagement is the community.

If I were taking that community engagement course today Simon’s book would be a required text.  In Simon’s book, as well as my community engagement course, the work of the museum is about the community getting just as much out of the experience as the museum.  Simon offers very helpful thoughts on wants and needs, two terms often thrown around when museum professionals consider how to fulfill their mission and serve their communities.  Who is determining these wants and needs, and how they are going about serving them, will determine if true relevance is created.

The power of community engagement is the relevance it creates for everyone in your community.  Simon uses the term “convener” for an institution that is considering what’s in it for everyone.  I love this idea and believe that all museums should aspire to be conveners in their communities.  Simon makes a compelling argument that relevance as she defines it is the only avenue toward becoming a convener.

I suspect all of us will be referencing this important book for many years to come!