PastForward Preview: Nina Simon, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

By Forum Online posted 09-23-2016 11:11


For many in the museum industry, Nina Simon is a familiar name—not only for her seminal work, The Participatory Museum, but also because her blog, Museum 2.0, examines how new digital processes can work in the museum world—specifically in terms of programming and community interaction. As the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, she puts her theories and experiences into practice. Her latest book, The Art of Relevance, explores how mission-driven organizations can matter more to more people. We asked her a few questions in preparation for her upcoming preservationPLACES TrustLive presentation at PastForward 2016.


1. What changes have you seen in participatory practices since your first book, The Participatory Museum, was first published about six years ago? What challenges still remain?

I've seen institutions of all kinds—from historic houses to zoos to art museums—embrace the idea that visitors are active participants in the co-creation of culture. The question is no longer "why?" or "whether" but "how?" and "to what end?" We live in a pluralistic country, and there is increasing appreciation for the diversity of voices, experiences, and expertise that visitors bring in the door.

Pluralism, participation, and community involvement have pushed many cultural institutions to grapple with basic questions of meaning and relevance. What role do we—each of us—want to play in this changing world? How can our institutions best support our communities in an often divided and violent society? We must ask and answer these questions, honestly and courageously, to deliver the greatest public value.

2. You recently said, “Let’s celebrate relevance. Not as an end, but a means. Because relevance is just a start. It is a key.” How do you ensure that historic sites remain relevant given how rapidly meaning changes outside museum walls? How do you protect institutions while also remaining nimble?

One of the reasons I wrote The Art of Relevance was to challenge the idea that relevance is all about what's hot, what's current, what's changing. Being relevant doesn't mean chasing news cycles and internet memes. It means making authentic connections with the issues, strengths, and dreams that matter most in your community. I believe that historic sites will be more valued when we use our missions and our incredible assets to speak to the questions inside people’s hearts. It's not a matter of convincing people that our work matters. It's a matter of opening up new doors to meaning and inviting them inside.

3. What is one question you want PastForward attendees to consider prior to hearing your TrustLive presentation?

When was the last time someone told you—directly or by implication—that your work didn't matter?

Register for 2016 PastForward which will take place in Houston, TX this November.

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