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September 24, 2014

Nina Simon is MAHvelous

All photos by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez

The first thing guests see when they walk into the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) is a comment board soliciting ideas for how to improve the museum experience for visitors. Many of those comments end up on the office wall of Nina Simon. Nina is the museum’s Executive Director and she’s a strong proponent of making museums more participatory. She describes herself as an advocate for people who have a creative interest but think museums are not a place for them.

Photo by Ted Holladay Nina Simon - Photo by Ted Holladay

At the start of a recent TED talk, she told the audience, “I am an activist about [...] opening up museums, turning them into places that are not just places where people come to visit, but where you can actively participate, where you can connect with culture and hopefully through those experiences connect more deeply with each other.”

Three years ago, she was recruited to help reinvigorate the MAH. Since that time, she and her staff have shifted it to become a more participatory institution -- collaborating with a broad range of community groups -- and have watched attendance jump threefold.

I’m one of those new attendees. I wandered into the museum for the first time recently and was struck by the quality of the programming. It motivated me to reach out to Nina and ask for her thoughts on museums, Santa Cruz and what led to her current role:

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History - Open for participation - Photo by Garrick Ramirez The Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History - Open for participation - Photo by Garrick Ramirez

What have “traditional museums” been unsuccessful at?

Most museums are set up for a passive, individual experience and that’s not how most people choose to spend their recreational time. There’s a ton of research showing that people are engaging more creatively than ever before. They’re picking up instruments and paint brushes like never before. The maker movement is huge. The crafter movement is huge. Yet museum attendance is lower than ever. Museums haven’t shifted with cultural expectations and the art experiences people want to have.

Photos by Garrick Ramirez Photo by Garrick Ramirez

What prepared you for your role as an advocate for more participatory museums?

I’ve always had an interest in math, science and new ways of learning. I love that quote from Frank Oppenheimer [the person who created the Exploratorium in San Francisco]: “Nobody fails a museum.” Meaning, you’re there because you want to be there. It’s free choice learning. So I started volunteering at a children’s science museum teaching math to 3 year olds and ended up designing interactive exhibits.

I’m not a museum addict. It’s not how I grew up. But an important part of my role is offering an outsider’s perspective. I have an electrical engineering degree and I approach museums as a design problem. There’s a huge potential for museums to be a center of culture and learning, but it’s a design problem that’s preventing a place from becoming that. For example, there’s a difference between interactivity and participatory. The former invites you to play while the latter invites you to contribute.

Mural at the MAH - Photo by Garrick Ramirez Mural at the MAH - Photo by Garrick Ramirez

What’s an example of a participatory exhibit at the MAH?

In 2012, we did an exhibit called the Memory Jar Project where the museum invited people to bottle a memory. It was connected to the idea that everyone who walks through that door has a collection of precious objects: their memories. Over three months, 600 guests filled mason jars with personal memories and put them on display. Some where sad, others funny. But the end result was a gallery created by visitors representing a diversity of experiences.

How would you describe Santa Cruz culture?

It has an extraordinary openness and it values one’s creative self expression. You can be yourself here. It's magical when a cultural center like ours can give a voice and access to people’s creative story and the things that are important to them.

The History Room at the MAH - photo by Garrick Ramirez The History Room at the MAH - Photo by Garrick Ramirez

What do you hope a visitor to the MAH leaves feeling?

My office is wallpapered with comments and I’m amazed by people who say they can feel a spirit of community-building here. It’s not so much about learning something as it is about feeling connected to something. We don’t want to be the “teflon museum” where nothing sticks, where someone comes in and says “that’s nice” and then wonders what’s for lunch. Our mission statement is to ignite shared experiences and unexpected connections. We want people to feel that an event or exhibit awakened a part of them.



2 Comments


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