The Making of a Modern Museum: Interview with Heather Whitely Robertson of Art Gallery of New South Wales

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Uncategorized May 30, 2016 Featured Image

What’s it like to be at the forefront of the museum of the future?

Heather Whitely Robertson would know.  She’s an audience engagement expert, currently Head of Learning & Participation at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  Heather has worked with a variety of museums and institutions around the world, transforming them into spaces of 21st-century learning and cultural leadership.  We sat down with Heather to discuss her principles of audience engagement and how her latest project will transform the New South Wales cultural scene..

MH: What was your journey to becoming an audience engagement specialist and your current position?

Building on my training as an architect and an educator, I’ve spent my career working within the context of museum redevelopment projects in Australia and the UK, with a focus on transforming learning and engagement experiences. My gallery education journey began as Education Officer for the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia just as site works were commencing for the two major gallery buildings. It was an inspiring and intense experience to work on the development and delivery of the two galleries and the implementation of the opening programs. Since then, I’ve worked with Tate Modern as Curator of Family and Community Programmes during the initial phase of the current Tate Modern Project, as Learning Manager with Victoria & Albert Museum during their Future Plan project and the realization of the Sackler Centre for Arts Education and Open House London, the architecture education charity. I returned to Australia in 2011 to take on the role of Director of Audiences & Creative Learning at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and to help realize the MCA’s major museum redevelopment including the launch of the National Centre for Creative Learning.

I recently joined the Art Gallery of New South Wales as Head of Learning & Participation, to help imagine a new future for audience engagement at the gallery through the Sydney Modern Project – the most significant gallery redevelopment project in Australia.  From an international design competition, the Japanese Pritzker-winning architects SANAA, have conceptualized and proposed a striking and elegant structure in the Domain, adjacent to the Royal Botanic Gardens. It cascades down to Woolloomooloo on what are now two grassed concrete slabs, one over the Cahill Expressway and the other over disused WWII oil tanks.  Their design gently situates itself with the topography of the landscape stretching out to the north from the existing Gallery towards the shore of the Sydney Harbour.

The new building significantly increases the size of the existing Gallery footprint. The new galleries will better accommodate our collections, including Australia’s most innovative display of Aboriginal art and culture and the most comprehensive display of modern and contemporary art from Australia and internationally.  All of our spaces and programs will focus on integrating our collections, visitors, and cultural landscape to create spaces that bring people together and foster a sense of community, imagination, and openness. We’ll also have a new plaza linking the Gallery with the Royal Botanic Gardens, providing more spaces to engage with art, live performances, and other events.

The Sydney Modern design creates a new conversation with the community, opening out into its neighborhood and embedding itself within the fabric of the city. It will re-imagine the future of cultural engagement. 

MH: What principles are central to the work you do now and in the Sydney Modern project?

My work is about bringing art and ideas to life; and transforming the visitor experience, learning and engagement in all its forms.  Our programs focus on inspiring curiosity and igniting the imagination and provoking new ways of thinking about the world we live in.  

Play is central to what we do. We create safe places for audiences to explore, experiment and engage with art in meaningful ways. All of our programs seek to generate understanding through innovative and active experiences with art and ideas – with no right or wrong answers.  We value that knowledge and understandings are constructed and grown through exchange, collaboration & diverse inputs – and that audiences bring their personal experiences to their engagement with art. We actively work to let visitor voices come to the forefront of exchange. We also seek to understand the impact of what we do, and thus we integrate evaluation, research and reflection into our everyday practice. This helps us understand our impact, and we use this data to inform future work.

MH: When it’s all said and done, what do you want visitors to experience during their time at Sydney Modern?

I hope that visitors feel that our Gallery is a magical playbox; and that they feel a sense of ownership, belonging and connection. I hope they feel empowered to discover our magnificent collections on their own terms and find delight in programs and engagement tools designed to quench the curious mind.  

In the new building, learning and participatory spaces are key to the design. There will be different kinds of spaces designed for different types of experiences, some of which are informed by currently successful programming.

One of our existing successes is our flagship program Art After Hours. Art After Hours is a weekly late night event regularly attracting audiences of 1000 or more each Wednesday evening. For every event, the Gallery is transformed into a vibrant, energized social space full of activity, music and big ideas. One reason for its success is the immediacy of the vibrant social experience. The hub of activity occurs in the central court of our building – a wide corridor in the main entrance which by night becomes a bar, a stage, a dance floor and place for thinking about ideas in art in new ways. The programming for Art After Hours reflects an ambition to create entertaining and engaging low-barrier experiences for a night out with art.

By way of example, to coincide with our recent summer international art exhibition The Greats a blockbuster show of European masterpieces from the National Gallery of Scotland, we ran a month long series of extended late nights in January that aimed to attract younger and more diverse audiences to the exhibition. Part of the Art After Hours programming included a series of headlining acts with the celebrity comedian (and one-time curatorship student) Hannah Gadbsy. The Great Gadsby was a stand-up comedy series of ‘art lectures’ that took a not-so-serious (and sometimes irreverent) look at some of the great eras of Western art history with a different theme each week. One highlight was the Dutch Golden Age (which she notes is better described as the Super Duper Detailed Scenes in Brown Paint Age) or Italian Bodies in the Renaissance (while pondering the question why is the nativity a dance party?). Gadsby’s ‘lectures’ opened up new ways of looking at the European masters revealing quirks, hilarious not-so-obvious details and random connections to modern life.

Although the programming is the key ingredient to success, we are also mindful that the gathering hub of activity in the entrance spaces of the building plays a significant role in generating a vibrant atmosphere.  We are embedding this notion in the design of the new building too.

Another key consideration for the new building is the development of innovative digital facilities and infrastructure to support new forms of digital experience.  We are currently testing and incubating new programs and resources that better enable us to connect to remote audiences across Australia and Internationally. In Australia, a significant proportion of the population live in regional and remote areas and have barriers to accessing quality arts experiences. Through experimental digital learning activities, new and innovative practices are enabling new kinds of access and experience in ways that were previously not possible. We want AGNSW and the Sydney Modern Project to become more open, inviting and meaningful for our audiences.

MH: What is your policy on social media throughout the Sydney Modern project?

Social media is an important platform for exchange for our entire business – and therefore it is an important communication tool for the Sydney Modern Project. However, it is not the only tool. One recent successful community engagement initiative for Sydney Modern was an exhibition of the shortlisted architectural proposals for the international design competition.  Over 43,000 people visited the exhibit, and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and it generated and engendered a sense of excitement and anticipation for the project.  This response affirmed we were on the right track. Ongoing consultation and audience research is continues to be crucial to the development of the project, ensuring that we address the needs of the community and test our ideas and ambitions to create a building that celebrates creativity, culture and thought.

MH: What are your tips for emerging museum professionals looking to specialize in audience engagement and bringing museums into the 21st century?

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but interning and volunteering across a variety of sites and contexts provides a tonne of experience and insight. It’s a great way to discover the things you’re passionate about and want to engage with, and it opens the doors to possibilities for your future professional life.  Broad and varied volunteer experience can be a kickstarter for any career.

Networking is also very important.  Professional networking can help you find out more about who is employing people with your skills and interests, and what organizations align with your ambitions.  It’s also a great opportunity to showcase your skills and strengths, and learn from others in the field.

Early in my career, I was lucky to travel significantly (in the US, Europe, and Australia).  I always find visiting museums and galleries while traveling to be an enriching experience. Walking in the footsteps of other visitors allows you to develop empathy, insight and understanding of how audiences might experience your own museum or programs and can inform the development of new programs and visitor experiences.

MH: What do you see the future of museums being, and how can we bring the museum of the future to life now?

Museums and galleries are containers of the ideas of culture. They help us to explore the world, our cultural heritage, and our contemporary life.  They provide people with the opportunity for thinking about the world in new ways and looking at 21st century problems with a creative lens to address the problems we face as a society. They are the stuff of meaning in life.

Thank you to Heather Robertson from the Art Gallery of New South Wales for talking with us and sharing fresh new ideas and insights.

Do you work for a museum? Do you have a program that is successfully engaging new audiences? We’d love to hear about it! Send us a quick email at [email protected] or read more about our workshops, presentations, and museum consulting work.

written with 💖 by Museum Hack

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