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More to museums: Museum directors, curator say museums offer community meaningful opportunities

SALT LAKE CITY — Museums are where “the things you’ve either learned about or read about or dreamt about become tangible and possible,” said Kristian Anderson, executive director of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art.

Museums belong to everyone, said Annie Burbidge Ream, assistant curator of education for the Utah Museum of Fine Arts. She said a museum shouldn’t be identified merely as a collection of objects but instead as “a vehicle for social justice and change.”

But museums are also evolving, said Sarah George, executive director of the Natural History Museum of Utah, and leaving behind the “textbook-on-the-wall, we’re-going-to-lecture-you” approach.

George said museum directors and scientists of the past were under a “naive assumption … that people were going to walk out with their brains just bulging with knowledge.”

She said people want to have fun while they learn, and that NHMU strategically places a variety of activities throughout the museum so all generations and learning types can be served harmoniously.

“The experience has changed,” she said. “It’s much more interactive. We look for ways for you to connect yourself and your own interests to what you’re learning about, and (we) want you to walk away inspired.”

Transforming perspectives

Burbidge Ream, George and Anderson all work with a goal to enlighten and embolden the community.

The aim of NHMU is to encourage others to contemplate how they can improve the world around them day by day, George said.

She said she feels successful when museums attendees show a desire to act on the knowledge they gained at the museum.

One of her favorite experiences stems from the “Utah Futures” exhibit currently on display. George said the exhibit features a video game where up to five people can make environmental decisions and see a simulation of the projected effects up to 100 years in the future. Players can negotiate and discuss decisions about economic growth, energy use, pollution and more, she said.

George said that when two families with youths come in, they make a beeline for the game.

“(In) one of the families, the kids are building a game at home that mimics that game,” George said. “To hear directly from these families that it is making a difference is great.”

Art appreciation

Burbidge Ream believes “art is for everyone.” In 2014, she developed the Traveling Museum Project through UMFA to educate students throughout the state, she wrote in an email interview with the Deseret News. She said she enjoys providing students with interactive art experiences and observing how they react.

“It is fun to see how much the students grow in their art appreciation and comfort in discussing and making art,” she said.

Burbidge Ream noticed that when she begins an instruction cycle, students analyzing art are looking for the “right answer.” By the end, she said, students discover their own perspectives, attaching their own meaning to the art pieces.

“When I ask, ‘What do you see?’ often every single hand in the class shoots up and the students have debates about what they are looking at,” Burbidge Ream said. “That is the power of art — to communicate with others, disagree in a productive way, work together to come up with conclusions, and create stories that act as a record of experiences.”

Anderson said everyone has experiences they feel are unique. However, he said, most people probably will experience something similar at some point in life. He said it is because of these experiences that we relate to art, which he said can help each person cope with a range of emotions, from grieving to celebration.

“We aren’t out to be sympathetic; we’re out to be empathetic,” Anderson said. “Art … is uniquely situated to deal with the complexity and the challenge of human experience.”

Critical thinking and innovation

Anderson said life’s complexities can cause people to think about and question where they are at personally and collectively, and that art in museums can help with the process.

Anderson believes UMOCA also has the power to transform perspectives in a real way, he said, often giving a voice to communities he feels are underappreciated.

“Art … pushes back and says, ‘Where are we? Where are we falling short?’” he said.

He said it is easy for individuals to decide to be comfortable but that it’s important for all to explore innovation even if it is difficult.

“We should always be critical thinkers. Tradition is great, but unquestioned tradition for the sake of tradition is dangerous,” Anderson said. “The world today is different than it was 50 years ago, which is different than it was 100 years ago. Societies have to adapt.”

Burbidge Ream said museums should challenge personal views and give patrons the opportunity to broaden their perspectives and share their thoughts.

Sparking dialogue

Anderson said UMOCA exhibits are chosen with the community in mind. He said the curators hope their choices will spark dialogue, but they don’t expect everyone to agree with the view portrayed.

“We’re not creating new dialogue; we’re creating a space for dialogues that are already happening,” Anderson said. “I’m just saying, ‘Hey, here’s something you should be talking about because this is something that has bigger cultural ramifications.’”

Anderson said he sees great value and power in new conversations since they have the potential to be applicable as society progresses.

“I do think that we wake up every day with an ability to change the world through fostering dialogue,” Anderson said.

The ideal museum experience is transformative, Burbidge Ream said, and leaves a person forever changed.

“Museums are public spaces that can be and should be sites of free speech and a safe place for discourse and disagreement,” Burbidge Ream said. “Our world needs more people to stand up for what they believe and question why things are the way they are — be active participants.”