Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Book Review: The Convivial Museum

The Convivial Museum
Kathleen McLean and Wendy Pollock

I actually read this some time ago, but took extensive notes, so I'll work from them for this review. First, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that my copy came to me via a blog giveaway from Paul Orselli at his ExhibiTricks blog. His review of the book is here.

McLean and Pollock's book is a wonderful little overview of their theory of the "convivial" museum, which they consider an ideal form of museum that welcomes, makes its visitors comfortable, engenders trust, inspires action, and fosters relationships. It's an essentially social museum, in which the environment is designed to spark people off one another - and by that I don't necessarily mean the people in the room; the connection can be formed with the people behind objects and paintings, as well.

They repeatedly emphasize the physical environment of a museum, devoting sections to sound, light, space and other basic human comforts. I found their explorations of the ways in which these physical aspects can encourage and deter engagement to be thoughtful and well-done. The use of examples and photographs were also excellent and illustrative, helping to ground some of their more theoretical discussions.

I also appreciated their statement that "in the most convivial museums, a spirit of welcome starts at the top." Front line staff is and always will be crucial in shaping a visit, but to truly foster the atmosphere they're describing, welcoming behavior needs to be modeled at every level of the organizational chart.

I've been wondering if a more traditional book, with more cohesive and voluminous text might have fleshed out their ideas more - it's rare for there to be more than two or three sentences to a page, for example - but it might also have lost some of that sense of stating simple concepts and then demonstrating or illustrating them through museum examples. I remain torn. Ultimately, I think I'd love to have another, longer, more in depth book alongside this one in order to spend more time with these ideas.

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