Can internationally renowned museum dynamo Nina Simon take the Museum of Art & History into the new millennium? Geoffrey Dunn engages her in an interactive discussion
In April of this year, the Museum of Art & History issued a press release announcing that then 29-year-old Nina Simon, who Smithsonian magazine had dubbed a “museum visionary,” had been hired to serve as the new executive director of the Downtown Santa Cruz institution that, at least in recent years, had never quite fulfilled the vision of its early founders of being a cauldron for cultural activity in the community.
Saddled with financial challenges that stretched back at least half a decade—and nearly self-consumed by an acute leadership vacuum—the MAH threatened to become an irrelevant, institutional dinosaur in the community’s cultural biosphere. For many in the museum’s inside network, the dynamic and multi-dimensional Simon offered the last-best-hope of pulling the stagnating institution out of what appeared to be a near fatal nose dive.
During her three-plus months at the helm, Simon has more than lived up to her expectations. Forced to eliminate a staff position and impose across-the-board 20 percent reductions in salaries—including her own—Simon staved off an economic disaster at the MAH and has helped resuscitate the museum financially and, perhaps even more significantly, creatively. She has raised nearly $150,000 during her short tenure, brought operational expenditures back into the black, and assembled a Renewed Ambition Task Force charged with redefining funding goals and identifying endowment opportunities. In short, she has moved mountains.
Born and raised in greater Los Angeles (she is the daughter of Sha Na Na’s “Screamin’ Scott” Simon), Simon was trained as an engineer at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Following graduation, she moved to Washington, D.C., taking a part-time research position with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center along with serving as an educator at the Capital Children’s Museum. Soon, these two seemingly parallel career paths merged.
Simon notes that she worked her way up “the interactive exhibit designer ladder (yes, that is a real job),” designing games and exhibits in a variety of science centers and museums. In a short time she became an internationally sought out museum consultant that brought her to the far reaches of the globe.
In 2006, while serving as “Experience Development Specialist” at the International Spy Museum in Washington, she started a blog called Museum 2.0 that focused on a variety of issues facing cultural institutions around the world. The blog quickly became a trend-setter in the industry. Last year, she published her first book, “The Participatory Museum,” a volume that brought many of the ideas explored on her blog into a cohesive whole.
Four years ago, Simon and her husband, Sibley Simon, decided to relocate to California’s Central Coast—on a remote ridge above the Mystery Spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains—which allowed her both to continue her “jet-set consultant” lifestyle and to begin immersing herself in the community’s cultural zeitgeist. The position at MAH now provides her with the opportunity to establish deeper roots in the community and to put many of her creative ideas into practice.
Recently crossing the milestone of her 30th birthday, Simon took some time from her busy schedule to engage local historian and author Geoffrey Dunn in an in-depth discussion about the state of the MAH and her visions for the future. Interview below…
Geoffrey Dunn: What’s a nice, young, internationally-renowned museum visionary doing in a little place like this?
Nina Simon: Who wouldn’t want to be in Santa Cruz? Four years ago, my husband and I were looking for the perfect West Coast small city to call home. We were looking for somewhere intellectual, progressive, vegetarian-friendly, outdoorsy… and we found Santa Cruz. It’s the perfect place for a geek/artist/jock.
Dunn: For those who aren’t so cyber-savvy, what’s your reference to “2.0” mean?
Simon: “Web 2.0” is a term that was coined in 2004 to describe all the tools online that allow people to create, share, and interact around content. In the mid-2000s, people in the museum field started asking, “What would it look like if a museum worked like a wiki?” “How would things change if museums functioned like YouTube?” I wasn’t that interested in how museums engage in the digital world, but I became obsessed with the question of how participatory culture online might influence how we design exhibits and programs in the real world. As a designer, I want to create museum experiences that invite visitors not just to consume content but to comment on it, argue with it, add to it, and discuss it … which is why it’s called Museum 2.0.
Dunn: What are some specific things you’ve done in the first few months to incorporate the 2.0 concept at MAH?
Simon: The most basic thing we’ve done is create lots of ways for people to give us feedback. The first thing you’ll see in the MAH lobby is a comment wall where people can tell us what they loved, hated, and what they want to see happen. I’ve been paying close attention to these comments and we’ve acted on several of their ideas—for example, adding more interactivity, friendlier labels, and starting an annual “wearable art” event. Some of these commenters have become volunteers and partners and we’re working together to make their visions come alive.
We’ve also done several small projects to invite people to contribute to the museum and help make it better. When we were exhibiting a community quilt from World War II, we invited visitors to make their own squares for a 2011 quilt representing our favorite memories of home. In the history gallery, we’re piloting ways for people to add their own stories of how they came to Santa Cruz.
Dunn: I think one of my surprises when first discovering your work was that you come from an engineering background. How has that field of study—the very basics of intellectual engagement in a hard science—impacted your way of viewing museums?
Simon: Engineering is fundamentally about solving problems. Lots of people extol the virtues of a liberal arts education, and I respect that, but I think there’s a lot to be said about the universal virtues of a problem-solving education as well. In school, I learned to experiment, to prototype, to constantly test things and fail and come up with new hypotheses. I learned that failure is an essential part of developing truly powerful ideas.
I don’t see museums as institutions to be revered. I see them as messy places with fundamental problems in how they relate to human beings. I want to be part of the effort to fix those problems, and I’m willing to get my hands dirty to do it.
Dunn: Speaking of “dirty hands,” word on the street is that you’ve had to pull the museum out of a bit of a financial nose dive. How have you survived the first four months? Is this a case of be careful of what you wish for?
Simon: It was a very intense first three or four months. When I started in May, we were very close to the brink. I made some changes immediately—and we started raising money aggressively. At the same time, we collaborated with interns so we could get several new projects launched and demonstrate to the community that we’re really serious about engaging with people in a new way. Our team is 100 percent committed to becoming a welcoming, dynamic cultural hub. It’s all-consuming, often exhausting, and totally worth it.
Dunn: What are some of the greatest surprises you’ve discovered in the new gig?
Simon: I want a bumper sticker that says “I Heart Small Museums.” I’ve spent my whole career in mid-sized and large museums, where it takes five meetings just to change a wall color. Here at the MAH, we’ve made some big changes with a five-minute conversation. We only have seven people on staff, which means we can function as a team in a very personal, active way. Like any small company, we can innovate faster. We can be scrappy. We can take risks. And I believe that means we are going to become a leading institution in this new world of audience participation.
And I am so thrilled that my staff wants to go there. The most heart-explodingly good moment thus far was just before we opened this new season of exhibitions at the end of July. I’d worked with interns to create a couple of interactive experiences for the exhibitions on the second and third floor, and two days before opening, a staff member said to me, “You know, we really need to add something participatory to the first floor exhibition.” And we did it. I feel so blessed to be working with a team that is excited about change and willing to go there with me.
Dunn: There still have to be some pretty serious hurdles out there…
Simon: Lack of funds is always the first answer—but that’s a cop out. It’s a good problem when you have big dreams and you have to find a way to fund them. It’s much worse if you don’t have the dreams.
But when we get past the money, the biggest challenge I see for the MAH is establishing credibility as a great place for cultural experiences in Santa Cruz. We have a gorgeous building in an ideal location, and yet our attendance is pretty low. We’ve got a lot of work to do to help people not just know what we offer but believe that it’s valuable to them. We have to show families that we offer amazing drop-in art workshops. We have to show adults we offer killer alternatives to the bar scene. We have to prove ourselves, and I’m eager to do so.
Dunn: The demographics for museums have always been whiter/older—and MAH would seem to be no exception. How do you initiate a shift—especially when the old guard likes it that way?
Simon: Nationally, this is a big problem not just for museums but for all kinds of formal arts organizations. It’s ironic and deeply depressing that art forms which were founded as populist, democratic forms of expression like jazz or theater have become largely supported by and presented for a small audience of aging white people. The U.S. is getting younger and more diverse and our audiences are going in the opposite direction. That doesn’t bode well for the future of museums.
Dunn: So what do you do about it?
Simon: The answer is not to package traditional museum offerings in some slick marketing lingo to entice the young folk. The answer is to create genuinely compelling, on-mission programming that is relevant to younger audiences. For example, this September, we’re partnering with Santa Cruz NEXT on an event called Race Through Time. It’s an urban scavenger hunt where people go out on bikes on a Friday night to try to find as many hidden historic landmarks in Santa Cruz as they can. This kind of event lines up 100 percent with our mission to connect people to local history. We’re just doing it in a different way, at a different time of day, with bikes and (post-biking) beer.
Dunn: One of my biggest beefs with museums in general is that they try to squelch interaction. The great Brazilian philosopher Paulo Friere described educational models with two basic metaphors—either filling a bucket or lighting a fire. The way in which museums are structured —you’re not even supposed to talk—is obviously geared toward the former model of pedagogy. How do we switch from filling the bucket to lighting the fire?
Simon: I’m a huge fan of Friere—and especially John Holt, the father of unschooling in America. The reason I got into museums originally is exactly because they are places for free-choice learning. No one is going to test you or give you a grade or even force you to come to the museum. It’s up to you and offered to you. It’s an activist, radical way to look at learning, and there are a lot of good activists in museums.
But you’re right that a lot of museums end up feeling a lot more like school than they should. We’re so trained to believe that the only way people will learn anything is to be shouted at by experts, even though we spend 90 percent of our time learning in other ways and calling it something different.
Dunn: Exactly. So how do we shed those shackles?
Simon: One of the surprising ways change happens in museums is through research. When you study what people really do when they visit exhibitions, you find that most people don’t read labels. Most people don’t spend more than a few seconds per piece. And, sadly, most people barely remember what they’ve seen. They have a Teflon experience in the museum—nothing sticks.
Dunn: Really? I’m amazed by that.
Simon: Yes. Research shows that longer labels don’t make it stick better. What does make it stick is when you invite someone to really get involved with an exhibition, to discuss the questions they have, to get their hands in and on the things they’re curious about.
Dunn: Fascinating … I guess part of the process is dismantling the notion that education is a one-way street, that really it’s part of a conversation, an engagement …
Simon: One of the things I’m completely obsessed with is designing exhibits and programs that invite strangers to talk with each other. I believe that the world is fundamentally a better place when people see strangers as potential collaborators and not as scary things to be avoided. We have so few public spaces that encourage people from different walks of life to positively engage with each other. In my ideal museum, every sign and exhibit and program is set up such that people naturally feel comfortable interacting with strangers—and are rewarded for doing so.
Dunn: This is a radical break from the traditional museum dynamic. How can you encourage such an interchange?
Simon: We’re seeing that in a tiny way at the MAH in the new Creativity Lounge on the third floor. It’s a little living room setup that we cobbled together from donated furniture and books in our collection. One of our staff members brought in an art jigsaw puzzle, and it’s amazing how often you’ll see complete strangers sitting together working on the puzzle. I consider it a huge success when the museum can be a place where people come together around art or history or culture to connect across whatever differences they might have.
Dunn: One of your blogs on your website was titled “The Future of Authority: Platform Power.” You note that museums and other institutions hate to give up “the power of authority”—and, I suppose, interactivity is viewed as a threat.
Simon: It’s not so much interactivity as participation. This is kind of a technical distinction, but it’s important. Interactivity means you let people play. Participation means you let them collaborate and potentially add to or change what’s on display. Participation is a lot more threatening than interactivity.
Dunn: Well, I think interaction involves participation, so perhaps we are referring to the same thing. But let’s go with the notion of participation. It’s threatening to nodes of authority that want to maintain control.
Simon: It’s also potentially a lot more transformative—both for visitors and for institutions. When someone walks into a history museum and says, ‘Hey, I was at that protest, and I have a different story to tell,’ I think it’s incredibly important to capture and integrate that story into the exhibition. That story helps the institution present a more nuanced, diverse set of perspectives about the past. That story empowers people to participate actively in making and documenting history. That story helps future visitors learn more …
Dunn: Another of your blog posts distinguished between museums surviving and succeeding.
Simon: A lot of museums, like any struggling nonprofits, are just trying to get by. They’re not trying to be as awesome as possible. I think that’s irresponsible. We’re not just here to be a nice little museum for Santa Cruz. We’re here to support people’s creativity and curiosity, to expose other ways of seeing, and to push Santa Cruz forward culturally. If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our job.
Dunn: Well, I couldn’t agree with you more. Let’s go with that idea of being “awesome.” What are some of the changes you’re proposing at MAH?
Simon: How do you create a cultural hub in 100 words or less?
Dunn: [Laughter.] My editor is giving us more than that. Go for it.
Simon: My approach is threefold: make the museum more welcoming physically, offer more experiences that invite people to participate actively, and become a trusted venue for community partners.
On the first side, we’re slowly redesigning the space to be more like a comfortable, inspiring home for culture and less like an office building for art. We’re adding couches. We’re putting more art and historical artifacts on the walls. We’re inviting artists to work in the atrium in the Makers at the MAH program and activate it with their processes. In the longer term, I’m hoping to transform Abbott Square (between the MAH and Cooper Street) into an interactive sculpture park that becomes a premier place downtown to hang out with family, enjoy a burrito, and explore culture together.
On the program side, we’re significantly ramping up programs with a specific focus on families and adults without children. For families, our goal is to be able to offer drop-in art workshops every weekend of the year. For adults, we’re offering new programs like Creativity Under the Influence, which blends wine and art, and Third Fridays, which offer hands-on workshops in a casual setting. Our exhibitions are also going to become more participatory, involving everything from opportunities for visitors to share their stories to more in-depth ways for community members to contribute to exhibitions in development.
Dunn: Great ideas. But it takes a village, doesn’t it?
Simon: We’re working to increase partnerships with community groups and businesses. We have a gorgeous, big building in Downtown Santa Cruz, and I see no reason the MAH shouldn’t be the best place to host a meeting, a cocktail party, or a debate. That’s why we’re inviting craft groups to offer classes and meet in our space. That’s why we’re partnering with UCSC, TEDx, the Reskilling Expo, the Chamber of Commerce, and many others. Being a great host for events increases the activity in our museum, helps make new people aware of our exhibitions, and it helps the bottom line, too.
Dunn: Chip from the Downtown Association convinced me to come downtown for a First Friday this month. I confess I hadn’t been down for a while. I was really impressed by the energy downtown and in particular by the crowds at the museum.
Simon: First Fridays are currently our most successful day of the month by a long shot. When I first started at the MAH, I was amazed to discover that we have as many people come to the museum for First Friday than visit the entire rest of the month. It’s not just that First Friday is free—the majority of visitors come in the evening, when we’re offering live music, a social atmosphere, beer and wine … things we don’t offer any other time of the month.
Dunn: To be honest, it was the promise of beer and wine that got me out.
Simon: Hence the increase in programs we’re doing that will include them. We’re doing a four-part series this fall called Creativity Under the Influence that invites people to drink and draw—to pair wine with art. If we want to be a social place, we have to provide social amenities as part of the experience.
Dunn: So First Friday presents something of a model.
Simon: It’s a model for a certain kind of event—not for everything we do at the museum. We’re doing two things based on the success of First Friday. First, we’re making it more of an art experience. Every First Friday now features hands-on art activities, demos, and performances—for example, in August, we screened the Junk Art Scramble pilot, had a free tour of the woodworkers exhibition, and featured two artists hand-building a canoe on our front steps. I don’t want First Friday to just become a party and I know our visitors don’t either. They value the opportunity to engage with art and history in a convivial environment, and we want to support that.
Dunn: It was great. I loved how the canoe building demonstration echoed the woodworking exhibit on the third floor.
Simon: The second thing we’re doing is expanding by offering Third Friday on (unsurprisingly) the third Friday of every month starting in September.
Dunn: Ah, the Third Friday is actually on the Third Friday. Quite the concept.
Simon: On Third Friday, the museum will be open until 9, and we’ll have more in-depth demos and workshops. In September, we’re doing the Race Through Time history scavenger hunt. In October, we’re doing a digital art demo night. November’s craft night. December’s behind-the-scenes—a time to explore the basement of the museum. And so on.
My goal is to get to the point where we’re open late at least once a week, if not more. It’s bizarre to me that most museums (including the MAH) are only open during the day. Most people work or go to school during the day and enjoy their recreational and cultural experiences at night. Why aren’t more museums open when people might actually want to visit them?
Dunn: Name a regional museum that you think has broken the old model and moved toward a more interactive mode of museum presentation?
Simon: I’m really impressed by the changes at the Oakland Museum of California. When they closed for renovation a few years ago, everyone expected that they would hire a big firm and reopen with fancy, generic new exhibition galleries. Instead, they hired local people and created a museum experience that is intentionally messy, friendly, and open to community input. There are post-its all over this museum. There are art objects in the history gallery, history objects in the art gallery, and opportunities for visitors to debate which is which. They found a 21st century way to stay true to their radical roots as a museum.
Dunn: Okay, it’s now on my bucket list. Is there a fundamental concept that provides an intellectual framework for your ideal museum experience?
Simon: What I’m interested in is the roots of the commons, the Agora, the town square, places where people from different walks of life come together to learn and debate and inspire and frustrate each other. Artifacts are important as the organizing principle—the objects around which the conversation happens. But the objects are not the point. The people are the point.
Dunn: I like the idea of the Agora—a commons, a public space—for the sharing of ideas and for fostering cultural exchange—I’m with you there. But for me the objects—the things—are part of the equation. It’s not a dichotomy between people and things. I don’t view them as separate. But I agree that they are not the end point. I view them as part of the discussion.
Simon: I use the term “social object” to talk about artifacts that inspire dialogue. Sometimes that dialogue is internal between the person and the object, and sometimes it is between people around the object. If an artifact doesn’t elicit any kind of response or dialogue, there’s something wrong with the exhibition design.
Dunn: I guess we are getting down to basic principles. It has always seemed to me that museums are intended, first, to stimulate internal discussion—contemplation, reflection, meditation, deep thought. That in itself is a dialogue, an interaction if you will. And then comes the outward engagement—the interaction of these reflections with others. So it’s at least a two-step process and maybe more. How does the museum help facilitate the continued discussion and engagement?
Simon: As a museum visitor, especially at art museums, I always thought that was my job: to look, to contemplate, to be blown away and have little epiphanies around every corner. And it never happened. I’d stare at a painting and think, “Am I doing this right? Am I getting something out of this?” Most Americans don’t have a lot of background in art history or visual culture, and so we’re not trained in how to get into that deep contemplation zone.
Dunn: Really? I’m not sure it takes training. I was raised as a fish cutter and went to Soquel High. I didn’t have any formal art training growing up, and yet I’ve always had a visceral response to art—whether it was music, a movie, or a painting. I think formal training “intellectualizes” the reaction. I didn’t need any training to experience or frame my reaction to a gorgeous sunset or Yosemite Valley or “Sympathy for the Devil” or The Graduate. So I’m not sure I agree with that distinction.
Simon: I don’t have any formal art training either—and, like you, I feel good about my ability to react to music and movies and nature. But I’m pretty lousy at expressing my reaction to art, and the research shows that most people who visit art museums—in some studies as much as 90 percent—feel unsure of their reactions and unable to express them.
Dunn: OK. I believe you. But that’s another shocker…
Simon: We’re good at doing this about music—arguing and advocating and falling in love with songs without reservation. But think about the huge disparity between the number of songs you’ve heard in your life and the number of paintings you’ve seen. I’m sure that if we looked at art as often as we listened to the radio, we’d be really smart about contemplating and reflecting on art. But we don’t, and we’re not. And the result is that most people feel a little uncomfortable in art museums, maybe even a little stupid—and that definitely does not make them want to discuss what they’re seeing with others.
Dunn: So how do we get people there, into that comfort zone?
Simon: I try and design ways to help people be as comfortable as possible so that they can get to that point. Sometimes, it means putting a nice armchair in front of a painting and inviting people to cozy up to it for awhile without feeling the itch to move on. Sometimes it means giving people notecards with questions to think about or unusual thought experiments to try. This may sound contrived, but it’s exactly what people who have a Ph.D. in art history have spent years doing—building up tools and techniques for engaging with art. We all need these tools, and when we get them, we’re more likely to feel confident in museums and enjoy the experience.
Photo credit Rachael Torres
SIDEWALK CHALK Artist Shirley Lehner helps the MAH spice things up with some chalk art.
MS. MAH Nina Simon is the new executive director of the MAH.
FURRY FRIENDS, TOO A museum-goer and her pooch on bring your dog to the museum day.
SIT BACK & RELAX A Cabrillo student takes the roving arm chair tour.
DOWNWARD DRAW Fourth year UC Santa Cruz student Kristofer Tumangan sketched yogis during a MAH yoga and art event.
ALL TOGETHER NOW There are plenty of opportunities for volunteers and kids at the MAH.
SPELLING TEST MAH interns hard at work.