Books

The Art of Relevance by Nina Simon
Caroline Worthington
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Caroline Worthington finds the continual self-congratulatory tone a bit wearing

Former blogger Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance, a follow-up to her 2010 book, The Participatory Museum, maintains the author’s upbeat, self-promoting momentum. As well as examples ranging from the Bishop Museum in Hawaii to London’s Science Museum, she peppers the text with case studies from her own museum, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

The Californian institution, which she has led since 2011, merits 10 times the number
of index entries than any other. Simon, we learn, saved the institution from possible closure from the get-go, by “unlocking” the door to its relevance. “I believe relevance is the key to a locked room where meaning lives,” she says. “We just have to find the right keys, the right doors, and the humility and courage to open them.”

In the great American tradition of “make lemonade from lemons” self-help books, Simon is fond of self-congratulatory case studies. Take the chapter “A walk on the beach” (readers prone to career envy need steel themselves).

In it she recounts an event organised by “my museum” to celebrate the 130th anniversary
of Hawaiians introducing surfing to SantaCruz.

“As I locked my bike I steeled myself for minor embarrassment.” Simon prayed there would be a few dozen people on the beach. “I was wrong,” she declares. Self-doubt banished by the turnout of “hundreds of fellow Santa Cruzans along the shoreline ... Crowds formed on the sidewalks above the cliffs.” The sun came out. Amazing.

The accompanying show at the museum “smashed” its attendance records, “garnered oceans of press” and crucially “shattered my conceptions about who connects to history and how”, Simon writes.

Should you miss the importance of Simon’s professionally self-revelatory experience, she tells us that the day “changed my life personally too. It turned me into a surfer. It opened a new side of Santa Cruz to me.” (Yet it had taken her four years to twig that surfing is part of the city’s identity, and therefore that a show would automatically be popular.)

The same is true of examples of other institutional revelations. Simon cites a programme of live events at the Science Museum aimed at deaf visitors or those with a hearing impairment and their families. Things were not going well. The sign language interpreter stood too far from the action, and loud bangs were either inaudible or distressing.

The museum held a focus group and created a pilot show, both with the help of deaf people, and the event was redesigned and rebranded. In Simon speak, the museum “fixed what was broken. They changed the door and the room.” The obvious but unanswered question is why didn’t the museum hold a focus group or pilot in the first place?

The Art of Relevance is a book for the converted or “empathetic evangelists”, to use Simon’s brand of born-again, audience-centred museology. She parlayed an apprenticeship in science centres into a blog with a faux-Silicon Valley title – Museum 2.0 – as well as a career as a museum consultant, now museum CEO. From a bully-pulpit in Santa Cruz, where she lives in the mountains “off the grid”, she preaches a gospel of Relevance. “We need to matter more to more people, if we want our work to shine,” she declares. “Doing relevant work comes down to the same idea: creating projects that speak to the people you wish to engage,” are typical statements.

TEDx speakers get a maximum of 18 minutes to get their message across. Simon fills more than 180 pages. “It’s a good thing that we work in a world where there are too many relevant examples to fit them all into one book,” she writes, with an eye on her next self-published book, no doubt.

Caroline Worthington is the director of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, London


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