Museums and place identity

Istanbul museum Islam science
photo credit: Islamic Science and Technology via photopin (license)

Much of place identity is communicated through heritage, of which museums form a significant part. A museum conveys a great deal about a place: about its values, its priorities and how it sees itself, both in an historical and a contemporary sense.

Today’s post is based around a recent interview with French museum-branding expert Corinne Estrada, head of Paris-based agency Agenda. Corinne came to Istanbul to lead the organisation of the Communicating the Museum Conference 2015.

This event brings together museum professionals from around the world. Together they discuss emerging trends and social influences that affect various museums and how they interact with and influence the societies in which they are situated.

In our conversation, Corinne reflected on the museum situation in Turkey, noting that there is a distinct ‘gap’ between how the public and private museums present themselves and how they interact with the outside world. She pointed out that the private museums she had worked with in Istanbul had generally been open-minded and had a deep understanding of their assets.

On the other hand, government-run museums were more likely to rely on protocol, which gives the feeling of the museum being more ‘staged’.

“The private ones were keen to learn and improve, but the public ones stuck more closely to protocol.”

The museums of Istanbul tend to stay close to their Turkish roots. They maintain a distinct sense of national character even in the more experimental, Western-style museums, such as SALT Galata.

Corinne said: “The clash of Eastern and Western here [in Istanbul] is very, very rich. It can be seen clearly in the food and the architecture. The museums should focus on this as an asset and take the best of it.”

However, despite the numerous strengths of both Istanbul and wider Turkey in terms of cultural heritage, recent political and social problems have caused a decline in visitors and a rise in perceptions of Turkey as an undesirable place to visit.

Corinne told me that some delegates cancelled their conference places because they were afraid to come to Turkey in the current climate. “In the museum business, people are looking negatively on Turkey because of the government. Many are turning to Qatar and UAE instead. But both those countries are very Western. Istanbul on the other hand is all about the Turkish people.”

In terms of using museums as tools in wider place branding efforts, Corinne cited Sydney as a good example of a city that is using its cultural heritage to powerful effect by drawing its museums into an overall branding strategy.

“Everyone is involved – it’s a joint exercise.”

Philadelphia is another good example of engaging closely with the target audiences, sharing the brand identity with them by encouraging them to produce user-generated content.

Certain cities are defined by their iconic museums, for example Paris, which boasts the world-famous Louvre. Amsterdam and its Rijksmuseum is another, along with Madrid, New York and London. Corinne says that many museums don’t know how to connect with wider audiences, managing only to reach the elites in society.

For example, even when the Louvre holds ‘Public Day’ and opens its doors free of charge, it has trouble attracting people. So the museum has come up with a plan to bring selected exhibits to the Paris suburbs in an attempt to encourage people to become more interested in what the museum has to offer.

“A good museum should be sustainable. It shouldn’t rely on public money. For success, it should speak to the emotions as well as to the intellect,” Corinne said.

“Many people feel scared to go to museums because the museums don’t talk to them. They don’t feel they belong to that world. For example, many museum information labels use language that is too high-level for the average person.”

All these issues and more were dissected in detail during the recent conference in Istanbul. Attendees came from a wide range of backgrounds, including those of design, sociology, and the digital world, along with museum experts from 25 countries.

The conference featured a range of digital master classes, brainstorming sessions and focus groups where delegates discussed new ideas to help museums integrate better and give back to their societies. The goal was to figure out ways for museums to make history more relevant in a contemporary context.

Discussion topics included the need to treat museum visitors as citizens instead of consumers, making visitors into brand ambassadors, valuing artists and storytellers, and the importance and necessity of taking risks.

Many of these themes relate to the concepts surrounding effective place branding, and a well-run museum can act as yet another piece in the puzzle that makes up a place identity. Undoubtedly, museums will continue to play a major role in constructing place identity.

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