Museum Trends: when worlds collide

When I started Acid Free I wrote a round up of emerging trends I was noticing in museum practice and displays, and I intended to follow it up regularly, but have been slow to do so. After fretting that I had left it too late and many of my ’emerging’ trends related to exhibitions that have been and gone, I sat down to write about some thoughts on museums goings on I’ve been collecting over the summer. I realised that many of these trends are actually part of a wider trend – museums working in collaboration with other sectors and art forms.

Collaboration has long been a buzzword in the sector, but these partnerships are not  with local groups or source communities but with designers, dance and theatre companies, musicians and artists in order to put the museums collections and spaces to work in new ways, and to create crossover audiences between these different art forms.


I wrote in a previous post about the V&A’s collection with Oasis, collaborating with the  brand to create merchandise for sale outside the museum. They have since worked on a range of shoes with Clarks, promoted as part of the current exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, which Clarks also sponsors.

The Tate also got in on the act, teaming up with designer Margeret Howell to produce a range of clothes inspired by Barbara Hepworth. As I mentioned in the post on Oasis, this kind of collaboration could be an interesting way for museums to create new income from their collections without increasing charges to visitors.


The past few years have seen an increasing exploration of dancing in museums. From the Tate Modern’s ‘If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse?’ event in May to The Imagination Museum, an Arts Council funded piece by dance company Made by Katie Green, performed in several museums across the East Midlands, the worlds of museums and contemporary dance are increasing colliding. The Horniman Museum hosted a Dance and Museums Working Together Symposium in January this year and commissioned a series of dance pieces inspired by the museum’s African collections as part of their African Summer events.

An international project, Dancing Museums, sees museums, dance companies and film-makers teaming up in England, Italy, France, Austria and the Netherlands over two years of residencies, research and collaboration. The project will come to the National Gallery in London in November 2016.

As with many a discussion in the museum world, the tension in these projects seems to be whether they focus on the museums’ collections, or peoples’ experiences of them. While the Horniman’s African Summer dance pieces took inspiration directly from objects and were very much linked to the museum’s Africa collections, the Dancing Museums project is a work which will develop its themes as it goes on and is more concerned with people and spaces.

The Imagination Museum is intended to bring objects to life, awakening a sense of curiousity in the audience, and the trailer shows the dancers essentially playfully performing being museum guides:

Seeing a museum tour performed as a dance may well encourage audiences to consider their role in the performance as spectators/visitors, and therefore to look at the museum in new ways, but it is interesting to me that the company have chosen to play with a very traditional, stuffy image of a museum and the people who work in it. The focus of the work becomes the museum tour as an experience, as opposed to the objects within it.


Dramatic interpretation in museums is not new, but is usually concerned with living history, and often aimed at younger audiences or part of a one-off event such as Museums at Night. This summer however, the National Maritime Museum gave its temporary exhibition space over to theatre company Punchdrunk Enrichment, for the site-specific production Against Captain’s Orders. Collaborating with a well-known name in another field is an excellent way to reach new audiences, so it is a shame in some ways that this was a show just for children and families, who already make up a large part of NMM’s audience. While it is understandable given the summer schedule that the museum went for a family focused show, it will be interesting to see whether more adult-oriented theatre finds a place in museums in the future.

Music and Sound Art

The National Gallery’s Soundscapes exhibition, like some of the dance pieces described above, took the collections as its starting point. The Gallery commissioned musicians and sound artists to select a painting from the collection and compose a piece in response. In terms of attracting a range of new audiences the gallery has done well in recruiting a diverse selection of artists, from classical, pop, cinematic and sound art backgrounds.

Meanwhile the Tate Britain is currently hosting the Tate Sensorium. This limited entry, immersive display uses not just sound but interpretation designed to engage all five senses, working with ultrasound technology, wearable devices, perfumers and a master chocolatier.


To coincide with the release of The White Road, the new book by Edmund de Waal on porcelain, the Royal Academy is hosting white  – ‘an exploration of the colour white and the impact that white objects have on their surroundings; an interweaving of words and books with sculpture, paintings and photographs.’

de Waal is a ceramicist and has exhibited in, and worked with, many museums before, so this is not such an unusual collaboration. I have included it because it is linked to the publication of his book, and because many people will know him best as the author of The Hare with Amber Eyes. The hare itself, an ivory netsuke, is part of the exhibition (the netsuke collection was also recently featured in Magnificent Obsessions, the Barbican’s exhibition about artists’ collections). So while this is a more traditional exhibition, its star object is unusual in that it has become famous through being featured in a best-seller.

Museums are not an art form in themselves but a showcase for the tangible products of art, culture, history, science and nature. There has been a move towards recognising the intangible in museums, so it is an interesting experiment to include more temporary, performance-based art forms. This trend also sees museums embracing more interactive and diverse experiences for an adult audience. In museum education there is wide acceptance of the need to cater to different learning styles, including kinaesthetic, musical, and spatial, but this is sometimes neglected when it comes to more serious, adult-orientated exhibitions and events. Projects like Tate Sensorium combine these ideas with cutting edge technology allowing audiences a more full and rounded museum experience.

Collaboration is often an exercise in growing and sharing audiences. Many of the examples here are of solidly ‘high culture’ arts using museums as a popular venue to expand their audiences. Meanwhile museums themselves in turn look to even more popular art forms to make connections with new audiences. The V&A’s Hollywood Costume and David Bowie Is exhibitions are examples of this. This form of collaboration can be a great way for audiences to experience the things they love in new ways, as well potentially discovering new interests. It will be interesting to see how museums develop in years to come, expanding to include new ideas and art forms, and balancing this with the core purposes of collecting and sharing their collections.