There is a lot of talking going on these days in the galleries of the Portland Art Museum and Dr. Christina Olsen is responsible for a lot of it.
Since coming to the Portland Art Museum as Director of Education and Public Programs in 2008 after years at the Getty Museum and then the Getty Foundation, Dr. Christina Olsen has led the charge in the effort to open new doors, to change the way visitors interact with exhibitions, with the permanent collection, and with each other.
You'd be forgiven if you think it's more likely that a woman with a PhD in art history might rather have you listen to the experts talk about art then ask you to talk about it yourself. But Olsen turns that expectation on its head. Sure, she programs a great Critical Voices series, inviting speakers like Iwona Blazwick, director of Whitechapel Gallery in London, The New Museum's Richard Flood, and Mari Carmen Ramirez, curator of Latin American art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Olsen also invites regional artists into the galleries to talk about works in the collection for the Artist Talks series. But Olsen wants to encourage all museum visitors to feel comfortable responding to works of art, to slow down when looking, to ask questions, to wonder. She says:
"Conversation is important in large part because it is so accessible, and open-ended. If the museum can reposition itself...as a natural environment for conversation then it has always seemed to me that many other things would fall into place—visitors might feel more at home, might feel the museum as a social, evolving place where they have an active role to play."*
The Portland Art Museum was one of the first institutions to participate in the SmartHistory project, a "multimedia web-book about art history," one aspect of which is casual conversations among art historians, curators, and educators about works of art. Olsen secured grant funding to have her staff trained to shoot and edit videos of these SmartHistory conversations. On the SmartHistory website, these videos reveal that even the experts wonder, and even the experts disagree when it comes to making meaning of a work of art. Certainly these videos can educate the viewer, but from Olsen's perspective, it's equally important that they invite all of us to have similar conversations while standing in front of art objects in museums, conversations that might start with what we see but might move off in unpredictable directions.
Olsen has folded this idea about conversations about works of art into the iPhone app for the current Lee Kelly exhibition where both Olsen and PAM chief curator, Bruce Guenther, talk to Kelly about his art. Visitors can download the free app (search "portland art museum" in the app store) or borrow an iPod from the museum.
And Olsen is preparing to launch what she calls a game-changer. Object Stories will invite museum visitors to record stories about objects of their own. "It comes out of my appreciation for storytelling and conversation, the way we construct meaning and relationships," says Olsen. Inspired by a personal experience with StoryCorps, Olsen wondered, "How can we do that with objects, treat objects as repositories of story?" in the hopes that it will, "connect people more deeply with the objects in the museum." Object Stories will include story booths (created in collaboration with Ziba and Fashionbuddha), workshops with Write Around Portland and Milagro Theater, and hands-on activities that Olsen expects to, "connect diverse audiences through sharing stories about objects that matter to them."
Artist Ariana Jacob did a related project for the one-night museum event Shine A Light in which she conducted wedding ceremonies, marrying museum visitors and favorite objects in the museum collection. Shine A Light, conceived by Olsen with Portland State University's Jen Delos Reyes and Harrell Fletcher, saw artists creating interactive projects like this all throughout the museum for record crowds in a festive atmosphere. In a conversation we had about the event, Olsen said:
Well, I think SAL wants to suggest, and excite people with, the idea that art is inherently an invitation to engage, and that engagement can happen in a great many ways. And that in turn points to the great creative potential of the museum.
The museum gets to be a kind of laboratory for a night—both for people who come (what would it look like if THIS happened here?) but also for the museum itself—for learning about our own role, our relationship with people who come, what they want. It allows everyone—visitors, staff, the institution—to play and explore in as open a way as possible what the museum is for, and what happens inside it.
I think of the SAL projects as awakening new muscles, or modeling for people new ways they might act, talk, laugh, make things in the museum, as well as suggesting broader ways they might imagine the collection, or relate to it, or make use of it in their life. And I think the modeling—showing people new ways—is very, very important. Because you only know, or know to want what you can imagine.*
What's perhaps most exciting is what's going on behind the scenes at the Museum. Olsen has been part of the team that is planning and bringing in funding for digitizing the museum's collections. This means investing in a digital asset management system that will hold digital images and all kinds of information—provenance, bibliography, conservation history—for every object. Who benefits? Well every department in the museum will see efficiencies (currently information on the collections is stored in many different places in the institution), but even more importantly, scholars, historians, journalists, students will eventually have access to up-to-date information on the collections. As Olsen points out, often when a catalogue for an exhibition is published in print, the information in it is already out of date. Digital catalogues can be updated in real time. And you and I can expect that at some point we might be able to virtually visit with some of our favorite objects at the museum's website. And that may be just the beginning, for as Olsen says, "I value access broadly defined, in breadth and depth. Also transparency, there is value to people understanding how things work."
Olsen has plenty of experience with electronic cataloguing as well as developing interactive programs for museum-goers. As Program Officer at the Getty Foundation she worked with some of the country's top museums to launch the Foundation's Online Scholarly Cataloguing Initiative and the publication "LA Art Online: Learning from the Getty's Electronic Cataloguing Initiative." She'd previously worked for eight years as Manager of Interactive Programs at the Getty Museum. The Cataloguing Initiative gave Olsen great perspective on the possibilities for this kind of program, working with the Walker, SFMOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago and more. Now she's pursuing possibility in Portland, and she thinks she's found fertile ground. Olsen says:
Portland is a place where people feel and act on a deep impulse to make art and seize opportunities to express themselves. They seek and embrace accessible ways to do that. It seems very easy here to propose that Portlanders think with us, have fun with us, as we explore what can happen in a museum and what a museum makes possible.*
BONUS: Listen in on a conversation between Olsen and Bruce Guenther for the SmartHistory project concerning "Useful Art #5: The Western Hotel," 1992 by Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz. Note: You will need QuickTime to be able to watch and listen.