2016 / Discovery

“Museums should provide everything I want” | Interview with Paul Alezraa

On the occasion of upcoming panel discussion “Is There a Future for Museums?”, September 20 at MQ, Vienna, museum expert Paul Alezraa from Avesta Group talks about how to stay relevant for digital natives, embracing new technologies and forgetting about visitor numbers.

How can we make sure that museums will still exist in 2050 and that they will not be relegated to storage buildings? This is the question that led Aksenov Family Foundation and Avesta Group to convene a meeting of experts with varied professional and scientific backgrounds –Science Po graduate and communications specialist Laurent Gaveau from the Google Cultural Institute; Harvard professor and founder of cultural lab Le Laboratoire David A. Edwards; Luc Meier, Head of Content for the ArtLab Initiative of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technoloy, Lausanne; and David Zahle, Partner and Project and Design Architect at Bjarke Ingels Group. The conference will include short introductory speeches from all participants, followed by a discussion moderated by Paul Alezraa and Ekaterina Perventseva from Aksenov Family Foundation.

Paul Alezraa is the founder and Director of Avesta Group, an international planning and operating company that caters to the culture and leisure industries. Paul Alezraa is an expert on the financial and economic aspects of projects. He graduated from EM Lyon Business School (MBA Finances) and Sciences Po Lyon before specializing in the cultural field. Before creating Avesta Group, Paul Alezraa created and ran the firm HP 84: at the time a French leader in the fields of museums, exhibitions, signage and cultural facilities, with over 120 projects realized in France. In 2001, he was responsible for creating the European heritage sector arm of an international group and ran their French and Italian companies dedicated to heritage.

VC: The theme of the panel discussion sounds pessimistic. At a time when visitor numbers – at least for well-known institutions and artists – are rising, do museums even have to change? Do you doubt the future existence of museums?

Paul Alezraa: I think that not only museums, but every human activity, every industry is in question. Everyone knows and sees that things are changing very rapidly, so every industry is asking itself: ‘Am I going to be relevant in 30 years?’ I can see that some industries are questioning themselves more than others. In general, the museum world is quite conservative, so I was wondering if they’re really thinking about these next 30 years or not. That’s why the question is a little pointed. I don’t think that in 30 years museums will be closed, I just think that they – especially art museums – might not represent anything special for younger generations – they won’t have any motivation to go see them. There have been a few conferences about the future of museums or museums in the 21st century. It’s always about the assumption that museums are something that is here forever, that they just need to adapt. Our questioning is going further than that. You can ask this question of relevance about other things as well – Is there a future for drivers when we have cars without drivers? So instead of asking ‘How do I need to change today to adapt to changes?’ you start by asking ‘Will museums even be necessary?’

You also mentioned visitor numbers – that they are even rising for big museums, but it’s a very diverse landscape. It’s definitely true for art museums that are connected to cultural tourism – which is a rising trend – and for the ones that are doing big block busters, that are more events. Those ones are ok for now. But if you look at smaller cities or smaller museums, if you look at other types of museums like science museums, history museums – these are really getting declining visitor numbers. Science museums historically always had a high attendance. But they were all based on interactivity. Seeing how something works, doing a science experiment, that’s aimed towards young people between 8 and 15. But these young people are not that excited by interaction any more, they are now really excited about immersion. And to be immersed they don’t really need to go to a science center, they will be able to do it from their laptops and etc., more and more.

So how are museums reacting to this, which trends do you see?

Some museums are shifting their focus from visitor numbers to seeing themselves as providing services. The museums that are changing are the ones thinking: Even if I’am an art museum and I’m providing art exhibitions, or art education – I also need to provide other services that are missing in the community. Do the communities around me need a place to meet? Then I’ll provide more places to meet. Do they need, for example, yoga classes, gym classes? Then I will open a gym in my museum. Do they need a hotel? We can build a hotel inside the museum. No matter which services are needed by the community, the museums that are changing are trying to make themselves useful to everyone. Not for the museum-goers, but as a place of meeting.

I was just in Kunsthaus Graz, where an artist has actually turned the museum into a gym and invited people to come in sports clothes, do pull-ups on the coat hangers and use the stairs as steppers. It’s working quite well apparently – they’re getting a lot of school classes to come and run about in the museum.

That’s a very good idea – you show that you are willing to listen to people around you, that you are not just the representative of artists, or of science or history – you are thinking in terms of communities. And in my opinion, these concepts are the ones that will probably be more successful than the others.

Do you think that museums should embrace new technologies and the digital world? 

I think it depends on the way that they do it and why. If they integrate technology into the functioning of their museum, in what they do and what they provide – then I think they should do it, do everything possible. They should have integrated artificial agents, integrate robotics, holograms, … Everything that is now being called the 4th industrial revolution should be integrated in museums. But as a tool, not as a way to seem modern, or because everyone is doing it. As a museum, you have all types of tools at your disposal. Museums should think every technical innovation over – can this help me or not? And if it helps me, then I have to do it now, not wait forever.

A lot of museums put their content online – is that as important as getting people interested in physically coming to the museum?

I think it’s already quite an old way to do it. Most museums do it – Google, for instance, is digitalizing most of the collections of lots of museums. But if you go online and see a painting, it’s not the same as going to the museum. Some museum directors and professionals think that it helps them, but I don’t necessarily agree. What will help them is to have a new approach to the visitors, not to put yourself online.

A trend I’ve noticed in e.g. news media, or product design, is the one to personalize everything. Is that happening in the museum world as well, that everyone gets their customized version of something?

Not enough. But it’s definitely something that should happen. It’s a reason why some people could be worried about the future of museums. If you look at something like television – for 50 years, a TV was the main furniture in most families, everyone was looking at movies or whatever, or even having lunch with the TV on. And 10, 15 years ago, television understood that this time will be finished at a certain point. Now, every family member is on a personal screen – TV is now an open source. You can download a show and you can watch it at 3.00 am while your sister is watching it at 10 in the morning and your brother will watch it in the evening. So it’s everything you want, when you want it. And I guess if something as important as television decided to change the format, obviously museums and other types of entertainment also need to change the way that they are approaching people. Museums should also be providing almost everything I want, when I want it. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but you see the idea.

Are there any concepts like that in the real world?

Not yet. But we’ll be working on that in the next few years. I hope in a few years, we are going to provide new concepts that are completely out of the box.

How did you decide who to invite to this panel? It’s quite diverse in terms of which area of expertise the people come from, what they have done.

They all have something in common, which is that they have an original way of approaching their work. So either it’s a scientist, an architect, or they are from a university or a big IT company – I can see that they do things differently to others. The main thing I didn’t want from this panel is to be with only museum professionals.
The idea is: Uber wasn’t created by a taxi driver. It was a user, a guy who didn’t find a taxi in Paris, and then said there should be a better way for finding a taxi than by just waiting on the corner of a street. So that’s why we didn’t want to bring in museum professionals, and I think all our speakers are all very original in what they do.

So as a museum professional, should I be worried that you will think of something that is as much competition as Uber is to taxi companies?

(Laughs) Well, only the future will tell. The idea is to put a stone in the garden of a very polished museum world. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of people that were born in a digital age, people that will not consider original artworks as something meaningful per se. What can we do about that? An experience I have made when working in China, on museum projects – people always ask: ‘If I can copy the artworks, why do I need the original in the museum?’ And I always give them 15 reasons as to why you need to have original artworks. But at the same time from their point of view, if you cannot see the difference, if it’s the same thing to you, then why do you really need the original?

We always think as Europeans, but there are many more people that think differently, that don’t think about museums the way we think about it. So that’s the challenge for museum people – how do we respond to these billions of people? Maybe there’s no reason to worry – but if you don’t start with worrying questions, then no-one listens, and I think there are still a lot of questions that need to be asked.

Is There a Future for Museums?
September 20, 2016, 6 pm
MuseumsQuartier – Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Vienna
Arena21 Hall

Please register via https://goo.gl/forms/KVvlZOS4lcditrk32
or conference@aksenovff.com

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