Letting teens take over the museum

by Chiara Organtini, Curator, CAOS centro arti opificio siri

In connection to the GIFT Action Research, we experimented with letting teens take over our spaces, collections, activities and digital channels. We collaborated with Mammalian Diving Reflex, adapting their practices of social acupuncture and their Teentalitarianism Project to our museum. The teens learned a lot from the experience as did we – about their attitudes, vocabulary, behaviours and motivations that we seek to embrace more in the future. 

What did you want to find out?

We wanted to find out how CAOS was perceived by teenagers aged 14 to 18 and reflect on how we can reconfigure our spaces and activities to engage with them in a process of shared control – to open and democratise the institution by questioning the meaning of authority in terms of who provides knowledge. This experiment was also a way to develop new attitudes and vocabulary to map and embrace audience behaviours and motivations.

What did you do?

We invited 35 teens aged 13 to 18 to take over the museum for a period of one month. First, we invited them to explore the space and collection and staff shared their visions and impressions. Second, we gave them – symbolically – the keys, and thereby the freedom to reconfigure spaces, rules and programs within the given timeframe. They created new captions, new staff roles (such as an urban curator and a young board) and activities (such as selfie workshops for audiences, go scream challenges, digital storytelling sessions and night walks in the city to connect the cityscape and emotional memories with the museum collections). They planed a public event inviting current management and staff to sign a contract to commit to the teens requests after an intense two-hour negotiation. They claimed a part of the gallery to make a comic room – a new space focused on comic culture in a wide sense reshaping the setting of the space as well. They are now working on the creation of a teenage room.

Was it successful?

Yes, it was successful. For the teens as a way to increase their knowledge and above all their capacity to engage with each another, collaborate, lead a process, ideate and project manage a cultural institution. They changed their attitude towards diversity and engaged with adults and authorities in a more mature way. For the CAOS staff, the experiment established a new bond and sense of belonging. We found new allies in caring for the space, new perspectives on current practices and consolidated patterns and assumptions. We developed new mediation tools, acknowledging differences and embracing new channels that fill the gap sometimes connected with contemporary art

What did you learn?

We discovered that youngsters read CAOS as an institutional space way more than we thought. However, inside the space, they appreciate the absence of rules and instructions. We sense the need for a more diverse narrative, which implies a reworking of information offline and online. We discovered that the lack of diversity in our staff is preventing us from connecting deeply with teenagers. And that there is a need for a follow-up after engaging in a take-over event.

What surprised you?

The level of commitment to the event and the mature attitudes in addressing management and authorities. The internal connection within the team was natural. We were also surprised by how the setting (especially CAOS colors and front desk) was a barrier to youngsters, while outdoor hidden spaces and background noises (due to venue’s activities as rehearsal or movie projection) where appealing to them. We also gave them ownership of our digital channels and were surprised by the data analysis that followed (increased number of followers, interactions, visualisations and comments). Finally, we realised how the lack or under representation of the comic culture within the space was a gap and a weakness affecting not only attendance flows but also the reputation of the space among new generations, often preferring bookshops or the library.

What methods or tools did you use?

We often adopt world cafè and open space technologies when we seek to co-create activities and let the collective intelligence emerge.

What other resources did you use?

We led the experiment with the guidance of an artistic collective Mammalian Diving Reflex who has developed a theory and a set of practices defined as ‘social acupuncture’. These are creative projects that create unusual conditions, subverting ordinary rules and social systems.