The Evolution of Museums: Susana Smith Bautista on Why Museums Need to Communicate
By Camille Wong
At a vibrant coffee shop reminiscent of Dia de los Muertos situated a few blocks from the recently closed Pasadena Museum of California art, a stoic Susana Smith Bautista arises from the stairwell. She looks around and spots another local, a friend it appears that she hasn’t seen in a while. Inside this orange-walled coffee shop, oldies play in the background, sofas sink inward, art celebrating sugar skulls decorate the walls, she is home.
Since the closing of the museum, Bautista admits that it’s taking a while longer to finalize everything. Within minutes, we’re discussing all the technicalities that come with the ending of a museum and while most of the details go over me, I nod and listen because it’s not often you hear of a contemporary art museum closing its doors permanently. Albeit a short run, she has accepted its fate commenting on the fact that there has been some contention about the museum’s future from the board of directors for a while. With experience as the Executive Director and Curator at the Mexican Cultural Institute of Los Angeles, and as the Director of Public Engagement at the USC Pacific Asia Museum, Bautista joined the museum as the Executive Director in 2017. Since her involvement, not only has she strengthened the museum’s internal infrastructure but she has also reinterpreted the way museum spaces communicate with their visitors.
The general museum practice can bring “expertise, relevance, and education,” Bautista said. “Most people go to museums and they want an experience but part of that experience is learning something.” However, museums weren’t always the sociocultural and preservationist learning centers that we now know them to be.
Bautista explained that under economic pressures in the 1980’s, museums underwent a transition and began shifting their focus to understand the visitors. It became about dismantling the hierarchy, she said, and the idea that the museum was an elite institution carrying expert knowledge that they were handing down to the public. Previously, museums were collectors of precious worldly objects, intended to display the nation’s wealth and colonial supremacy. As such, museums were never entirely positioned to cater to the general public. Because of their public funding, there was little motivation to attract potential donors and increase their visitorship. However, this changed when funders considered removing their financial support if they couldn’t prove their value to the public.
The museum that we understand today is a modern institution and therefore still undergoing transitions to adapt and find ways to relate to its visitors. Since the birth of the digital era, museums have been creating ways to incorporate technology into its interactivity. Bautisa, who carries a Ph.D. in communication, went in an alternative route in her research— “Museums are about communication,” she said. “I went in thinking I’m going to study communication as it relates to museums.” However, she had no way of predicting how digital technology would have such an integral role as the intermediary between museums and visitors.
Her published dissertation, “Museums in the Digital Age: Changing Meanings of Place, Community, and Culture” discusses not only the new digital technologies employed by museums but also how technology has affected every aspect of modern society. Particularly, in the museum space it altered place, community, culture, and technology. From case studies of different art museums, she found that even behind the newest technologies and best practices, it always came back to how technology was used as a tool for communication. “It’s more about museums needing to understand how visitors are doing, how we access that information, how the visitor experience is different,” she said. “How this digital culture is different today.”
While it seems given that digital technology goes hand-in-hand with our daily routines, it’s so deeply woven into our experiences that it can be difficult to discern what it replaced and supplemented in museums. At the PMCA, Bautista pioneered the museum’s educational “Incubator” room which allowed museum-goers an interactive experience where they could listen to stories, participate in art activities, and have interactions within the gallery space absorbing the environment and encouraging active learning.
PMCA brought a distinct narrative to the plethora of museums in Los Angeles through its dedication in showcasing the extensive, original voice of California. Since the rise of contemporary art, the west coast has been overlooked as a prominent arts center due to its lack of historically great artists and young cultural movement. However, Bautista argues that this freshness has removed the burden and allowed for artists in California to explore unbound. “One of the things that makes LA a little different is this freedom. This experimentalism really helps breed a new art form that is more cross-disciplinary,” she said.
Similar to the artistic movement in Los Angeles, the museums here are also relatively young. Its early stages emerging in different, versatile museums. On the same street of traditional museums is also a new breed— vanity museums, design museums, selfie museums, all sorts of museums dedicated to showcasing what contemporary society values the most. Art here reflects the unified yet expansive nature of this city, “LA doesn’t fit— it doesn’t fit into traditional city. LA is a very different type of place because it’s an area,” she said. “LA is just a huge mass of neighborhoods so it’s hard for people to understand LA,” she described, just barely scratching the surface of the city’s spirit.
More recently, Los Angeles became recognized internationally as an art center. However, its recognition is mostly based on the success from commercial fine art. In these conversations, women and artists of color are rarely involved. “If you look at the market, how do you value art?” she asks. “It’s through auctions and value sales and that’s not the channel that ethnic artists go. So therefore, they are never able to get highly valued art.” Los Angeles is widely known for its diverse population of different peoples and groups, yet the narrative is dominated by the same artists.
Not only a museologist, she demonstrates the zeal and curiosity of a cultural activist. When discussing art for the masses, she admits that she analyzes art from two perspectives: as a critic and as a curator. “On some level, all art is important,” she muses. “I can get really sort of elitist and talk about how it’s important and genre and all this gobbledygook, but on another level, it’s like why? It’s someone that needs to make this art, and so it’s important because someone’s being fulfilled.” We find that at the core of museums, art, and culture is the innate desire to communicate, to relate, and to be understood. If museums are meant to capture the zeitgeist of our contemporary society, then communication is the foundation that upholds its structure.