Crowdsourcing the MFA's New Exhibit

MFA Impressionists.jpg

On Friday, the Museum of Fine Arts opened its first crowdsourced exhibit after letting the public vote on what works should be included in the "Boston Loves Impressionism" show.  Over 10,000 people voted in three rounds, showing that Bostonians are pretty passionate about their art. 

Simmons is only a few blocks from the MFA, and one of the great perks of being a student is that we get free admission to a lot of the local museums with our student ID, so I usually end up visiting the MFA at least five or six times a semester. 

I've been paying particularly close attention to news about this exhibit lately, because I think this is a great use of the idea and technology of crowdsourcing.  Instead of letting curators have all the power to create the shows they think people want to come to the museum to see, why not let people tell curators exactly what they actually want to see?  

One of the big topics of discussion at Simmons, one that has come up in almost every GSLIS class, is the idea of accessibility and responding to the needs of our users.  As cultural institutions, museums, archives and libraries owe it to users to not just provide the information that we think users should have, but to actually listen to users and provide them with what they actually want.  This is important not only for maintaining and proving our own relevance as institutions (a real and increasingly pressing issue), but for actually doing the job we want to do: to help users with their information needs.

I remember a lot of my fellow employees at the Vancouver Public Library grumbling about the fact that we were ordering 10 copies of the new John Grisham book but discarding classics left and right.  (Classics that hadn't been circulated in five years.)  There will always be tension between the idea of libraries as receptacles of accumulated cultural knowledge and libraries as flexible centers of community learning.  In the end, I think they need to be a little bit of both - but what's really important is that members of the public see us as filling a need that they have, one that the internet simply can't.  In order to do that, of course, we first have to find out - from them - what their needs really are.  


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