Learning By Doing
On reaching the public and learning from mistakes
Interview with Michał Duda by Nick Axel
Museum of Architecture, Wrocław
The driving force is, or should be, to provide a medium for boosting architectural consciousness and then as a consequence the sense of responsibility for our common spaces, heritage or environment.
— Michał Duda
Nick Axel from Rotterdam-based “Volume” magazine is intrigued by the Wrocław Museum of Architecture’s extensive education programme, which seems particularly aimed at children and teenagers. He talks to Michał Duda, one of the museum’s curators, about what they have learned from working so intensively with their younger public.
Why does education have such a strong focus in the Wrocław Museum’s institutional activities?
Education is, in our mission, equally as important as collecting and heritage preservation. Everything we do for the public is somehow and on different levels educative: raising awareness, initiating discussion, distributing knowledge, predicting trends and ideas, etc. We are quite a big institution that consumes a relatively large amount of public money. The only outcome we can produce in exchange for that money is protection – in terms of buildings and the collection – and education. That’s how we pay off our debt. We do not treat education as a separate strand of our activities. Every event is – or at least should be – educative.
Who do you see yourself educating? Future architects, clients, or users?
Well it depends on which part of our so-called educational activities programme we are in. When we work with children and adolescents we are more focused on boosting their curiosity and sensitivity. Architecture here is more of a background, or playground, than a key player or a heavy piece of knowledge that we are trying to sell them.
When we organise discussions, workshops and lectures dealing with professional knowledge, we try to support the spread of an open-minded attitude towards architecture. The driving force of every single exhibition, outdoor installation, or any other initiative is – or at least should be – to provide a medium for boosting architectural consciousness and then – as a consequence – the sense of responsibility for our common spaces, heritage or environment. In this sense the most important group within our audience is the users.
Does the public come by their own volition?
Generally yes – apart from some schoolchildren. But, admittedly, non-professional users are the target group that are the most difficult to engage. That’s why we have been trying to reach outside – beyond the thick museum walls – for the last few years. The Archi-box summer programme, for example, launched in 2014, basically addresses this kind of audience. When we invite an architect to design a temporary installation in front of the museum building on a wide lawn surrounded by street, car park, and footpaths, we do not ask for a fancy form or sexy shape, but for a piece of architecture that can stimulate unexpected activities. The aim is to show users and passers-by how simple changes can rearrange a space, and how easy it is to shift from passive user to (co)host and change-maker.
Is your approach tied into public education?
Not at all. Polish public education has been rapidly going downhill for almost two decades. I think that its main goals are becoming more and more contrary to the ethos of education that supports open-minded, curious, sensitive but defiant citizens.
In the Polish public education programme you will find more about practical tests than anything about public space, architecture, or shared responsibility for shared ground.
“Admittedly, non-professional users are the target group that are the most difficult to reach.”
What are the main crowd-pullers at the Museum?
That is always the big question. There is no real formula. Sometimes a very out-of-date, niche subject can generate crowds of visitors. But two things do always work: very local issues and blockbusters. Amongst the most visited exhibitions at the MA with an almost equal number of guests was an exhibition about the Pritzker Prize laureates and one about local railway stations.
“Two things do always work: very local issues and blockbusters.”
Do your guests come back and visit again?
It depends. The core of our audience do. We have no data about others. But I think that it is much more difficult to encourage the first timer through the doors than it is to make them a regular visitor or participant.
What engages them?
Themselves. Subjects that touch them directly, i.e. political issues. But we have to be very gentle with touching politics – especially locally. We are the municipal museum.
What doesn’t engage them?
Very progressive, experimental, contemporary architecture from emerging architects, for instance, arouses the interest of only a few people. It is much easier just to meet them in the pub than organise big exhibition or event just for them. But we try to wrestle with this aversion. You can imagine how big a challenge the Future Architecture platform is under these circumstances.
What has failed in your view?
Many things. Probably more than have succeeded. But despite being one of the oldest architecture museums worldwide, we see ourselves as youngsters: trying to avoid mistakes, but nevertheless taking them as an unavoidable part of the process. We try to draw conclusions from our slip-ups and avoid things like organising boring lectures about nothing more than the lecturer, or pointless workshops, or exhibitions that made little sense… or we like to think we do at least. ■