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An evocative art installation alongside a museum exhibit can stimulate and challenge visitors like never before.

Why does the lawn at the National Maritime Museum blast out the sound of crashing waves? And what on earth are some of the world’s top entomologists doing dressing up as their favourite species of insects at the Natural History Museum?

It’s all in the name of art, darling. Many of the country’s leading museums are enlisting the help of contemporary artists to draw in new audiences and improve the quality of the visitor experience. This approach has been gaining popularity as part of the recent transformation of museum culture away from the fusty and traditional towards the interactive, exciting (and fee-charging) in an effort to remain relevant to contemporary society.

Art is used to encourage visitors to exercise their imagination, says Katharine Stout, curator of the Maritime Museum’s first contemporary art programme. “Museums are much more aware of how they present their various stories – they don’t just have one voice. Maybe it ties in with the rise of contemporary art, which is being used by more museums,” she says.

The Science Museum has pursued an active arts policy for many years, with residencies by Cornelia Parker and Martha Fleming, plus individual pieces such as Thomas Heatherwick’s Materials House, devoted to providing a new angle of interpretation. This policy will reach new heights in the arts programme for the Wellcome Wing extension, which includes a variety of cutting-edge artists, commissioned specifically to provoke debate about future science issues, as well as educate and provide enjoyment. “Art combines a visual interpretation, sometimes sound, intellectual and conceptual interpretation. It encourages people to have an opinion about what they see,” says Nicole Weisz, arts co-ordinator for the Wellcome Wing.

The art will be important to understanding the content of the galleries, which will examine scientific issues such as cloning, eugenics and redefining what is and isn’t “natural”.

“It will be a genuine example of how science can inspire art,” says Weisz. Three artists have been commissioned so far for the ground floor galleries, which will be completed in time for the opening next June. An audio-visual work by Yinka Shonibare will examine issues surrounding the screening for abnormalities in babies, while Mark Quinn is creating a vase of sunflowers frozen in silicon. Darrell Viner is working on an interactive piece where people moving on to the escalator trigger sensors which operate pneumatic cylinders to move above their hands – a piece alluding to security/privacy issues which will also be fun for children. Artists are being chosen for other galleries, with an emphasis on new artistic media.

“New media fits in well with the ethos and the architecture of the wing. The pieces need to be very visually and aurally strong,” says Weisz.

Similarly, in the Science Museum’s sister museum in Bradford, the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, the opening of the £16m Wired Worlds gallery was a natural opportunity to use multimedia and digital artists to aid interpretation. The National Maritime Museum was prompted by its £21m Neptune Court development to embark on the New Visions of the Sea project, which commissioned work inspired by the maritime theme from seven artists. The museum’s motives went further than a wish to extend its art collection – the art project makes a prominent contribution towards a deliberate policy of creating a more outward-looking, stimulating museum which appeals to a new market of visitors. David Spence, the museum’s exhibitions project director, says the aim is to attract both visitors who wouldn’t ordinarily be enticed by the maritime exhibitions, and bring something more to the visitor experience.

“We wanted to offer our visitors different perceptions on the subject and different ways of approaching it. Today’s public has no direct experience of our subject and that is a big change over even 20-30 years ago,” says Spence.

Some, such as the soundscape and a film, set the atmosphere of the maritime theme, while others are a direct response to exhibits or real-life maritime events. Spence is pleased with anecdotal visitor feedback but admits the art initiative has attracted criticisms of dumbing-down from traditionalists, as part of a reaction against the museum’s modernisation.

“Traditionalists who have a clear idea themselves about what maritime history should be find it hard to cope with, but we wanted to challenge that,” he adds.

If visitors get more from the exhibits through the use of art, then the museums are happy. But there is another consideration: the artists themselves. While they are given the chance to reach new audiences through both one-off pieces and longer-term residencies, they also need to produce something that satisfies their own creativity. This can be difficult, according to Wired Worlds curator Malcolm Ferris.

“For the artists, every installation had to walk a knife-edge – to uphold its claim as a work of art within the context of a museological space whose primary function is to inform in a critical yet entertaining manner,” he says.

Some artists, like Shonibare, use the commission to explore a totally different medium, while others incorporate the commission into a natural progression of their work. Quinn’s silicon sunflowers form part of his Eternal Spring series of frozen nature, while at the Natural History Museum, Flanders artist Jan Fabre is continuing his interest in entomology in an exhibition piece opening in November.

Fabre, a descendent of a top entomologist, whose collection is held at the Natural History Museum, has persuaded eminent experts from the museum to dress up as their specialist insect in flamboyant costumes made by Fabre. The artist, dressed as his favourite insect persona, will then hold conversations with them about insects, which will be filmed and shown with the costumes in the exhibition, which is co-produced by Arts Catalyst.

While not all museums are able to invest as heavily as the larger institutions, many run valuable, if more modest programmes. At the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, textile artists were brought in to contribute to the Fibres, Fabrics, Fashion gallery. “It’s been very positive. The whole gallery is much more textural. Before it was all hard and shiny machines,” says Pauline Webb, senior curator in the collections and information department. Her hopes for further artist projects are echoed by the other museums. And with visitors expecting more out of their visits, such collaborations are sure to continue as a valuable way of enriching the museum environment.

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