Redefining Boundaries at the Museum: Crowdsourced Exhibition at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Source -

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Source -

Since December 19, 2014 the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History has featured an exhibit of works relating to the ocean, with painting and sculptures by established artists alongside works by local residents. The exhibit includes a wide variety of art, ranging from professional artists’ works to two year-olds’ drawings. Everybody’s Ocean is a partially crowd-sourced and partially curated exhibition presenting everyone’s personal relationship with the sea. 

The Oxford Dictionary defines “crowdsourcing” as a way to obtain information or input by enlisting the services of a large number of people, either paid or unpaid, typically via internet.  It stems from the term “outsourcing”, a practice related to crowdsourcing’s in some ways, as it cuts costs and decentralizes the production of goods and services. 

The Santa Cruz Museum isn’t the only organization experimenting with crowdsourcing. Museums are increasingly outsourcing the curation of their exhibits to the public. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Frye Museum in Seattle, the Chicago History Museum, and the Georgia Museum of Art have all implemented crowdsourced projects. Such projects have selected artworks for new exhibitions, and even decided which works to sell out of a museum’s permanent collection. 

"Border Walled"  by Amelie Rider, artwork from Everyone's Ocean

"Border Walled" by Amelie Rider, artwork from Everyone's Ocean

Crowdsourcing initiatives represent museums’ willingness to innovate. However, they have also invited criticism. When looking at Santa Cruz’s Everybody’s Ocean exhibition, there are two major points of view. 

On the one hand, crowd-sourced exhibitions are generally quick and inexpensive. Since those participating will be more likely to go and visit the exhibit they helped create, they also boost ticket sales. In Santa Cruz, similar previous initiatives (such as “Hack the Museum”) have helped save a museum once on the brink of collapse. Furthermore, crowdsourcing has proved to be a successful tool for public engagement. As the WSJ reported few months ago, Santa Cruz Museum’s director Ms. Simon declared the initiative to be, “about getting people to be more engaged with the art, to be introspective and to connect it to their own life.” Finally, letting non-professionals participate in these projects is a way to revitalize the museum through new eyes, rather than only the museum’s staff. 

On the other hand, there is still an overall disagreement on what actually constitutes a crowd-sourced exhibition. MoMA PS1 curator Peter Eleey said, “there is a general feeling that the terms of such engagement with the public hasn’t been carefully thought out.” Secondly, museum professionals have been asking where to draw a line between amateurs and experts contributing to museum’s exhibitions. Professional roles, such as curators, have to be reimagined. Overly extensive use of crowdsourcing could compromise the image of a museum, making it look like a community center instead of an institution staffed with professionals. Critics argue an extensive use of crowdsourcing would be difficult to sustain over a long term without changing the mission and the nature of the hosting institution.

Regardless of such controversies, at the Santa Cruz Museum director Nina Simon has recently invited visitors to participate in a whole range of activities, from helping artists build huge installations to writing their thoughts on a gallery wall. One of the Ocean’s exhibition curators, Justin Hoover, supported the initiative. In his words, “in such a multifaceted world where there are so many viewpoints that all have their merit, I would wonder why it is that we should define professional artists’ work as better than amateur’s ones.”

Crowdsourcing is pushing museum’s conventional boundaries. Crowdsourcing lets institutions engage the public, increase revenues, and, most of all, enhances their mission innovatively. However, museums should pay attention to how the public perceives such projects, in order to maintain consistency with the institution’s message and its image within the community.