What comes to mind when you think “art museum”?
White walls? Silence? Knowing you’ll be in big trouble if you touch anything? The Agnes Etherington Art Centre — the Agnes — at Queen’s University in Kingston wants to shake up those assumptions.
Faced with a multi-year closure due to a comprehensive renovation, the administration of the Agnes took the opportunity to completely redefine what an “art museum” could be in the 21st century. Called the Agnes Reimagined, it’s no small task to set a new paradigm for museological practices.
For help, they turned to Queen’s University and Experience Ventures.
Experience Ventures, powered by the Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking at the University of Calgary, enables post-secondary students to make an impact alongside real-world innovators through entrepreneurial thinking placements. Queen’s University joined the University of Calgary and 11 other Canadian post-secondary institutions in the Experience Ventures program to inspire students’ creativity, resiliency, and future vision — to seize the future with the right skill set.
Imagining Digital Futures for the Art Museum is a special program for Queen’s students to engage with Agnes as it transforms into a future-oriented museum vision.
“The museum of the 21st century can no longer simply be a container of history as if history has no bearing on our changing contemporary world. Agnes Reimagined is a dynamic culture-making hub and an active civic and social force—mobilizing the transformative power of art to create more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable worlds.”
“It’s not a remodel. It’s a rethink of what a museum can be,” declares Jake Vanker, Experiential Learning Coordinator with the Faculty of Arts and Science at Queen’s.
The Experiential Learning and Programming Team, led bv Associate Director Christina Dinsmore, handles everything from communications to event coordination to provide Queen’s students with opportunities for non-traditional academic and co-curricular experiences: internships, experiential learning placements, field trips — and participation in the total redefinition of the museological experience.
Although based in the Faculty of Arts and Science, Christina and her team put forth an opportunity for departments across campus to collaborate on an Experience Ventures opportunity. Professor Gabriel Menotti responded with the Agnes project as a potential candidate for Experience Ventures, who felt it was a perfect example of an organization working to become future-ready.
Far from a hackathon, Imagining Digital Futures for the Art Museum is an 80-hour, three-credit program with six brainstorming workshops with Agnes staff. Participating students receive an honorarium of $825 on completion of the placement provided by Experience Ventures. This was a new kind of initiative, not an extracurricular event but a program integrated into a placement.
“There are limited ways of catching people’s attention these days,” Jake admits. “Students want these programs, but it’s hard to get the information out to them.”
The Experiential Learning Coordinator uses multiple tactics to inform students of non-traditional experiences like the Agnes program. Everything from newsletters to social media is deployed, but the personal approach is sometimes the most effective.
“Departments will sometimes put the content right on their program pages or professors will mention opportunities at the beginning of class. It’s one thing to read a post on a bulletin board; it’s another to have a mentor directly recommend a program to you.”
Professor Menotti took a long journey to become Assistant Professor in Moving Images Curatorial Studies at Queen’s Film & Media Department. He studied journalism and worked as an independent curator and researcher in what he calls “a weird field that involves both contemporary art and new media arts.”
His unique background gives him a cutting-edge perspective on how classical institutions can and must change to stay relevant.
“You see how people are sharing culture and creating new forms of culture on social media,” he says, “It’s clear there is a dispute of legitimacy between the old guard and the new, but it’s very controversial because of the role of big corporations in these new platforms.”
Professor Menotti ran the program twice, in the winter of 2022 and again in the winter of 2023. Twenty-five students, in groups of four to five, met in a fast-prototyping situation to develop ideas that could revolutionize the art museum, guided by Menotti and the Agnes’ staff members. They presented their concepts to the Agnes in decks. By giving creative control to students — not just art students but students of psychology, science, and business — the Agnes can see themselves the way Professor Menotti has always seen art institutions: through the public’s perspective.
The project’s focus was the Agnes website, specifically the collections portal, the interface through which people engage with the collection. Students’ pitches were varied, from a kids’ activities portal to inspire a new generation of art lovers to a geo-restricted tagging system that allows people to leave messages that could be accessed through augmented reality — like a digital wall of Post-It notes.
Rapid prototyping is, well, rapid, but institutional change is slow. Professor Menotti acknowledges that the ideas that came out of each class were quick and generative. The aim was not for Agnes to deploy these ideas instantly but to open the institution to new ideas and ways of thinking.
For the public, the renovation and rethink could result in more interactivity and accessibility to the art world.