From high schools to the psychiatric ward — the unusual journey of a cabinet of curiosity

A conversation with Aurélie Maguet, Head of the Public Department at the Museum Picardie in Amiens, about a radical experiment in public engagement.

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The Cabinet of Curiosity displayed at a high-school in Montdidier, photo credit: Musée de Picardie

Hello Aurélie, please tell us a bit about yourself:
I’m the Head of the Public Department at Musée de Picardie. We are a museum of Fine Arts and archeology and one of the first purpose-built cultural institutions in France. My department is responsible for all aspects of public engagement — from educational programmes to a wide range of cultural activities. As for my role, I see myself as an enabler, someone who connects people and ideas. It’s very important for my team to explore new ways of working.

“Our department has evolved from being an appendage to the main event, which is the exhibition, to becoming responsive cultural mediators.”

Could you explain what you mean by new ways of working?
Most Fine Arts museums in France follow a fairly traditional approach to public engagement, which I feel is no longer suited to the changing demographic of our towns and cities. At Musée de Picardie, our department has evolved from being an appendage to the main event, which is the exhibition, to becoming responsive cultural mediators, constantly developing new links between our programming and the interests of the general public.

“I also feel that the cabinet is an opportunity for us to make a radical departure from our current model of public engagement. What happens when we don’t set the rules of engagement?”

So tell me about the Cabinet of Curiosity…
The project was already underway when I joined the museum. The goal is to reach out to communities that aren’t engaged with the museum. This includes groups who may be curious about our offering but aren’t able to visit due to a variety of reasons. I also feel that the cabinet is an opportunity for us to make a radical departure from our current model of public engagement. What happens when we don’t set the rules of engagement? Does this break down barriers? Does it encourage curiosity or even a sense of playfulness?

“There are so many moving parts to this project — context, environment, themes, people, artefacts. We are operating far outside our comfort zone.”

How do you plan to test these ideas?
There are so many moving parts to this project — context, environment, themes, people, artefacts. We are operating far outside our comfort zone. It will be fascinating to see how people construct their meanings and engage with the programme. We have three cabinets. Each represents a theme — extraordinary items, archaeological collections and our partnership with Liechtenstein as part of the smARTplaces project. At the moment one cabinet is displayed in a high school in Montdidier, which is a rural area roughly 30 kilometres away from Amiens. Soon we visit a psychiatric ward with the archaeological cabinet. At each site we provide basic training and then let go of the meaning-making.

“This is a very analogue project! But we still view the cabinet as a technology to spark conversations and create personal reflection.”

Is there a digital side to this project?
This is a very analogue project! But we still view the cabinet as a technology to spark conversations and create personal reflection. It has to facilitate unusual encounters and encourage discovery. At the same time, we have to follow strict conservation, security and accessibility rules. We commissioned an architects’ studio to design the prototypes. The result is a technology that has a distinct physical form that is flexible and mobile.

“There are so many unusual links we are trying to create. There are absurd items, surreal items, beautiful items, ugly items.”

What can we expect to find in the cabinets?
There are so many unusual links we are trying to create. There are absurd items, surreal items, beautiful items, ugly items. Objects that show how we construct our identities. Objects that appeal to our vanity. Then there are items that we were once supposed to revere, but somehow, we can’t take seriously today.

How can we engage with the project?
It’s been quite an adventure to get all the pieces in place. I’m very proud of the fact that we have a cabinet in a high school. But the project has many lives. You can follow us online to track the journey of the cabinets. We also plan to share images of objects from the cabinets as well as share stories they inspire. If you are a museum professional and want to setup your own cabinet, we’d love to have a chat with you, please get in touch.

Small Cabinets of Curiosity is one of the 17 joint activities being undertaken as part of smARTplaces — a visionary, long-term European audience development project co-funded by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union. Both partners are using the Digital Identities framework to explore new participatory formats and storytelling techniques for social media.

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