James Bradburne and the anthropological revolution of Brera

Antonio Carnevale

We sat down with director James Bradburne to tell the path that led him to the original didactic approach introduced in the Milanese Pinacoteca di Brera.

“What distinguishes the Pinacoteca di Brera from other museums today is a specifically educational approach, which is grounded on previous experience,” James Bradburne tells us at the start of our conversation in his office in the Milanese museum. “Perhaps my vision comes from my unconventional path,” he continues. “For example, I am one of the few museum directors in Italy who does not have a background in art history.” Architect, designer and museologist, Bradburne has been at the helm of the Pinacoteca di Brera for the last four years. He has increased the number of visitors to 1.350.000, a 40% rise compared to the average attendance before his mandate. These figures should not be read out of their context though. Bradburne’s record was not achieved by resorting to blockbuster exhibitions or similar strategies, but investing exclusively in the valorisation of the permanent collection. He paid particular attention to the issue of inclusion, understood as the process of inviting visitors to play an active role in the institution. Bradburne has just been reconfirmed in his role for another four years, and we paid him a visit to ask about how he was able to revolutionize the museum’s approach to the benefit of both the audience and the cultural offer.

Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, new display of the permanent collection ©Omara
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, new display of the permanent collection ©Omara

There is no need to list all the innovations implemented at Pinacoteca di Brera from 2014 till today. The official website provides all the information about hundreds of initiatives and improvements. However, it is worth to name some of them, for example the complete reorganization of the collection and exhibition spaces. Artworks are now complemented with captions aimed at different audiences: art historical information is often placed next to captions designed for families, and in some cases to so-called “authored” labels written by a personality from the world of culture such as the Nobel prize for literature Orhan Pamuk (author The Museum of Innocence, a must read for every art collector or museum director; here is the link to our interview with Pamuk). Furthermore, tactile and olfactory captions encourage a multi-sensory experience of the artworks. Importantly, Bradburne inaugurated new spaces in the institution, such as the Caffè Fernanda and the Bottega Brera, which are not intended as a simple bar and a bookshop, but rather as “extensions of the museum, with exhibitions, educational workshops, and spaces for the activities of the museum and Brera’s other institutes: the library, the observatory and the botanical garden, with a strong emphasis on the theme of aggregation and sharing.” He also introduced easily carried stools and drawing benches in the galleries, extending the visiting time and increasing interactivity with the artworks. Bradburne also developed educational innovations outside the museum, with initiatives such as the “Coda Ludica”, a moment of play and learning designed for those queuing to enter the building on busy free Sundays. The logic of inclusion under his mandate has also involved communication, for example through a fervent publishing activity, including 33 publications dedicated to the works and the memory of the museum; but also through a renewed online presence with educational programs on Instagram, and the ‘Brera Stories’ collected on the website: in-depth studies dedicated to the memory of citizens and oral histories that link the past and present of the city through the museum’s activities.

Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, new display of the permanent collection ©Omara

These are just a few of the changes transforming the museum from a “container of masterpieces” to “a place for informal learning”, to use an expression dear to Bradburne. In the following interview we ask him to retrace the steps of the personal, cultural and professional path that led him to the approach introduced at the Pinacoteca di Brera, an approach that is difficult to find in other museums due to its breadth, variety and systematic nature.

Let’s start with your background, which is not tied to art history in a narrow sense.

James Bradburne: I studied in Canada and England, graduating in architecture at the Architectural Association of London, and completing a PhD in museology at the University of Amsterdam. Beyond my regular studies, however, my education has been deeply influenced by anthropology. In particular, I must mention my collaboration with the Canadian scholar Drew Ann Wake, who used her background in anthropology within the field of journalism first, and later – together with me – also in the practice of exhibition-making. I first met Drew Ann in the 1970s. At that time, the Canadian government was launching a feasibility study for the construction of a gas pipeline in the far Northwest of the country. Judge Thomas Berger was commissioned by the government in 1974 to investigate the social, environmental and economic impact of this project. The commission headed by Berger travelled through the entire area of the pipeline. They would stop in every village, even the smallest ones, to ask the inhabitants about the impact that this project would have on their lives in terms of subsistence, agricultural activities, and culture. Everyone was called upon: from students to the people of the First Nations, from the young to the old. After this inquiry, Berger’s team produced an immense report that convinced the government not to build the pipeline. Working as a journalist for Radio Canada, Drew Ann Wake followed this two-year investigation on the entire journey. That experience was fundamental in demonstrating the importance of listening to the public, avoiding top-down decisions when it comes to influencing people’s lives. I mention that experience here because it has marked my attitude in every museum or art center in which I have worked: I have always tried not to impose decisions from above but to let them emerge from the needs of visitors. Even though it did not yet have museums as its object, Drew Ann Wake’s work first influenced my vision of how to communicate, propose, and offer a museum experience.

james bradburne
James Bradburne, general director of the Pinacoteca Brera and Biblioteca Braidense ©Omara

Which kind of projects did you develop with Drew Ann Wake?

James Bradburne: She and I met in 1975 when the first cooperative public radio in Canada was created in Vancouver. Similar to NPR, the National Public Radio in the US, it was called Coop Radio and we worked together as journalists in creating several programs. We agreed about the importance of oral narration, of the listening process, of interviews as a means to collect the memories and experiences of people who often would not have the opportunity to make their voices heard. As I was saying, these are all aspects of the approach I eventually brought into my museum practice.

What was your first significant experience in the field of exhibition making?

James Bradburne: Coop Radio was the first project together with Drew Ann, but our collaboration continued in the following years in different contexts. I worked as a producer for Coop Radio and Radio Canada before switching to exhibition making and design, which first happened on the occasion of the Vancouver Expo in 1986. Drew Ann was working as a content specialist for the construction of some pavilions, and although I was then a graphic designer, she asked me if I wanted to switch from two-dimensional drawing to 3D design and join the team at the Aldrich Pears design practice. I felt absolutely ready to make that leap, so I accepted. Together we designed seven pavilions for the Expo. It was also on that occasion that we implemented our anthropological approach. We went to several Canadian provinces, even to their most remote areas, interviewing the inhabitants, looking to understand the identity of each community and design their representative pavilions accordingly. Our goals were to listen, to watch, to record, to understand without intervening, trying to grasp the true identity of social and cultural nuclei and therefore conceive the best exhibitions about them.

Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, new display of the permanent collection ©Omara
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, new display of the permanent collection ©Omara

What was the first time you transferred this anthropological approach to a museum?

James Bradburne: After the experience of the Expo, I moved to London to continue my architecture studies. Since I didn’t come from a wealthy family and I was already 29 years old, I also had to work to live. So, given my previous experience, I supported my studies by working part-time with exhibition making in England, mostly working for science museums. It was the 1980s, a historic moment where interactive science centres presented themselves as the answer to all museological problems: it seemed that interactivity was the only solution to overcome the dustiness of those institutions. In retrospective, I think that approach had been taken too far, and I still believe that to give freshness to museums one should not only focus on technology but also on a new type of offer in relation to content. At the time, Drew Ann was also working for scientific museums. Even if she lived in Vancouver and I had moved to Paris in the meantime, we decided to develop alternative solutions to the then dominant “interactive fashion”. We worked together for European and Canadian institutions from 1990 until 1994, a period that was greatly influenced by the research of important anthropologists and philosophers, in particular the French post-Structuralists.

Can you give some examples?

James Bradburne: I would include Brian Wynne, who studied the impact of the Chernobyl disaster on farmers in northern England; Jean Marc Levy Leblond, philosopher of science and technology; the sociologist Jean Davallon and his studies on museums; Maurice Bazin and his work in the favelas of Brazil; the Canadian Roland Arpin; and of course Goéry Delacôte of the CNRS and later director of the San Francisco Exploratorium. The work of the sociologist of science Bruno Latour was also very important, especially his remarkable research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California. For example, his ethnographic work within scientific research groups is especially interesting, as he wasn’t interested in understanding science, but in investigating the “ecosystem” of a team of scientists. The work of Jorge Wagensberg was also fundamental to me. As a physicist, he directed the La Caixa science museum in Barcelona and was also interested in observing and understanding how to fit the museum into existing scientific and civic practice.

What did these scholars teach you?

James Bradburne: They deeply influenced the framework I apply to the museums I direct. In essence, instead of arriving with a top-down agenda, my work can be defined as bottom-up, from below to above. It is the opposite of the formal, structural, and scholastic approaches. Every initiative of mine in a museum comes from observing and listening to the expectations and needs of visitors, and very proposal takes those investigations into account. My goal for a museum is to create optimal conditions for informal learning, and listening is fundamental.

What are the characteristics of informal learning?

James Bradburne: We are used to a formal learning system, with barriers as a necessary condition. This system starts with evaluation: a test is made to prove that one possesses basic knowledge. At the end of the path, there is another barrier: the final exam, that is a moment where one has to show where they are in their learning. This is the formality of the school system. It is “formal” because there are external evaluation moments. In the museum, however, there is no initial or final test. A museum does not place conditions. The only condition for wanting to go to the museum is to … want to go to the museum. This is the essence of informality: it is not conditioned by an evaluation. We are free to enjoy a museum as we wish. The founder of the San Francisco Exploratorium, the world’s first ‘hands-on’ science centre, said ‘No-one ever failed a museum.’ I indeed see the museum as a privileged place for learning, which should not be marked by obligations. In an informal learning perspective, therefore, the task of museum directors and their team is to enrich the visitor experience with different possibilities for learning, also introduce the joy of learning in this process. Each visitor should be able to decide his or her own itinerary according to their needs, discovering the deep pleasure of learning without being forced to follow an established path. Informality should be a necessary condition of the museum.

Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, new display of the permanent collection ©Omara

In view of your influences from anthropology, do you see the museum as an ecosystem instead of a place where the director dictates its course?

James Bradburne: Exactly. My approach is to conceive the museum as an ecosystem and to understand its different conditions and variables. In the 90s I worked at the science museum in Amsterdam designed by Renzo Piano, where I was the head of the design, education and research department. I once invited musicians Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel for one of the projects, and the latter had a very interesting remark: “A museum should have the same dynamics as a park”. It was a very bright intuition, because it pointed to the fact that the content should be as important as the way to access it. I can go to a park to observe the plants and trees, to study their leaves, or to go for a walk, or even to kiss my girlfriend. Nobody tells me what is the right way to be in a park. A museum should be able to offer the same generosity, accepting the diversity of its visitors as a basic condition. I believe that this kind of generosity also contains a very important civil value, which corresponds to the social mission of a museum. These convictions of mine have deep roots in the thought of figures such as the great psychologist Lev Semënovič Vygotskij, who dealt with education and society, and believed that ideas emerge from conversations not from isolated individuals, and of George Hein and his studies on the philosophy of education applied to the experience of so-called “constructivist” museum.

In your opinion, shouldn’t a director draw the path a museum should follow?

James Bradburne: Certainly the director has to play a role. But like a cinema director, she has choices. Tarkovsky was famous for his endless repetitions in order to achieve exactly the effect he wanted; Robert Altman for creating a setting and letting the situation emerge from the interaction between the actors. I believe in directing a museum the way Altman directed his films. I always have a very precise idea of what the museum can and should transmit to its visitors, but I don’t just want to present my opinion as the only one that counts. The idea of allowing informal learning does not exclude that I have my own vision on the content of this learning. However, I have to consider my position as a hypothesis and verify it through the real experience of visitors. My hypothesis and the expectations of the public must go hand in hand, they must be combined in the common ground that is the museum environment. With regard to this aspect, the discovery of the Reggio Emilia pedagogical approach, which is deeply influenced by Vygotsky and constructivism, Jerome Bruner, Loris Malaguzzi and Gianni Rodari, was also very important to me.

Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, new display of the permanent collection ©Omara

How did you apply the Reggio Emilia method to art?

James Bradburne: In 2003 I was asked by the president of Lego to create a small foundation to promote creativity, learning and play among children. In the context of Lego’s scientific committee, I had met Carla Rinaldi, the key figure of Reggio Children, an international center for the defense and promotion of the rights and the potential of children. Ever since then, the collaboration and friendship with Rinaldi has been highly fruitful. At the time, Reggio Children worked with kindergartens and schools, but not with museums. So I brought my experience in informal learning within the museum context to them, and they taught me the importance of documenting, as a way to make listening visible, so that people can participate and share their experiences.

Can you give an example of “visible listening” in relation to a museum or an art exhibition?

James Bradburne: Let’s take one of the initiatives we organised in the context of the exhibition The Thirties at Palazzo Strozzi in 2012. We would provide families with a ‘suitcase’ designed as the board game Monopoly (which was introduced in Italy in the 1930s). They used the gameboard to move in the exhibition from one work to another among those on display. However, if players ended up in the “go to jail” square of the board, they were obliged to go to a radio studio in the exhibition space where children would interview the adults (their parents and grandparents) about their childhood. All the visitors of the exhibition had the opportunity to listen to these stories, so that real experiences of the 1930s would mix with the art on display from the same period. The idea of linking real life of people to the content of the museum is also present at the Pinacoteca di Brera, even though in a different form.

Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, new display of the permanent collection ©Omara
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, new display of the permanent collection ©Omara

Is the model of the Pinacoteca di Brera replicable?

James Bradburne: There are several museums outside Italy that have a similar approach, although only to a certain degree. I don’t know of any museum that has developed a strategic educational offer like the one proposed by the Pinacoteca di Brera in the last four years. I can name excellent learning models in various science museums, such as that of Boston and San Francisco. In the past the Getty Museum also had an interesting educational offer. And there is a children’s book museum in The Hague that is wonderful. When I arrived at the Pinacoteca di Brera, the team of the museum and I started to reflect on the shortcomings of museums in general, and how to make Brera a blueprint for others. We imagined that any ideal museum would put words such as “inclusion”, “accessibility”, “hospitality”, “diversity”, “emotion” at the centre of its mission. We put the listening process I described earlier in place to reach this goal. After four years, I can say there has been adequate time to test a whole series of possibilities, and to refine and implement specific educational strategies. I don’t think our model can be replicated in other parts of Italy or the world: our model for Brera is designed especially for Brera – it works here because it is based on the potential of a particular collection, a specific space, and a precise metropolitan context. If our work for the Pinacoteca di Brera has so far proved successful, it is only because we have listened to the needs of the Pinacoteca di Brera, that is of its community. I believe the result is not replicable, nor is it desirable that it be replicated, but the approach can. Each museum should develop its own path, based on listening to its own public and letting the projects emerge. What is applicable in different contexts is the listening method, combined with documentation, a fundamental condition for any educational initiative. It is an approach we call ‘visible listening’.

December 30, 2019