New Director Wants to Take a “Truly Relevant” MSU Museum to the Campus and Community
MSU alumnus Devon Akmon is the new director of the MSU Museum. He’s also the director of Science Gallery Detroit. Devon has come full circle as he’s an alumnus of MSU who spent time as a student working at the Museum.
“It's great to be back,” Akmon says. “I did work here at the MSU Museum as an undergrad. I did what I like to affectionately refer to as grunt work, painting a lot of walls, helping with a lot of exhibitions, and putting the vinyl on the walls. I was an art history and museum studies student at the time. It's interesting to look back. I really think those were the first steps that actually launched my career. It exposed me to museums in a new way, and I got some theoretical training with some practical hands on experience. And when I left MSU, I ended up going to grad school and studying something completely different. And as luck would have it, instead of actually going into that field, I ended up in a museum as I finished my graduate studies and then began my journey. It's brought me back here almost 20 years later. I would have never imagined that I'd be back here at MSU working for the museum, but it's a bit of a homecoming. It's great to be back.”
Akmon describes the mission of Science Gallery Detroit and tells why he was excited to add director of the MSU Museum to his responsibilities. And he shares some of his short- and long-term goals for the Museum.
“The very first thing we're going to do is put our heads down and actually put together a strong strategic plan and think about, in that planning process, what are the types of resources we need? What does our programming look like over the next five years? In general, and especially coming out of consulting, I've learned that one of the number one barriers that prohibits organizations from truly flourishing in the arts sector is not planning out far enough. You don't have enough time to think creatively, to fundraise, to market, and to educate your audiences. We're going to put our heads down and really build a strong roadmap. And in that process, we'll really understand and figure out what we're going to do. But I think there are some overarching things we can already assume.
“One of the things we realize is we've got this beautiful building. It's an old building, and it's geographically in the heart of the campus. But it's also limited. We already know that we're going to have to find a way of doing a little bit of what I call the push pull model. We want to pull people into the museum, but we're also going to have to push activities out into the campus community. Even this fall, we're already thinking about that with the first exhibition we're going to open when the museum reopens in September. We have some exhibits that we’ll probably be embedding in the STEM building, and we’ll be partnering with the Greater Lansing Arts Council to do some things up and down Grand River. And we're putting all the programming out over campus, like the workshops and performances. None of that will actually happen in the Museum.
“We’ll be thinking broadly about how we embed things across the campus community. We know we're competing for time and attention. We have to meet people where they are. We have to be relevant. We have to be creative and innovative in that programming. So, it's really top of mind to think critically about the partnerships we have in student success and academic success and how we support that. We want to be truly relevant in the life of students. Nothing would please me more than to just even see students studying in this building. People think you have to go to a museum only to see exhibitions, but I like to think of this as a third space on campus where people can just come sit and relax. We all had those experiences when we were undergrads, right? There were different places around campus that we went to. So, it's my heart's desire that the Museum will be that for our undergrads today.”
Akmon says collaboration with campus partners will be one of his key goals.
“I feel so fortunate that I have such great peers that I've already met across campus. My colleague Monica at the Broad Art Museum is just absolutely phenomenal. So are our friends over at the Residential College and our friends over at the Museum Studies Program. Everybody's really keen to collaborate. There's a shared focus on impact on the community. And we all know that we can go farther together than alone. We're already in so many ways coming to the table and thinking together. In fact, the MSU Museum, the Broad Art Museum, and WKAR are going to program an art event shortly after we open. And that just kind of materialized over the course of a week. People just say, ‘Hey, we've got this idea, do you want to be part of it?’ You'll see a lot of that at the MSU Museum going forward.”
What are some challenges to reaching those goals and some opportunities, too?
“There are all kinds of challenges. We know that our campus community is busy. We're competing for time and attention, and we need to be relevant. And that's always a challenge, right? We're in a very loud and noisy world with so many activities happening. We're very pragmatic about the institution we're in. The physical building, as I mentioned, is very old. It has some really wonderful assets to it, but it also has some challenges.
“We don't have a lot of gallery space. We don't have a lot of workshop space. Part of the reason that we don't do programming here is we don't have a lot of programming space. So, there are certainly plenty of challenges for not just our museum, but I think museums in general, especially as we navigate COVID. The whole industry and the traditional business model have been disrupted. Figuring even that out is really hard, but I always like to look for the silver linings. I have an entrepreneurial mindset. I like these challenges and it enables us to think boldly and creatively about what a new future can be and how a museum like this can serve its community for that next chapter. We're just going to tackle each challenge in that manner going forward.”
What are some of the challenges and opportunities for museums in general and arts and culture in general?
“One of the big things right now for museums as I keep alluding to is a very competitive landscape out there. We see attendance declining nationally in museums, which is interesting because museums remain among the absolute most trusted institutions in our country. There are a lot of things that people are pessimistic about, but museums and cultural centers seem to be still rated as trusted institutions. We face these weird challenges where we're trusted and celebrated but attendance is declining. That goes back to this idea of how we compete for time and attention. How do we make sure we're relevant? How are we responding to the needs of the communities we seek to serve? That has to be top of mind. We also really have to think about experience design.
“That's what we refer to as the experience economy. And that's really critical. What does it mean to come and visit the museum? What does the experience feel like from the minute you walk into the door to the minute you leave?”
When you were coming out of high school, why was MSU the place for you?
“I grew up in Metro Detroit, but my dad worked in government. He got transferred up to Flint and we lived in a small town. And one of the first things right away that I fell in love with at Michigan State was the beauty of the campus. I came out here in the summer. And as we all know, summer on the MSU campus is a postcard. So that kind of coupled with the sheer size of it. Some people get intimidated by large schools. For me, it just felt so wonderful to be around so many like-minded and similar aged people. That's what kind of brought me here. My best friends to this day came from here.
“I met my wife here as an undergrad. I feel really lucky that I chose MSU. And I often think I just don't feel like it was as competitive as when I was applying to college like it is today. I felt a little bit more free to choose a university that really fit me as opposed to the competitive nature of it. So I just feel really blessed in that regard. And MSU was just an incredibly good experience for me.
“As an undergrad, I really began to blend some of my interests, one of which was the City of Detroit. I was doing a lot of photography and lithography work at the time. I was also studying studio art and I was going back and forth between Detroit and East Lansing. And I think that exposure was really critical in my development. I began much more to explore my identity. I'm a third generation Lebanese American, which opened up all kinds of doors for my professional work and museums later in life. I had a rich array of experiences. Not only did I work at the MSU Museum, but I worked for the State News and actually pursued a journalism career for a while before I figured out that wasn't really for me.
“There are so many amazing assets here. If you truly embrace those and you explore these opportunities, all kinds of doors open. We grow as individuals, and we begin to see the opportunities out there in the world. I just kind of followed my heart with that. That’s why the Science Gallery aspect of our work is still so critical. That really speaks to me. I keep thinking about how important it is for that age group and those experiences as undergrads to think that we can have a role in shaping that in the same way the university helped shape my life. There's an amazing power in that and I hope we can pay that forward.”
Summarize what you'd like those joining in on our conversation to know about you and where you want to take the MSU Museum.
“People should expect new ideas coming out of the MSU Museum, things they haven't experienced before in the past. This fall, we're going to open a whole new exhibition that explores surveillance and the way it permeates all aspects of our lives. It's going to be a very tech heavy show and probably a little bit unsettling because these are things that we tend to push out of our mind. You're going to see new things in the space programmatically with the exhibitions and certainly the way we engage faculty and students to provide richer experiences for them. Stay tuned.”