The Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center

Today is Wednesday, March 22: Open 11am – 5pm
Directions & Admission
The MAH is open during Abbott Square construction. Enter only on Front St.

Our Exhibition Philosophy

The Museum of Art & History is committed to creating exhibitions that inspire our diverse audiences to engage deeply with contemporary art and Santa Cruz County history. We see our visitors as partners in actively interpreting and exploring exhibition content.

This philosophy steers our work, and it means that we do things a little differently than some other museums and galleries. If you are working with us as an artist or contributor to an exhibition, you should expect that museum staff will create multi-modal, interdisciplinary, participatory, immersive, and social experiences around your work. We will invite you to engage in discussion about these exhibition elements, and if you want to be involved in brainstorming possibilities, that’s fabulous. If not, that’s fine too–but you should know that we will be following this philosophy in all of the exhibitions that we develop.

Museums around the world perform research on how visitors experience exhibitions and how to design them effectively. Research shows that visitors walk in the door with a broad range of preconceptions, abilities, and preferences when it comes to engaging with exhibitions. Some people like to read labels. Others prefer hands-on experiences. Most people visit in groups, and those groups include children and adults, professionals and amateurs. The experience that visitors have in museums–what they learn, what they do, what they like–is highly determined by how comfortable they feel and how well the museum supports many different ways of engaging with exhibitions.

Based on this research and our own institutional mission, we seek to produce exhibitions that are:

  • RELEVANT: Connected to compelling needs, assets, and interests in Santa Cruz County. Connected to our core content of contemporary art and regional history.
  • SUSTAINABLE: Provides important resources to help the MAH thrive financially and organizationally.
  • BRIDGING: Brings community members together across differences. Celebrates diversity and encourages unexpected connections.
  • PARTICIPATORY: Invites diverse community members to make meaningful contributions as co-creators, collaborators, and energized constituents.
  • IGNITING: Inspires excitement and curiosity about art and history. Expands opportunities for deeper engagement beyond the museum.

It’s important to us that as an exhibition contributor(s), you are comfortable with and understand these engagement goals, and we hope you will find it exciting to be part of it. We strongly believe that these values will help the MAH be a relevant, dynamic, inclusive, educational institution that engages visitors successfully. Please feel free to contact Justin Collins at if you would like to talk about this further.

  • Brilliant. It’s so important to set expectations for visitor-centeredness when engaging with artists. Artists often think they’re speaking directly to viewers, yet they’re unwilling to share room in the gallery space with other viewpoints—including the ones they inspire and/or provoke. 

    • Thanks for commenting, Peter. Does SFMOMA have something like this? We found it kind of necessary as we move forward and articulate our goals as a community-driven institution. I’m curious to learn what other institutions do to share their intentions.

  • This is a fantastic philosophy, even more so that it is expressed upfront to guide those who wish to partner with you. I’ll be watching with interest to see how this philosophy is able to applied to the history collections and preservation aspects, and whether there are also opportunities for community participation in acquisition choices.

  • Dorothy Santos

    I’m curious, what about multi-cultural engagement? I definitely understand the need to produce exhibitions based on ‘institutional vision and goals’ but wondering if the ‘participatory’ aspect is all encompassing. Overall, I definitely agree with your exhibition philosophy. Very strong and it definitely makes me want to pay Santa Cruz a visit sooner versus later. Thanks again for posting this.

    • Great point, Dorothy. This is really focused just on how we develop exhibitions, and less on our overall vision for engagement. If you check out our institutional vision statement and core values you will see a focus on relevance to our diverse community. 

      There’s actually another piece that is not present here–we are moving our exhibitions in a direction that focuses on a “story-based” approach in which we have a broad human theme that governs the entire exhibition (i.e. “Love” or “Collecting” both coming this year). We tried to address that in the interdisciplinary point, but it’s not completely clear.

      This is a working document and I imagine it will keep morphing over time. Please come visit and see how we are changing.

      • Dorothy Santos

        Thanks so much for your response, Nina. I checked out the institutional vision statement and definitely saw that. I’m looking forward to my trip to Santa Cruz. I will definitely have to check out “Love” and “Collecting”. Again, thanks for the great response. Much appreciated. 

    • Jessica Goreham-Penney

       Dorothy, I love your comments here and on museum 2.0 about this topic.  Do you blog or are you on twitter?

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