Museums and… Good Exhibitions

Another blogpost shamefully recycled from Twitter, here’s the thread if you wanted to check out the thoughts as they were. I spend a lot of time thinking about exhibitions and they’re kind of a silly format for doing any kind of communication I think. There’s something quite quaint about the notion of “We want to say something important so we’ve put some things in boxes with labels and if you don’t come and see it in this specific time period, well you missed experiencing it as it was intended”. Of course there’s online versions of exhibitions and some museums create excellent catalogues but it’s a thing you have to see or it’s gone! The upside to an exhibition as a form of media is it’s hanging in there as an authored and authoritative medium whereas other modes of communication have all but disappeared inside themselves trying to compete with the likes of spotify, social media, bloggers, infinite hours of free video online etc. that’s all but killed off the music industry, printed news, the book industry and TV respectively. In the BIG SCARE QUOTES post-truth era p’raps there’s a value in being so… so analog.

Inspired by the always slick Wellcome Collections going as far as to publish their inclusive design guidelines alongside their online version of the exhibition and creating a lot of noise around their new ‘permanent exhibitions’ that largely eschew the modern penchant for exhibition gimmickry (museums without objects, objects covered up, exhibitions of light or coloured fog or post-it notes or…)  I tried to put my thoughts about the best kinds of museum exhibitions in my humble opinion.

In my experience the very best museum exhibitions are:

Inclusive not exclusive,

Interesting not dull,

‘Expanded’ not just stuff in a room you have to see or miss out on entirely,

Transparent not neutral, opaque and anonymous,

Professional not amateurish.

Well, duh, you don’t need a Museum Studies degree to put that list together. However, again, in my experience in many exhibition/display setups it seems there’s only enough ‘space’ to do two or three of these. I don’t think it’s just a resourcing issue (although every problem in museums is a resource issue) either. It’s attitudinal, planning, ambition and aspiration.

Museum exhibitions can be; exclusive because the stakeholders were homogenous, opaque because it was an organisational shitshow getting the thing done on time let alone be open about it, constrained because planning was poor, amateurish because expertise was missing (there’s more to it than just putting stuff in cases from design, set dressing, curation, mounting…), dull because there were too many cooks or it was with too many audiences in mind and constrained because nobody had a plan for activity around an exhibition past the opening night. These are rather extreme examples of when things go awry and there are grades in between.

And if you’re attuned to reading museum you get a sense of what went wrong within 10 minutes of being in an exhibition or within about 3 seconds of talking to someone who was involved with putting it together. 

With a museological hat on it’s ‘fun’ to view or review exhibitions via these categories to try to work out how the exhibition came to life. I often found myself in an exhibition asking “who is this for?” and when I taught Museum Studies it was always really interesting to hear reflective thoughts from people who had put together exhibitions at how successfully they’d been with appealing to the specific target audiences, met learning objectives as well as the more serendipitous outcomes.

If you knew in advance that you could only do three of these well and two less well, what would you prioritise? I feel that some go together naturally. We’ve all experienced professional exhibitions that were frighteningly dull, exclusive and offline only as well as interesting and engaging exhibitions that were let down by feeling ephemeral or flimsy (hello pop-up exhibitions!). I’ve still not seen too many good examples of virtual or intangible exhibitions living up to the real thing. There’s a real trend at the moment in breaking away from ‘objective’, anonymous and opaque exhibitions and I hope we see this practice break through the novelty barrier.

That’s it. No great insight or final conclusion. Very rarely does anyone set out to make an exhibition that’s more the negative ends of these aspects than positive but I’ve found with the exhibitions that really blow you away and stick in the memory they hit most if not all of the ‘good’ notes above.
Even though I’ve put them on, visited many of them and continue to work on them, I still think the very idea of an exhibition is a weird thing and the fact that they persist in the on-demand, race to the bottom technological era is something of a marvel.

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