Museum Exhibitions – some new approaches

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Open Storage Displays, Powerhouse Discovery Centre, Castle Hill, Sydney

Over the last six months or so the Powerhouse Museum has been going through a major revitalisation project. One result of all this activity has been the opening up of some large exhibition spaces. Given this is International Museums Day and the current interest within the museum surrounding exhibition development I thought it could be an opportune time to blog about this vital area of museum work and see how museums in general have been approaching the issue.

One of the most noticeable changes is the number of new, and affordable, technologies now available for the exhibition tool-box. While essentially a good thing grappling with their integration into existing museum exhibition development processes is not always easy. But over the last year the Powerhouse has conducted a few of its own experiments such as the Minecraft Trial Program which ran at Thinkspace over the 2011-2012 Christmas Holidays.

Developed to inspire the younger audiences and to provide experiences that will make them want to return to the Museum this program was a great initiative. The museum felt the basic principles of the link into a lot of the themes and processes explored in our exhibitions. This included architecture, design, construction, materials, engineering, community engagement and sharing.

Another was the Lovelace Exhibition which integrated wonderful physical design and lighting with the Museum’s first extensive foray into handheld content delivery in conjunction with the exhibition development.

But across the Museum sector exhibitions development has tended firstly to focus on, what are our exhibitions going to be about and how do we get them on the floor? While both are valid and necessary questions when it comes to upgrading the museum’s exhibition space, changing audiences, competition from other leisure activities, and new technologies have expanded how museums can approach interactions with their audience.

This is not to say museums are rejecting exhibitions, but rather, these tools are changing some well established notions about how museum objects are interpreted and interacted with. Personally I think this is a really positive development and one which has the potential to bring more museum collections into spaces which can accessed by the broader public. I’m sure the display of objects on the museum’s floor will continue to be the primary focus of audience interaction. But I’m equally sure these displays will increasingly incorporate digital tools and new methodologies before, during, and after the objects are displayed on the floor.

What follows are some samples of museums and galleries who have started to have a bit of a rethink about the models they use to take objects out of museum store-rooms and place them in locations where visitors to the museum can then get access to them.

First up is an exhibition titled Public Property by the Walters Art Museum, in Baltimore. Created over December 2011 and January 2012 the museum used its ‘works of art’ site to ask the public to arrange and tag collections of artworks. The Walters’ exhibition team determined the popular themes (adornment, military, creatures and death) from these tags. They then held an online vote to decide on the exhibition theme ‘Creatures’. The museums then selected creature themed artworks for the public to vote on and 106 were selected to be part of the exhibition. The exhibition will be on from June 17–Aug. 19, 2012.

“Once the exhibition is open, there will be a variety of interactive elements to complement the chosen artworks,” said Walters Manager of Web and Social Media and exhibition team leader, Dylan Kinnett. “The exhibition vision, process and design are critical to changing perceptions and attitudes regarding museums by inviting civic participation in an intentional manner,” stated Manager of Family Programs and exhibition team leader, Emily Blumenthal. “We will also have a series of programs and events associated with the exhibition to invite visitors to become further involved with their community, their museum and their exhibition.”

Between Science Art and DesignJer Thorp is an artist and educator from Vancouver whose digital art practice explores the many-folded boundaries between science and art. Jorp focus is on the humanising data to encourage people to think about how the data they generate everyday carries weight in reality. Currently data is still seen as boring and opaque for those outside the domain of geeks and economists. But Jorp’s believes this should be broadened out to link Science, Design, and Art to create affirmative and lasting narratives. This has a resonance with the sessions on exhibitions development which were held here at the Powerhouse Museums which also focussed on our collections (another big data set) and the way we need to develop stories about the collections which include a combination of science art and design rather than only one of these elements.

One example of how this use of data is incorporated into displays can be seen in the design of the September 11 memorial at ground zero in New York. Here the names of the victims are not arranged alphabetically but by relationships such as partners or co-workers. The names are arranged according to a process and algorithm which was used to created “meaningful adjacencies,” based on “relationship” details which include proximity at the time of the attacks, company or organization affiliations for those who worked at the World Trade Center or Pentagon, and approximately 1,200 requests from family members. Software developed by Local Projects was used to implement this arrangement.

Wiki Loves Art Nouveau is Europeana’s first user-generated exhibition to explore some of the finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture from across Europe. For those haven’t already heard of it Europeana represents a cross sector and country solution to accessing cultural heritage in a digital form. Currently it provides s a single access point to millions of books, paintings, films, museum objects and archival records that have been digitised throughout Europe. The content is sourced from broad array European cultural and scientific institutions who have signed into Europeana as partners and this big picture approach is seen by some as the next step in opening up the discovery of the world’s knowledge and cultural heritage.

Tsunagari is the main display at the entry to the Japan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation and is a giant globe of the Earth rendered in super high resolution exceeding 10 million pixels. It is the world’s first giant spherical display using organic EL panels. It is part of a projects which uses three themes, “(Geo-palette) Geo-Palette” “Geo-Cosmos (Geo-Cosmos)”, “(geo-scope) Geo-Scope”, to approach the Earth from diverse perspectives.

The International Council of Communication Design’s SEGD conference was held in March of this year in partnership with the V&A Museum. Keynotes for this symposium were David Adjaye (architect) and Kenneth Grange (industrial designer). The main theme for this year was how innovation and collaboration are radically changing design across many disciplines.

London was a bit of a stretch for my budget and so while I didn’t get to go to I do agree with their sentiment which suggests collaboration is a powerful influence in design today. Cybelle Jones, principal with exhibition design firm Gallagher & Associates and co-chair of SEGD’s International Symposium believes that while design teams are working across continents, cultures, languages, and disciplines they are also finding collaboration can lead to: unwieldy project teams, communication challenges, and dilution of design intent. While her thoughts are more focussed on product design the partnership with the V&A is clearly no accident as these changes to design processes also affect museum exhibition design.

Jones asks a question which could also resonate within the museum sector. Is design better and stronger created with one singular vision, or should it be democratic—bringing together diverse talents, expertise, and perspectives in a combined vision?

The winner of the 2012 TED prize “The City 2.0” reveals another interesting approach which could be applied to exhibition development. The suggestion here is that perhaps content could be developed and integrated across a city rather than just within the museum walls. This year the TED prize was not awarded to an individual, but to an idea, ‘City 2.0”. This is an envisaged city of the future … a real-world upgrade tapping into humanity’s collective wisdom promoting innovation, education, culture, and economic opportunity. Reducing the carbon footprint of its occupants and creating a place of beauty, wonder, excitement, inclusion, diversity, life.

Museums like the Powerhouse are an integrated part of the city’s infrastructure and as stewards of cultural heritage and promoters of learning are perfectly placed to collaborate to be a part of projects like this. City 2.0 gives grants to people around the world who are advocating on its behalf with the opportunity to collectively craft a wish which will make use of the $100,000 prize: a wish capable of igniting a massive collaborative project. Individuals or organizations who wish to contribute their ideas can submit a TED Prize wish on behalf of The City 2.0 or write to tedprize@ted.com

Many museum professionals believe the exhibition is the primary mechanism though which they broker their relationship with the broader public and visitors to the museum have traditionally been the focus group of the exhibition process. The question now is how much this relationship has changed and if so how are the digital and on-line experience constituting current visitor interaction with museum collections.

Finally there is another trend that will no doubt propel more and more collaboration across museums and communities. This is the loading of museum content being into third party sites which are not owned, or even managed by the museum. Examples of this include HistoryPin, Flickr, and Pintrest alongside making collection API’s available for third party development and integration into other platforms.

Geoff Barker, 2012

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