Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A "Post Exhibition" Museum?

What if your museum stopped making exhibitions?  

This is, in only some ways, a rhetorical question since many museums have lost the internal capacity to actually develop, design, prototype, and fabricate their own exhibit components and exhibitions.  Worse yet, some museums were intentionally designed (architecturally or managerially) to never have any internal capacity to create (or perhaps more importantly, repair or improve) their exhibitions.

But leaving the notions and importance of internal capacity aside, are traditional conceptions of exhibitions actually holding museums back from expanding their reach to younger, non-white audiences, and people who wouldn't even normally consider visiting a museum at all?  (Check out the work of Reach Advisors to examine the unsettling demographic trends around traditional museum visitors and visitation.)

If the compelling value that museums offer are the dynamic duo of "stories and stuff" how can we repackage narrative formats and object presentations in ways that move past parades of casework and frames in Art and History Museums, side shows of phenomena or relics in Science Centers and Natural History Museums, or candy-colored collections of miniature structures (or heaven forfend grocery stores!) in Children's Museums?

I'm not suggesting that museums give up objects or narrative, just the way they combine and "package" those elements.  In the short attention span world of Twitter and the post economic crash world of, well, now,  does it really still make sense to spend several years and several million dollars to mount a major exhibition that will likely remain largely unchanged for the length of its run?

I'd say no, but what do you say?   Where are the museums (or non-museums) that are presenting narrative and physical objects in "post exhibition" ways?

"Object Theatres" in museums (especially at Science North in Canada) were a stab at this, and "moving museums" like Maria Mortati's San Francisco Mobile Museum project are focusing on people and their stories without a lot of the infrastructure of traditional museum projects.

Last, but not least, are there viable digital tools that can reconcile and bridge virtual worlds and objects, especially the authentic objects that still seem to be an essential part of the museum experience?  (Rather than degenerating into a discussion of "shiny new toys." --->  Oh! oh! let's buy ten iPads and figure out how we can use them in the museum!)

Lots of questions and ideas buzzing around my head!  Please help me gather these woolly thoughts into a more cohesive tapestry of "post exhibition" ideas by adding your own thoughts or examples into the "Comments" Section below so I can do a follow-up posting or article that can pull more of these ideas about "post exhibition" museums together.



  1. I think that reconsidering the way we deliver the key products of 'stories and objects' to visitors is essential. And I wholeheartedly agree that the influence of 'instant communications' and 'easy access information' via the internet and social media, has changed both the expectations of visitors and they way that people at large communicate and want to have information delivered to them. However- I maintain that there should be some essence of 'museumness' (and apologies for the awful word there) but something which does institutionalise us and distinguish us from other leisure attractions. If only for the simple factor that if we enter that arena and attempt to compete as something we are not, then automatically we further alter visitors expectations, we align ourselves in direct competition with organisations far better funded, and much less restricted than ourselves. I do not condone that we should be condemned forever to the notion of things in glass cases, but I would fear the total loss of an identity for museums.

  2. @Jennie

    Thanks for your comments.

    The "museumness" question is a tricky one.

    How do we maintain some of the wonderful aspects of museums without alienating, or frightening, or boring the current non-visitors?

  3. This is a marvelous topic. Please extend this thread and article series further. You have my full attention. Thanks Paul.

  4. OK, here's my take, which isn't really fully formed, at least partly because the issues aren't fully formed yet; this is about emergent trends. I guess I'm going for a biodiversity idea of what a museum can or should be. Museums already span an incredible variety of places and experiences and the areas of common overlap between them all, the things that they all share, that defines "museumness", may be smaller than we assume. If biodiversity is good for the survival prospects of an overall ecosystem in the natural world, then it might follow that it should be good in the museum world as well. This analogy, if it holds, supports the general idea articulated in your blog that experiments, the unique effort, the flexible, the adaptible is also very desirable. If you extend the analogy all the way, however, you also have to accept that some species will die out as they fail to adapt to changing circumstances.

    So, are strategies that reject the old style of a museum, an edifice comprised of text and objects, the sort of adaptation that will ensure the survival of the museum as a viable cultural construct? Maybe, but I'm not at all certain in every instance. I think the best potential answers are nascent in the public's understandings of what museums are or need to be. Is the public, now or in the near future, tiring of museums; tired of going to them or otherwise supporting them with funding? Do the public seem to require something other than a bricks-and-mortar destination? Do the demographic trends really spell doom? I count these all as legitimate anxieties, suggesting avenues of inquiry and action, but I am not convinced that within the wide range of what museums do or can become, museum destinations with exhibits are through.

  5. I had an interesting email exchange with Gene Dillenberg recently who asserts that the one common quality that defines all museums is exhibitions for the public. I can't really argue with that. So, looking at our public, how will the museum experiences which we facilitate for the public continue to be relevant? I do think, as you say, that objects with stories have a particular power still to illuminate or captivate. I also believe that there will always be some hankering for destinations of secular reverie and that communities failing to support them will be impoverished. Some people need to get out of the house every once in awhile and participate in a cultural experience that changes their frame of reference a bit. Not everyone, but many. Those people need to find places for this that are truly public and continuously available, most of the time at a particular, predictable place and at a reasonable price. I argue that museums have to keep on making a case for themselves, not only by championing a mission, but by making that mission have value in the broadest public realm that can be attained and sustained. To do this, I think what is required is a process of continual change and renewal. And this takes money. Or as Paul Martin says, vision without resources is hallucination.

    Museums do have major structural problems preventing most of them from being nimble, creative and inexpensive to operate and program. Speaking from my own experience, I know that the single most expensive category of the work we do, more even than the relatively fixed costs of heating and cooling, electricity, building maintenance,etc., is payroll. I deeply believe that a museum's staff is its most precious resource. Museum people, generally speaking, are not particularly well paid to start with. For this reason I resist the critique that museums are operationally too expensive. In exhibits, I can always compress a budget when it comes to the expense of materials or services, but I think we compress payroll at the risk of expecting terrific results off the backs of staff; you wind up in an exploitative relationship at some point and that is not healthy. The critique begins to sound to me like those who rail against goverment waste without understanding what it really takes to deliver the services. Ultimately, this kind of thinking becomes a race to the bottom. Another problem is that the cheapest exhibits of all are precisely those limited to objects and text. Cool, truly inspired new stuff requires resources and I don't think museums should ever be ashamed of that. Museums are expensive compared to what? A Hollywood film production? An executive compensation package? A new freeway exit ramp? A publically funded baseball stadium? I think museums are a bargain, actually.

    My two cents.

  6. @ Dan

    Thanks for your comments!

    I very much like the notion of a "biodiversity model" for museum presentation modes. For example, I love "old school" natural history museums, but I think that they need to continue to think about ways to push the exhibit design envelope without just bulldozing the evidence of their institutional and aesthetic history.

    However, I think I will argue a little with Gene's notion that a common quality of museums is exhibitions for the public. I can also see exhibitions, as a member of the public, at a (non-museum) Art Gallery, Disney World, Outdoor Festivals, or the annual Auto Show.

    And unless museums take back some of the creative strength associated with notions like "exhibitions" and "curatorship" by helping to chart new design techniques and pushing past traditional display models, we run the risk of losing future audiences to other types of (perhaps) more engaging venues.