Tuesday, June 14, 2011

What Happened to the Maryland Science Center's Exhibits Department?

Soon, the last person remaining in the "Exhibits Department" at the Maryland Science Center (MSC) in Baltimore will be shifted out of their current position.   (If you can call what is now just one person a "department" --- until a few months ago, there used to be an actual department of exhibit designers and developers at MSC.)

So one of the larger science centers in the U.S. will not have an in-house Exhibits Department to design/develop/fabricate new exhibits.  Instead, the Maryland Science Center will have an "exhibit maintenance group."  That seems both sad and unfortunate to me.  Doubly so, because it's unlikely that the Science Center field, in particular, or the Museum field, in general, will publicly discuss and wrestle with the ramifications of what's going on in Baltimore.

I'd like to share the museum's side of things --- the thinking about some grand institutional reorganization going on in Baltimore --- some clever new approach to designing and developing exhibitions.  But honestly, after persistently sending emails and leaving phone messages with the Museum's CEO, Van Reiner, and various administrators and departments, I've gotten no response on the subject.

That is, until today when I contacted the PR firm that works with the Museum to see if I might finally get any sort of comment on the elimination of the MSC Exhibits Department.  Lo and behold, a few minutes later I finally did receive a response from Christopher Cropper, the Senior Director of Marketing at the Maryland Science Center.

Here it is:  "Thanks for your calls about the exhibits department at the Maryland Science Center. The Maryland Science Center policy does not allow comment on decisions related to employment. Therefore, no one will be able to answer additional questions about our exhibits department." 

Fair enough --- I know when I've been given the brush-off, but that doesn't prevent me from posing a few questions about MSC's precipitous actions:

• Certainly these are tricky times for museums, but does it make sense to respond to budgetary pressures by vacating your institution's internal capacity to develop and design exhibits?

• Is it fiscally and professionally responsible to "outsource" wholesale the functions of an entire Exhibits Department? Will that lead to "better" exhibits?

• Given that the ASTC Conference is being hosted by Maryland Science Center later this year, might MSC staff be willing to share their thoughts on their institution's future approaches toward exhibition development with their museum peers?  If not, I hope we as a field are forthright in discussing the consequences of MSC's decisions to eliminate their Exhibit Department during the Conference.

Tricky times, indeed. 

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  1. It would be curious to hear what their take is.

    A couple of options from my vantage point:
    - emphasis on temporary exhibit model.
    - talented staff was too expensive to keep around in between capital campaign/exhibit cycles.
    - Institutional emphasis on educational programming instead of exhibits.

    I would guess these all played a factor at some level.

  2. I'm not sure that our museum, the ny hall of science, has exhibit designers and developers either. We have some people who design some exhibits sometimes, but no exhibit design department. We have people who serve as PI's on exhibition development programs (like me, martin weiss, etc), and lead exhibition development, but we mostly use consulting developers and evaluators. We have invested far more heavily in our education infrastructure, with a 40 person education staff and something like 100 paid Explainers. We have pretty good exhibitions, with some originality, and we increasingly are creating traveling exhibitions. We do this through partnerships and consulting agreements. Its a legitimate choice, tho I understand the pros and cons very well.

    I'm not surprised the museum was not willing to comment on a policy shift to someone who (to them) was just a curious person. We all know your role in the museum world, but they probably don't.

  3. @Anonymous:

    "talented staff was too expensive to keep around in between capital campaign/exhibit cycles."


    It's been said that the job of a good executive is to build and nurture their staff in order to grow their organization.

  4. @Eric,

    The NY Hall is an interesting (if outlier) case that had all the traditional elements of an "exhibits department" (Director, fabricators, developers, etc.) but shifted over to a "decentralized" model dependent on outside grants/funding.

    No doubt it works for the Hall, but it could easily be argued that each "Project Head" or NSF PI merely runs their own "temporary" exhibits department complete with developers, etc. for the length of the funding/project.

    It's not easy to find too many other viable museum examples of this "distributed" exhibits model.

  5. deja vu!
    Exactly what has happened to our already meager exhibit department, tasked with creating, updating, and maintaining exhibits (in addition to collections management and archaeology) at four distinct National Register Landmark venues with a staff of 3 and one half people. Very shortly to be one person. I withhold further comment, as it speaks for itself and really, what can one say to this kind of organizational mindset?

  6. This video has a tangential relationship to all this:


  7. Too often broken exhibits remain non-functional for extended periods of time. I think this is often because "subtle" loss of function just goes unnoticed, unless parts fall off- onto the floor. It must be someone's job to keep the core of the business functioning; museums must retain mechanically handy, inventive and scientifically literate staff.
    I also think visitors can be enlisted to help report broken exhibits. A visitor that notices and reports a problem should be praised, rewarded and given the opportunity to remain anonymous.