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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