Wednesday, March 4, 2015

3 Ways To Edit Your Exhibits

"In art economy is always beauty."  ~ Henry James

I've been jetting all around the United States these days for my museum consulting practice and after recently visiting two new museums, I was reminded of the power of "exhibition editing."

There's a tendency for folks that are new(er) to developing museum exhibits to want to jam as many concepts (or objects or exhibit components ...) into a space as possible.  It's almost as if they don't trust their ideas to carry the visitors along and instead feel that more of EVERYTHING would be better.

It's natural when imagining a new empty museum building or exhibition gallery to feel compelled to fill the spaces and walls with stuff (and museums have lots of stuff!) but your visitors will be better served if you take a step back and resist that urge.

Aside from the truism that "sometimes the easiest way to fix an exhibit is to change the label" what are some easy ways to edit your exhibits?  Here are a three things to keep in mind when editing:

BEFORE OPENING: What's the Big Idea?  Which are the essential parts of your exhibition's story arc that can't be removed? Keep those and junk the rest.  (Click here to see a recent post on keeping to the Big Idea.)  This is especially important when your exhibition ideas are tied to large objects or component sets that can't be easily moved (or removed!) after opening.

DURING INSTALLATION: Be on the watch for duplicate sets of materials or too many loose parts.  This is a common problem in Maker/Tinker type spaces --- does every work station need a complete set of markers, colored pencils, cutting devices, and glues, or could you cluster these things in materials stations to reduce the clutter and chaos?  Similarly many Children's Museums or Early Learner exhibition areas have Puppet Theater components --- but do you need multiple complete sets of puppet figures (like fantasy figures or animals) instead of rotating through one thematic set at a time? 

• AFTER OPENING: Evaluate (and edit) by observation.  Set aside time to watch your visitors move throughout your exhibition.  Are there "dead spots" where nobody ends up? What could you shift around physically, or conceptually, to change those traffic patterns?  Similarly, if certain exhibits seem constantly overcrowded are there ways to either duplicate the materials and concepts, or split them up to spread out the visitor interactions?

Of course, exhibition editing should be an ongoing and iterative process.  Remember the words attributed to an anonymous Exhibit Developer:  Create without fear; edit without mercy! 

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