Saturday, October 25, 2008

Why Can't Art Museums Have More Interactive Exhibits?

And why can't Science Museums and Children's Museums (the traditionally "hands-on museums) have more "hands-off" (minds-on?) artworks on display?

I started thinking some more about this since I recently opened an exhibition entitled "The Animated Artwork of Laura Vaccaro Seeger" at The Nassau County Museum of Art here on Long Island. (It's up until January 4th, 2009, so if you're in the area, come take a look!)

The exhibition includes interactive exhibits and installations that naturally dovetail with themes like light and color, metamorphosis, and negative space that show up in the award-winning children's books that Laura writes and illustrates. This would definitely NOT be a big deal if I was designing this sort of show at a "hands-on" museum, but this was the first time that NCMA had put on a show with so many deliberately interactive exhibit pieces. Initially the museum staff were even a little freaked out by having loose books in the gallery (in a show by an author!)
so we compromised by mounting the books on "reading shelves" attached to the walls.

Shows like the art museum show, "Take Your Time" by Olafur Eliasson, incorporate stunning pieces that, with a little tweaking, could make equally amazing science museum exhibits. But since Eliasson's pieces are "art" they are not meant to be touched, or interacted with physically, at least inside of an art museum.

At issue seems to be the context that people (with or without young children in tow) approach different types of museums. The atmosphere in most art museums is on the level of a library --- hushed tones, silent contemplation, and guards occasionally telling people to settle down. One of the complaints from guards (but not visitors!) in the Laura Vaccaro Seeger show is that some of the interactive pieces make noise, or cause the visitors to make noise!

Of course most science centers and children's museums often seem like a cross between a fun house and a race track --- frenetic busy activity, and experiences that seem to invite chaos more than contemplation. So is it possible to introduce contemplative experiences into such active spaces?

I remember speaking with Bernie Zubrowski about a piece that he developed and displayed at The Exploratorium, entitled "The Ghost of Amelia Earhart". The piece incorporated a silky piece of fabric (Amelia's scarf?) immersed in a tank of water being gently swirled by currents. There are interesting moire patterns caused when the fabric overlaps, as well as mysterious shadows formed by the lighting inside the tank.

When I saw Bernie's piece at The Exploratorium, I loved it. Unfortunately, I was one of the very few visitors to take the time to pay attention to its subtle pleasures. Despite being a treasure trove of art and science exhibits, The Exploratorium wasn't really conducive to a piece like Bernie's which required quiet concentration from the viewer. However, "The Ghost of Amelia Earhart" would have been very well received in an art museum or gallery show.

So how can we get art museums to "loosen up" on their approach to exhibits and visitor interactions, or should we?

What about more getting "interactive museums" to provide more contemplative spaces and opportunities?

Or are all types of museums trapped by the genre classifications that they have worked so hard to foster and create?

UPDATE: Here's an interesting article on the subject concerning the "Act/React: Interactive Installation Art" exhibition that will open in Milwaukee in January 2009.

What do you think? Should we just let art museums be art museums, and hands-on museums be hands-on museums, or have you seen exhibits or exhibitions that help blur the lines? Put your thoughts into the "Comments Section" below!

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  1. I think science museums should have lots of content aimed at adults. If science museums stayed open late on Friday and Saturday nights, added an interactive "Be the DJ" dance floor and served alcohol, our local museums could increase profits and be more fun than any bar in town.

  2. I visited an art museum once where visitors were invited to write labels for the art pieces. Not wildly interactive, but at least I was asked for my input!

    Jane Science Outside the Box (.com)

  3. I've worked in both science museums and art museums, and one reason that art museums rarely host or develop interactive exhibits is that they have no idea how to deal with them operationally. They just don't have the staff. Art museums have preparators and curators, science museums have exhibit developers and exhibit techs.

  4. When I was Director of the Berkshire Museum, I developed an exhibit that combined the work of kinetic sculptor Arthur Ganson and a large hands-on area with Toobers and Zots, a toy that Arthur invented. Visitors could build anything they wanted with the T&Z-- it was basically an ongoing work of community-built art. There was a large (50 sf) metal frame castle constructed by a local sculptor that could be used as an armature, but people built all sorts of stuff-- kachinas, chairs, igloos, gardens. Every night, I took apart that day's work so the next day's visitors could start all over. I did it myself because in a small museum, there was no one else to do it.

  5. Hi Ann,

    I think your comment cuts to the heart of the matter. If a museum and museum staff really wants to do something, they will find a way.

  6. Interesting - we're a children's museum for little kids (6 months - 8 years, avg age 3.5) - but we do have some "quieter" spaces - especially some of our outdoor areas - our 2.5 acre Lookout Cove has some areas that invite contemplation, especially the further out from the center action you go - up on the hillside with the view of the Golden Gate Bridge, for example...interesting as well to consider the idea of deliberately creating a chill-out zone for kids - what would it look like to invite quieter experiences by toddlers?

  7. Interesting discussion. I work for a children's museum and am designing a potential experience that is primarily a contemplative experience. There has been push back and concerns that it won't be worth it because visitors will just walk through it. I think a balance is a good idea, but at the end of the day who wants an exhibit space that is a dud.

  8. Hey hersheybar,

    I'd say go for it!

    The only way to "prove" to your co-workers that quiet, more intimate exhibit spaces "work" is to make one.

    It's a shame that more contemplative and subtle exhibit experiences are overlooked in the often frenetic world of children's museums.

  9. I manage an interactive family gallery in a contemporary art museum. There are objects to touch and explore, as well as an art activity to take home. I find it difficult to get the development and tech support needed to go further -- though this is definitely one of the most interesting developments in art museums these days.