Thursday, July 17, 2008

Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions: An Interview With Kathy McLean

Kathy McLean is a real dynamo who keeps thinking about ways to improve museum exhibitions, and the process by which exhibitions are developed, even after many years in the field. She is currently the president of VSA, The Visitor Studies Association.

Kathy has shared her insights about the exhibition process through her collection of thoughtful books on the subject, most of which are available through ASTC or AAM. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for ExhibiTricks about her work and background.

What’s your educational background?

I attended Friends World College, an experimental college founded by Quakers in the 1960s and based on the notion that if we better understood people's cultures and traditions, we would have a greater chance at achieving global peace. The college was modeled after Dewey's theories of education as experience and the American Friends Service Committee work camps, and we spent our four undergraduate years doing work-study at seven regional centers around the world. I spent most of my time in Mexico, Kenya, India, and Japan.

What got you interested in Museums?

I was looking for a job in the early 1970s, and the Oakland Museum had a number of positions funded by CETA, the Comprehensive Education and Training Act which was an extension of the WPA. I was hired as a Museum Curatorial Specialist to participate in the development and design of a major exhibition—Earthquake!—funded by the National Science Foundation. After about two months at the museum, I realized that this was the type of place that brought together all of my interests— informal education, cultural studies, environmental studies, and civic engagement.

What are some of your best/favorite examples of innovative exhibits?

I still appreciate "The Etiquette of the Undercaste," developed back in the early 1990s by Antenna Theater (not to be confused with Antenna Audio). I went through it at the Experimental Gallery at the Smithsonian. I say "went through it" rather than "saw it" (which is what most people say when describing their experience of an exhibition) because it was a physical experience as much as an experience of sight and the imagination. I entered the exhibition by lying down on a mortuary slab and being pushed into a body vault. On the other side, I was "reborn" and got up and walked through the exhibition as a homeless person. The entire exhibition seemed to be constructed primarily of cardboard, tape, and string. An extraordinary experiment.

I have written a lot about "Massive Change," an exhibition by Bruce Mau on the notion of design as the ultimate tool of social change. I enjoyed the exhibition because of its fresh approach to old rules—many of them deliberately broken—regarding exhibition design and communication. It was a traveling exhibition organized by the Vancouver Gallery of Art, and it only went to three venues, partly because it was large and expensive, but I think primarily because it couldn't be pigeonholed. Was it an art exhibition, a science exhibition, a history exhibition? It didn't fit into the museum mold. Too bad.

One of my favorites that I worked on was "Boundaries: It All Happens on the Edge" at the Exploratorium. It took less than $50,000 and 6 months to develop, from initial idea to installation. An environment constructed of painter's scaffolding, construction fencing, road signs, and large evocative graphics on cardboard panels, it contained a variety of interactive exhibits, immersive environments, and visitor feedback components dealing with a broad range of notions of boundaries, from semi-permeable membranes to personal space, from physics to psychology. It was a real oddball at the Exploratorium partially because it was such an intentionally designed environment, and partially because it was so thematic. One staff member said it was "the ugliest exhibit we have ever done." But visitors seemed to be very engaged, visitors from the Society of Environmental Graphic Design Conference were very excited by it, and it won an AAM Award for Exhibition Excellence.

Tell us a little bit about ExhibitFiles and your role in that?

For years, one of my soapboxes has been that museum exhibition professionals are ahistorical, every few years reinventing the same old wheel. I wrote "Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions" to help overcome that myopia. I've always dreamed of creating an exhibitions archive or some way to gather the knowledge and experience of past and present colleagues so that future colleagues could benefit from their experiences. When I worked on "Best Practices in Science Exhibition Development," I had my first opportunity to facilitate the creation of 12 case studies of exhibitions that colleagues considered to be exemplary. Wendy Pollock and I dreamed up the idea of continuing that process online, and with Jim Spadacinni as the digital designer, ExhibitFiles was born. I am co-PI on the NSF grant that funded the startup. For the most part, my role now is to contribute, to encourage others to contribute, and to think about ways to improve its usability and access.

Why are so many current museums and exhibitions replaying the same design approaches?

I think it gets back to the old "reinventing the wheel" problem. People don't KNOW they are replaying the same design approaches. People don't build on what others have done—or take things in new directions—because they are operating in a relative vacuum. And most museums aren't pushing for excellence—"adequate" seems to be good enough.

Can you talk a little about some of your current projects?

I recently finished conceptual consulting work on the Dallas Museum of Art's Center for Creative Connections (C3)—it opened in May.

And I'm now working on a wonderful reinstallation project at the Oakland Museum of California. I am the consulting Creative Director on the History Gallery redesign. It's strange, because I started my career at the Oakland Museum, and now I am back there 30 years later. It is wonderful to have a major project in my home town, and not have to fly around the country. It's a challenging project, because it has a very tight budget and time frame, and we are trying to do some experiments with interpretation and design. We are incorporating a number of visitor and community co-designed elements, and we are planning on a "soft" opening, after which we will test everything in context and redesign based on the results.

I'm also working with Wendy Pollock on another book—this one on museum spaces (spaces in both the real and metaphoric sense of the word) and the work is very engaging. I keep thinking back to one of my favorite articles about museum space— "The Museum as Symbolic Experience" by Sheldon Annis—which describes three concurrent types of museum visitor experience: in cognitive space, where people acquire factual knowledge; pragmatic space, where the person rather than the object is the focus and museum-going is a social event; and dream space, or the arena of the symbolic.

Being President of the Visitor Studies Association also keeps me busy. I am working with an extraordinary group of visitor studies professionals who are shepherding the organization through a major expansion of its reach and its mission.

What design trends from outside the museum world should we be paying more attention to?

I think technology-based customization is a big one. Whether people are designing their own jeans online or virtually experimenting with different room colors before they paint their house, the public is coming to expect to be able to participate in the design process in some way. And to create something just for them. This has huge implications for museum exhibition design, which has always tended to be a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Can you talk about your role in the "Plants Are Up To Something" project, and the increasing interest in zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens in interactive exhibits and immersive environments?

The Huntington Conservatory's Project Manager Kitty Connolly brought me onto the project as an advisor during its initial stages. After I left my position at the Exploratorium in 2004, I got more involved as a consulting designer. I think the project and the installation have been successful because of the amount of thoughtful formative evaluation they did over several years. I know zoos and aquaria have been experimenting with interactive elements for some time now. But I think "Plants Are Up to Something" is the first time a botanic garden has created something so authentically interactive.

If money and time were no object, what would your “dream” exhibition project be?

I don't really need a lot of money or time to do my dream exhibitions (and I have several I keep thinking about). I need organizations that are interested in presenting unusual, thought-provoking experiences. I would love to have the freedom to design some small, experimental installations with museums willing to take a risk.

Before I left the Exploratorium, we were developing an idea for an exhibition on social psychology—tentatively titled "Them and Us"—which was very exciting to me. I'd like to develop an exhibition on symbols, symbolism and archetypal psychology, using the work of Joseph Campbell and others. I'd also like to take a constrained situation—like one cubic foot of earth, or one cubic foot of air—and develop a whole exhibition around it. And I'd love to do an exhibition on the transformative power of music.


Thanks again to Kathy McLean for sharing her thoughts about museums and museum exhibitions!

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