Saturday, August 29, 2009

Museum Design Thought Experiment: Would/Would Not

After the roiling kerfuffle that came about after my recent "screens" posting, I started thinking about the automatic reactions that we all have about design/exhibit features in museums.

So I'd like to start a little "crowdsourcing" or museum design thought experiment for ExhibiTricks readers.

It's simple --- think about creating a brand new museum, now choose just one design/exhibit feature you absolutely WOULD include, and why, and one design/exhibit feature you absolutely WOULD NOT include in your wonderful new museum, and why.

Now write your WOULD/WOULD NOT new museum design/exhibit features in the "Comments" section below.

I'll start things out by putting my own WOULD/WOULD NOTs right here:

WOULD: I'd include a "FabLab" type space where visitors could use computerized (and non-computerized) design tools to create objects to take home. I'd do that because I think many museum experiences show people the "end products" (art objects, historical artifacts, phenomenological exhibits) without helping them appreciate the process(es) by which those products came about.

WOULD NOT: I would not create a traveling exhibit space in my new, idealized museum. The reason is that I think many museums' use of traveling exhibit spaces becomes either an institutional treadmill or crutch, and I think the time and resources usually spent on bringing in traveling shows (many of which are overpriced junk, but that's a different story ...) could be better utilized by developing exhibits/programming internally that stick around for more than three months.

Let's read your WOULD/WOULD NOTs in the "Comments" section below!

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  1. What I would do:
    I always feel that Art Galleries/Art Museums should allow/create a room for spontaneous dancing and/or have break/out laughter/conversation area where visitors could line up and take a ticket and be paired with a random partner for a 2 minute conversation about the exhibit just seen or a favorite piece. I like the idea of participation that doesn't have to listen to or read a curator's voice and I like the idea of listening to others' interpretation for a kind of reflective de-briefing period.

    I think it would be very interesting for visitors to have a place where they can record some of the questions they still have when leaving an exhibit, knowing that someone will follow up and answer - either a question about the institution itself (Mine is 'What else have you got that you won't let anyone see?) or any question that is puzzling or urgent somehow - for example "Why does that happen? I still don't get it?". Not sure how this would be organized and ridiculously time-consuming but some kind of community answer service (including staff or not) could follow up the questions by email/phone call - getting real value for money from your visit. Is this too nerdish? I just don't know. A way of keeping the conversation going and creating communities.

    What I would not have:

    New buildings (YUK) plenty of decent ones already. Forbidding entrances and badly designed transition/orientation areas. I believe that getting museum virgins through the door is perhaps the biggest achievement.

  2. Would (1): I'm just a big fan of a sandbox. It's such a sensory experience and there are so many concepts kids can explore. So I would include a sandbox (not necessarily with sand, but the same idea) as a permanent piece incorporated into an overall theme.

    Would (2): I'd incorporate works of art, quotes and concepts that appeal to educated adults into the exhibits and spaces, not in a way that dominates the design but accents it. Since this is the ideal museum, it should be engaging to everyone. Besides, I think we grown ups tend to talk down to kids, especially when designing things specifically for them.

    Wouldn't: I wouldn't tolerate a poorly planned entry way. Nothing's worse that trying to pay to get in while wrestling a toddler and juggling your bags. It must be a welcoming environment.

    Paul--thanks for the great ideas!

  3. WOULD: Sofas

    WOULD NOT: Childish language

  4. Hi Paul, I do not agree: Travelling exhibits space is definitely a WOULD. It's an excellent way to create renewal for returning visitors. At least we do not have the money to renew the permanet exhibitions in a pace that would satisfy our more than 60% returners. Also, temporary exhibitions are a great complement for educational programming sometimes outside the standard exhibition box. At Teknikens Hus we have hosted more than 100 temporary exhibtions throughuot our 21 years of operation, some of these have been produced in-house at low cost. I agree totally on the statement that many ehxibitions you can rent are "overpriced junk".

  5. Thanks all for your comments.


    I question whether the cost/benefits of a permanent traveling exhibit space are sound, rather than just the "conventional wisdom" in the museum biz.

    What could be done instead with funds allocated for traveling exhibitions to foster projects that stay longer than three months at the host museum?

  6. Would - Have a place for visitors to leave comments, reflections, impressions or an exhibit especially if it is about a controversial topic. The inadvertent discussions can add to the impact of the exhibit.

    Would not - Use metal halide lighting

  7. Perhaps blurring the travelling, no travelling dichotomy -
    I would have a temporary/flexible exhibition space, and have that for REAL prototypes, and new exhibits - turnover is important but it can still be made from the organisation or groups it works with)..
    so my other would would be an exhibit fabrication workshop ONSITE, and ON view.

    I wouldn't bother with an IMAX or similar theater.

  8. My ideal museum would be seriously hands-on and interdisciplinary, so it

    WOULD contain a blackbox or other reasonable small-theater performance space, sufficient for the purposes of storytelling, 1-4 person plays, and small music performances,

    and WOULD NOT have any labels which resemble an encyclopedia on the wall.

  9. Stuart K...the idea about flexible spaces for prototypes is wonderful. Visitors love to see anything they can about the museum's processes. In the same vein, my ideal art museum would always have some of the paintings hung backwards. The stories that can be told through the markings and materials on the backs of paintings are always engaging and great conversation-starters.