Saturday, March 5, 2011

Inspiration May be Hazardous to Exhibit Design

“You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”  ~ Jack London

As I was touring through a new exhibition at a very large museum recently, a person from the Exhibits Department complained to me that they didn't have enough time or money to prototype their interactive exhibits. 


"So how do you work out which ideas to put into your exhibitions?" I asked.  The Exhibits person admitted that they spent a large amount of time gathering exhibit notions together that the designers felt "inspired by" and produced those things to create the final exhibition --- generally leaving no time or money for remediation, if technical or content aspects fell flat.

I immediately thought of the Jack London quote at the top of this post, and considered how slippery the notion of inspiration is. And how the best exhibit components often come about from spending time with visitors and ideas and materials figuring out what works (and what doesn't) and stumbling onto serendipitous avenues that would never have been found in mind-numbing development meetings or the reveries of creating slick computer renderings to show potential donors.

I wonder if the oft-repeated plaint of "no time or no money" for prototyping and testing components/concepts/whatever (or for fixing things after an exhibition opens) is just a convenient excuse to cover the fear of the unknown.  Is waiting for the clouds to open and inspiration to strike  just a similar sort of excuse?


New ideas are fragile things, especially ideas centered around approaches that have never been tried before.  Doubts start to creep in: What if your ideas fall flat before your peers during a presentation meeting?  What if visitors don't like the ideas?  Many museums speed through, or try to short-change, the often messy and plain hard work of really trying ideas out even though the final exhibition is often better for these early uncertainties.  These museums want the inspiration, but they aren't willing to go after it with a club.

So here's an idea for your current (or next) exhibits project:  take one exhibit idea, even if it's not fully formed and truly "inspiring" and just try it out for at least 20 minutes with visitors inside your museum.  You can test or show your idea with paper, tape, and a pen (stuff you already have near your workspace) Ask your visitors questions. Let them make suggestions.  You do have time (20 minutes) and money (near zero) to do this!  


Who knows?  You might even get inspired. 


"The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case."   ~ Chuck Close

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  1. Link to excellent quotes from Thomas Edison on inspiration vs deductive problem solving (hard work):

  2. Applicable to exhibit design and . . . . . applicable to life in general.

  3. The lab manager where I did my undergrad degree had a sign in his office, "If you don't have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?" I've come to realize that prototyping is critical to "doing it right". Thanks for reminding us that it can be done without requiring a lot of either time or money.