Friday, July 13, 2012

ReWind: Grocery Store Exhibits?

I've spent this week in beautiful Knoxville conducting community input groups for The MUSE, an emerging museum here.  Even though we weren't soliciting specific exhibit ideas at this stage, people couldn't help share their excitement for exhibit areas they had seen at other museums around the country.

Inevitably (perhaps) when the discussion turned to young children, and children's museums, the old exhibit warhorse of the kid-sized grocery store reared its head.  So I thought now would be a good time to re-post the reasons why I dislike grocery store exhibits so, in a screed entitled:

"NOT Another Grocery Store Exhibit!"

At the end of a recent conference presentation, I threw a chunk or rhetorical "red meat" to the crowd by saying that I'd be quite happy if I never saw another kid-sized grocery store exhibit in a children's museum ever again. Given the raised eyebrows and open-mouthed stares from many in the audience I thought I'd share the top five reasons why I dislike grocery store exhibits:

1) Grocery store exhibits are the anthithesis of "green design."
Dumping a truckload (literally!) of fake plastic produce and grocery items onto shelves and into bins sets a tremendously bad example for sustainable exhibit design practice.

2) Grocery store exhibits are unfair to museum floor staff and volunteers.
These galleries might more accurately be called "entropy exhibits" since the main activity for young visitors seems to be to madly rush about pulling every facsimile grocery store item off the shelves, shoving them into the miniature shopping carts or onto the phony checkout conveyor and then leaving. The poor floor staff and volunteers assigned to this area then, Sisyphus-like,
engage in resorting the mess left behind again and again as new visitors enter the mini store.

3) Grocery store exhibits are just creatively lazy.
When I visit a museum with one of these areas, I instinctively think, "well, they must have run out of good exhibit ideas." Despite all the high-minded rationalizations --- "the kids are learning about food groups" or "our grocery store shows visitors where milk and tomatoes actually come from..." I say if that was really what you wanted to get visitors thinking about, there are only about a dozen more entertaining and interesting ways to address those particular topics in an exhibition format than riding the tired mini grocery store warhorse once again. (Although if food groups or farm to store topics were high on your exhibit"wish list" to begin with, I'm not sure I'd want to visit with my kids in the first place.)

4) Grocery store exhibits send at least as many unintended messages as intended messages.
I'd really rather not send the message that it's alright to tear up an exhibit area and make a mess and then leave it to other people to clean up, or that shopping for food is some sort of wacky leisure activity instead of a necessity. If we really thought carefully about the ideas that kids are leaving grocery store exhibits with instead of blithely, and automatically, assuming that frenetic activity in an exhibition area equals "fun" or "learning" we might try out some different ideas.

5) Grocery store exhibits are the worst sort of craven fundraising ploys.
One of the most common reasons I hear directors defend their choice of a kid-sized grocery store exhibit is "We can easily get a sponsor for this." Believe me, after 27 years in the museum business, I understand the need to fundraise, but are you trying to create unique, amazing exhibit spaces, or just sell chunks of museum real estate?

Unfortunately most museum "sacred cows" come from just the sort of "well this is the way we've always done things" or "I've heard it works amazingly well at Museum X" sort of thinking.

What do you think? Do you have some of your own favorite museum "sacred cows" you'd like to throw on the fire? Let us know in the "Comments" section below.

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