Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Night Circus and The Fusion Museum

Last week I woke up in the middle of the night in a hotel room with "The Night Circus" and ideas of a "Fusion Museum" whizzing around my head.

Fusion is a great concept --- the idea of taking a number of different things and combining them into one entity.  It's no surprise then that "fusion" can meaningfully turn up whether you're talking about music, art, cooking, or science.  And notions of "fusion" and Erin Morgenstern’s brilliant novel "The Night Circus" might actually both point toward new ways of thinking about what museums can do, and how.

(A slight diversion first to say a few words about The Night Circus:  it is a novel that sucks you in from the start; the structure of interconnected stories and narrative pathways echo the structure of the titular circus itself.   And what a circus it is!  I kept thinking: "this would make a great exhibit" or "it would be cool to create an environment that lets visitors do this."

Obviously, The Night Circus is a novel, not a museum how-to manual, but museum folks will find much to enjoy, and think about here.)

There have been interlocking ideas in the zeitgeist of how passive audiences --- in theater, in museums, in consumer culture --- can become more active participants.  These ideas have been bubbling up and taking hold in museums, especially the elements of Maker culture and immersive theater.  I'm not talking about only event or program driven museums here, but rather places that are combining exhibits, programs, and environments in new and artful ways.

The City Museum seems like a good example of one possible type of fusion museum to me --- it crosses between art, science, and history in its content and it allows visitors to move through a wide variety of spaces and experiences at their own pace.  Turn a corner guided by the smell of toast and you might find yourself in an exhibition about toasters.  (With a volunteer at the back offering to make you a piece of toast using a vintage toaster.)

Several museums have partnered with the folks behind MAKE magazine and the Maker Faires to create experiences for their audiences to actively explore ideas, tools, and materials.  In addition to Maker Faires (and mini-Maker Faires) which pop up and pitch their tents (like the Circus!) and then move on to the next venue, museums have been looking for ways to develop permanent exhibition spaces that move beyond the traditional make-and-take areas using recycled materials.

Notable examples of spaces that give visitors the space (both intellectually and architecturally) to play with ideas and materials include The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium and MAKESHOP at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.  These spaces are not driven solely by content (although content is clearly there) but rather by process.

If you're thinking of the possibilities of fusing participatory workshops and programs with exhibition spaces a Maker-oriented space should definitely be on your agenda.  A word of caution however, fusion spaces and experiences require a certain amount of "care and feeding."  If your organization doesn't yet have the internal capacity to maintain and evolve the things you set into motion, they will eventually stagnate, if not outright fail.

If you go to any museum conference or gathering of museum professionals, you will inevitably here the term "immersive environment" come up.  But like most buzzwords, the real question is "Yes, but what does that actually mean in practice?"  I would contend that if you are looking for a fusion of interesting objects, evocative environments, and passionate theatrical storylines and techniques, that you would be well served to consider the work of the UK group Punchdrunk.  (Interestingly, Erin Morgenstern recognizes Punchdrunk in the acknowledgments to The Night Circus ...)

In their own words:  "Punchdrunk has pioneered a game changing form of immersive theatre in which roaming audiences experience epic storytelling inside sensory theatrical worlds. Blending classic texts, physical performance, award-winning design installation and unexpected sites, the company's infectious format rejects the passive obedience usually expected of audiences.

Lines between space, performer and spectator are constantly shifting. Audiences are invited to rediscover the childlike excitement and anticipation of exploring the unknown and experience a real sense of adventure. Free to encounter the installed environment in an individual imaginative journey, the choice of what to watch and where to go is theirs alone."

Punchdrunk currently has a show in New York called "Sleep No More" which uses Shakespeare's Macbeth as its starting point.  Participants (not merely audience members) move through an old hotel and explore spaces or interact with actors in a non-linear way.  Put simply, Punchdrunk's work will leave you discombobulated, but in a good way.  More importantly for museum people, and especially exhibit designers, attending a Punchdrunk performance will force you to reexamine your notions of what is possible inside exhibitions and museums --- how much freedom people can have to explore ideas and spaces simultaneously.  If you are near NYC and you hurry you still might be able to get tickets!

I would be remiss if I didn't insert a sincere tip of the hat here also to Seb Chan and his blog post,  "An exhibition is a mixtape"  which seems to cross over into a (perhaps?) related notion for a radical shift in the making of museum exhibitions (and he also name-checks "Sleep No More" in his blog for good measure!)

So here the blog post comes to an end.  Is there something to the notion of creating "fusion" experiences in museums that woke me up in the middle of the night or was it all a bit of a fever dream?

Creating your own experiments in museum fusion?  Tell us more in the comments section below, or send me an email directly.  I'd love to hear more about these sorts of ideas. 

Don't miss out on any ExhibiTricks posts! It's easy to get updates via email or your favorite news reader. Just click the "Sign up for Free ExhibiTricks Blog Updates" link on the upper right side of the blog.

P.S. If you receive ExhibiTricks via email (or Facebook or LinkedIn) you will need to click HERE to go to the main ExhibiTricks page to make comments or view multimedia features (like videos!)