Sunday, October 5, 2014

What's The Big Idea?

A recent article in The Washington Post about the new exhibition “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations” at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) made me think about the importance of "The Big Idea" in exhibition development.

The Post journalists basically put forward the notion that much of the NMAI visitor experience inside the exhibitions (but not the universally acclaimed museum cafe!) suffers from a lack of clear organizing concepts.  To quote The Post directly about the formation of the institution: " ... the leaders of the NMAI allowed individual tribes extraordinary input and power over what viewers saw in the museum’s galleries. The results were controversial: It was, in many ways, the ultimate postmodern museum experience, with no central narrative, no omniscient voice and no absolute appeals to the voice of science and history. But from the visitor’s point of view, it was also bewildering."   

But now it seems that the NMAI has gone back to the fundamentals of exhibition narrative (aka "The Big Idea") as described by Beverly Serrell ( in her foundational book "Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach."

Rather than employing community curators and multiple perspectives, the NMAI brought in writer and Indian rights activist Suzan Shown Harjo to curate the "Nation to Nation" exhibition and to bring a strong editorial voice to the proceedings.

To be clear, strong curators can drive forward lousy exhibitions just as readily as a chaotic mish-mash of community input can, but it's difficult (and I'd say nearly impossible) to create a great exhibition without a strong central idea overall and equally strong messages as you break up the exhibition into smaller and smaller physical and conceptual chunks --- down to the individual exhibit component and informational graphic level.

You would think understanding the importance of strong exhibition narratives and clear framing ideas to create compelling visitor experiences would be "Museums 101" but it's apparent from my recent visits to a variety of museums around North America, that it's not clear at all.

How the Big Ideas get lost 

And I suppose there are two main reasons for why the Big Ideas get lost:

1) Crafting strong Big Ideas, and testing your concepts out with visitors, is hard!  It takes time to get the foundational ideas for an exhibition in place, and it takes institutional commitment to keep working at it, and trying things out to get honest responses from visitors and advisors.  That doesn't mean it's not worth doing, but rushing into physical designs and exhibit concepts before you have your exhibition conceptual framework in order is either a result of inexperience, or the result of significant outside pressures.  Which brings us to reason Number 2 that Big Ideas often get lost:

2) Don't let money or lack of perspective derail your exhibition narratives.  Of course every exhibition benefits from, if not downright requires, outside funding and input.  But something significant is lost when exhibition decisions are made to please outside funders (or community groups) rather than the end users inside the museum.  At its worst, this perversion of the exhibit development process pimps out the museum and misrepresents the ideas inside the exhibition.

So what's to be done to ensure that strong Big Ideas become the foundations for equally strong exhibition experiences?  Aside from buying, reading, and then implementing the ideas in Beverly Serrell's book, I'd say allying yourself with strong advisors, community leaders, and other stakeholders who put the visitor experience first is a good place to start.

There may well be some tense discussions when you push back against funders or members of the public trying to advance agendas outside the scope of a particular project, but the efforts will show in your final exhibition!

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