Monday, March 28, 2016

Stories and Conversations: Some Thoughts on the University of the Arts MEP+D@25 Symposium

For over a quarter of century, the MFA program in Museum Exhibition Planning + Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia has produced change agents in the museum field. Recently the MEP+D program held a symposium, and I was pleased and honored to be an invited provocateur for the occasion.

My takeaways from two days in Philadelphia involved the ways that "stories" and "conversations" are pointing the way toward the next 25 years of the museum business.

Marsha Semmel gave an excellent keynote speech on Thursday evening that touched on the changes in museum exhibitions over the past twenty-five years.  She highlighted influential exhibitions such as 1988's "ART/artifact."  

One side note: it became clear from Marsha's remarks, and also the statements from honorees Jane and Ed Bedno that the museum world has done a terrible job of documenting our own history! Marsha was unable to provide adequate images of many of the seminal exhibitions she discussed during her talk.  Even though sites like ExhibitFiles exist, we, as a profession, need to do a much better job of capturing the stories of exhibition development and design.

Marsha also pointed toward continuing exhibition issues that the profession will continue to grapple with in the future:

• How to maximize the use of story in exhibitions

• Listening-feedback loops between visitors and museums

• Museums having increased comfort with ambiguity (not having all the answers)

• Exhibitions as conversations

For my part of the symposium, I led discussions on Making and Participation as Inclusion with Peggy Monahan.

Some of the topics that came up in our groups were:

• How to create Museum "Fans"?  
Fandom really equals identity for many museum visitors, and a way to share and participate in stories at the museum.

• How best to measure success?
The way that many, if not most, museums gauge success is through quantitative measures like annual attendance or admissions numbers.  But are there qualitative ways to measure museum success?  Like happiness or connectedness of museum visitors.

The UArts MEP+D@25 Symposium was a great opportunity to think about ways to increase inclusion in museums through the use of stories in exhibitions and by changing the voice of authority in cultural institutions.

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