Saturday, May 4, 2024

Is Your Museum In A Rut?

Why is there such a desire to touch things in an art museum? Does all that concentrated looking create a pent-up demand to use our other senses? Or do we long to get a better sense of how an artist created something and the materials they used? 

I was thinking about these things after a recent Art Museum visit.  But then I took a step back and wondered why so many Art Museums and galleries are so often composed of repeating "white boxes" for their displays.

I don't mean to pick on the Art Museum in question, but the galleries there (and in many other art-oriented museums) often seem to lose track of the intellectual and design values of variety in their exhibit environments. Visitors to Art Museums are often faced with the classic "pure white box" style gallery repeated over and over. Within each pure white space, artworks are arranged linearly or in grid patterns on the walls or floors. Couldn't an occasional gallery wall be painted red or blue? 

Different genres of museums tend to get into these stylistic and design "ruts."

My children once remarked on a History Museum exhibition as being a "bunch of old brown things" because the furniture, textiles, and documents on display were all old and brown! The visual rhythm of "brown" and "old" became a sort of unvarying rut that overwhelmed the designers' ultimate content goals. Each object in every glass case was also set on sepia or earth-toned backgrounds.

Have some museum genres become like particular radio stations for both exhibition designers and visitors?  Tune into pristine white spaces on the Art Museum channel and the dimly lit galleries full of "old brown stuff" on the History Museum station?

Are the typical design "ruts" of many science centers -- filled with bright colors and wildly varying architectural forms really conducive to thinking deeply about scientific content?

How can we, as exhibition creators, push ourselves out of the ruts and vary our exhibition design approaches to create more interesting museum spaces and content-driven experiences for our visitors?

Please share your own experiences or examples of "rut-breaking" exhibition spaces in the "Comments" section below!

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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