Monday, March 15, 2010

In Support of Idiosyncrasy


People often ask me which museums are my favorite. I don't like to give a list. I've only visited about 0.01% of the institutions out there and I suspect that the other 99.99% includes some real gems. But when I really think about it, all my favorites (so far) have one thing in common. It's not the extent to which they are participatory. It's not their size or type or subject matter. It's the extent to which they are distinctive, and more precisely, idiosyncratic.

I visit lots of perfectly nice, perfectly forgettable museums. The institutions that stick with me are the ones that have a peculiar individuality. In some cases, that's based on subject matter, as at the Museum of Jurassic Technology or the American Visionary Art Museum. Other institutions are idiosyncratic in their relationship to their environment, like the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, or to their community, like the Wing Luke Asian Museum. Some are scrappy and iconoclastic, like the City Museum in St. Louis, whereas others are august stalwarts like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. While most of my favorites are small (idiosyncrasy is easier to maintain without too many committees), some are quite large--places like the Exploratorium where a singular ethos infuses a massive facility.

Idiosyncratic institutions aren't just quirky and weird. They are usually staffed by people who feel incredibly passionate about their particular focus. These institutions are often more connected to their specific, local communities than more generic institutions. They are akin to local news organizations and charities. They reflect the soul of the community and can be responsive to its unique interests and needs. They are places that people point to with pride and say, "that's our place."

15th Avenue Coffee & TeaEven the business world is getting wise to the power of idiosyncrasy. The 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea shop (shown at right) is not a small community-owned place. It's a Starbucks. Over the last year, Starbucks has been opening stores in a few cities with a very different look--one that emulates the handmade, community vibe of locally-owned coffee shops. Whether you think this is a brilliant move or a corporate swindle, it demonstrates that even a large company with a highly branded, consistent image sees the benefit of individualizing offerings to different markets. Starbucks can't be a small funky startup, but it can try to look like one.

Why are museums going in the other direction, trying to become more consistent rather than celebrating their idiosyncrasies? To some extent, it's externally-driven. Funders and potential donors tend to look for particular benchmarks of professionalism (appropriately), and few are comfortable funding the most risky or content-specific institutions. But that's only part of the story. Mostly, institutions move away from idiosyncrasy on their own accord. I see three significant internal reasons for homogenization in museums:
  1. As money gets tight, museums look for exhibits, program strategies, and revenue streams that are "proven" by other institutions' successes, rather than charting their own potentially risky path.
  2. Many museums no longer employ in-house exhibit developers, relying instead on a short list of contractors and consultants. Design firms' projects often have a common look across different cities and institutions.
  3. Small museums, which are most likely to cultivate local, distinctive voice and approaches, often have an inferiority complex. Rather than asserting their uniqueness, they try to emulate large museums.
The institutions that seem most prey to a "cookie cutter" approach are science centers and children's museums. These institutions have three additional reasons for homogeneity:
  1. The audience cycles frequently as families "age out." Institutions may feel less of a need to offer something unusual or distinctive if the audience will keep refreshing every few years.
  2. The content is often seen as not being community-specific. Science is science, and grocery store exhibits are grocery store exhibits. Funders like the NSF have encouraged science centers in particular to share their techniques and evaluations, which is fabulous but also leads to rampant and sometimes unthinking imitation.
  3. These museums have undergone the fastest growth in the industry in the past thirty years. There is a big business of selling exhibits, copies of exhibits, and exhibit recipe books, and many individuals who start new institutions rely almost entirely on these vehicles to fill their galleries.
I think this is a particular shame because children's museums and science centers have the greatest opportunity to introduce young visitors to the special delights of a uniquely community-focused, idiosyncratic approach. The best children's and science museums are deeply community-interrelated, often in ways that are hard to discern from the exhibits when experiencing them casually. They may feature community gardens or exhibit labels in languages tailored to locals. They may employ local artists to help create visitor experiences. They may build their exhibits to accommodate the interests and needs of particular families and school groups they have known and worked with for years. Or they may just have an unusual and distinctive spirit or ethos behind their work.

I understand why retail establishments benefit from becoming bigger, more homogeneous, and more distributed. People like to buy from chains because they know what they are going to get. But consistency should not be the number one value when it comes to providing visitors with educational, aesthetic, social, and hopefully transformative experiences. I'd argue that one of the top reasons people DON'T visit museums is that they think they already know what they are going to get. Especially when it comes to small museums with limited collections, a distinctive personality is often the best thing the institution has to offer. Trying to cover it up or smooth it out in favor of "best practices" does a disservice to the museum and the audience. It creates another forgettable museum.

Do you share my love of idiosyncratic institutions? How can you cultivate idiosyncrasy in your own work and museum?

10 comments, add yours!:

Robert C said...

We are a smallish prehistoric/historic Native American culture Museum. We began to actively collaborate with similarly themed museums in about a 2-3 hour driving radius. Our collaboration is one of cross-promotion, and more importantly, complimentary vs. redundant programs. We try to work to our individual strengths in exhibits and program as opposed to mimicking the success of nearby institutions. In so doing, our intent is to do away with the cookie-cutter set of identical experiences from site to site. Perhaps not terribly idiosyncratic, but at least moving a little more toward the end of the bell shaped curve.

Jack Kirby said...

I don't disagree with much of this post, but I would reiterate a point I've made elsewhere, regarding your point that "design firms' projects often have a common look across different cities and institutions." I'd suggest it's mainly professionals who notice this - genuine visitors are unlikely to see as many examples of Firm X's work as those of us who are actively comparing similar organisations in different places.

Having said this, my own organisation, a combination of museum and science centre, does attempt (and, I think, often succeeed) to maintain a distinct flavour to our exhibitions, in response to demand from our audience for locally and regionally relevant content that shows the relevance of science to our lives rather than purely abstract phenomena. This means that whether it's selecting items from our historical collections, developing exhibits based on recent research in local universities, or inviting local people to curate content with us, we try to make our exhibits unique. This approach extends through to the briefing we give designers and I believe that, while we're not the most idiosyncratic museum I've ever visited, our exhibitions are very memorable.

Nadja said...

I agree with you about idiosyncrasy. I get tired slogging through "cookie-cutter" exhibits. I start to glaze-over after a while because I know what to expect next.

However, being a graphic designer, I NEED to have well-designed text panels and pleasing arrangements. Some less slick exhibits that I've been drawn to seem to have thrown good design out the window. I can't think of how many times I've wanted to put a note in the suggestion box (if there is one) "Please add more leading to your text, please!!" So, if there is a way to have good design combined with unusual design, that would be ideal!

Cathy Stanton said...

Very smart post, Nina. I'm also very partial to the funky, eccentric, and untrendy in museums.

I'd agree with all of your analyses of what is behind the increased homogenization of museum display, and would also suggest that the overall professionalization of many fields involved in museum display (interpretive planning, tourism planning, place-making/branding, public history, museum education, as well as exhibit design itself) contributes hugely to this. Not only does it create a set of templates that people tend to default to, and a network of firms working across the whole museum landscape, but professional networks of association where people share ideas and practices. This is a positive development in many ways, but I think you're right that we need to fight to preserve idiosyncracy (in ourselves as well as our institutions and communities) to balance all of these networks!

Paul Orselli said...

@Nina,

The most "idiosyncratic" museums (including many interesting ones in the science center and children's museum genres --- you need to get out more!) don't need "support" because they just get on with it and make cool stuff.

It is not surprising that many, if not most, of the examples you cite were started by strong (idiosyncratic?) founders who did/do not put up with "design by committee" and "agree to anything to get the grant" mentalities common in larger institutions.

@Jack Kirby
The problem with "design firms" is not the similar "look" in the end products, it's the "paint by numbers" approach of getting to the end products --- which really does matter to genuine visitors.

Wendy said...

I agree completely. I think the reason why my small science centre has retained an idiosyncratic identity is through our regular production of in-house exhibitions and one-off exhibits.

Anyone in the organisation (we are beginning to grow larger, with about 100 staff now including casual floor staff) can suggest an exhibit. And we can get involved with the process the whole way through.

Political and financial concerns to hamper us on occasion, however. Particularly the saleability of the exhibitions we develop, as this is our largest source of income.

Our workshop team is about20-25 strong, and I truly think that without them we would lose a great deal of the personality and responsiveness we are able to exude today.

dancull said...

Great post!

I too love idiosyncratic museums.

I should also admit I can't stand chain-corporations whether or not they try to be idiosyncratic, which incidentally I feel they always fail at because its not something you can fake, sure you can make things look idiosyncratic but they will feel too staged unless there is that real passion behind it.

It's for this reason that I think you are 100% right, such idiosyncratic museums have a really unique selling point that they should not shy away from and wish they were like the cookie cutter museums.

A book I've been meaning to read for ages, terms them "offbeat museums" which I really like as a term. I have no idea if the book is any good, but, here it is (I thought it looks like an interesting book to have in the car when driving to random places):

Offbeat Museums: A Guided Tour of America's Weirdest and Wackiest Museums ~ by Saul Rubin. (amazon link)

Cheers,

Dan.

Kelly Brisbois said...

This is a post that resonates in the museum field and many other creative and educational fields. Your specific points are useful because what we need to look at is the process that a team undergoes to build both meaningful and innovative exhibits and programs. Based on the comments above, several museums have a process that allows staff to voice multiple perspectives on a topic, and where, hopefully, the museum's leadership values them as well. I am interested in building some clarity and understanding about the process of creative teams that are successful in producing Idiosyncratic museums.

Audrey said...

I am not in the museum industry, but I am an avid museum attendee. I too am a fan of the idiosyncratic, “unforgettable” museum. Some of my favorite museum experiences have been at “off the wall” institutions. However, even though it may seem safe, there are times when I enjoy knowing what I’m getting into with my museum experience. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for museums being unique or finding their niche. But at the same time I feel there is a time and place for the more conventional museum format. It’s true that idiosyncratic museums are interesting because, by definition, they’re different and may get me thinking about things in a way I haven’t before. But on the flip side, there are days when I just want to go to a gallery and see some dinosaur bones or a Monet and know how they’ll be presented. For me there’s something relaxing and comfortable about the “old school” museum, even if it is just the same as a hundred others.

Nina Simon said...

Kelly, great point. I'm fascinating by companies like Pixar, IDEO, etc. that are huge but seem to maintain a really active creative environment to cultivate staff. Making museums into "learning environments" for staff - in which everyone is encouraged to experiment, engage, get involved - is a huge question mark for most institutions. I'd love to hear more about institutions that promote idiosyncratic working environments as well as visitor experiences!