Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Why We Wrote an Exhibition Philosophy

Last month, MAH curator Susan Hillhouse and I sat down and wrote an exhibition philosophy for our museum. We wanted to share with people, in as clear and transparent a format as possible, our approach to developing exhibitions. In particular, we want exhibition collaborators--artists, researchers, historians, collectors--to understand our goals and how we intend to steer the exhibition development process. It's a working document, and we mean to put it to work planning new projects with our partners.

Here's the short version (read the whole thing here):
The Museum of Art & History is committed to creating exhibitions that inspire our diverse audiences to engage deeply with contemporary art and Santa Cruz County history. We see our visitors as partners in actively interpreting and exploring exhibition content. 
This philosophy steers our work, and it means that we do things a little differently than some other museums and galleries. If you are working with us as an artist or contributor to an exhibition, you should expect that museum staff will create multi-modal, interdisciplinary, participatory, immersive, and social experiences around your work. We will invite you to engage in discussion about these exhibition elements, and if you want to be involved in brainstorming possibilities, that’s fabulous. If not, that’s fine too–but you should know that we will be following this philosophy in all of the exhibitions that we develop. 
We wrote this exhibition philosophy after a series of confusing and sticky conversations with collaborators about mutual expectations of what an exhibition should be. We knew internally that we wanted our exhibitions to become more interdisciplinary, more participatory, and more responsive to audience needs. But we weren't explicitly making those goals public. Susan and I had many long conversations with contributors who were concerned that our efforts might demean or distract from their work. We discussed research about how visitors experience museums. We debated the relative merits of different forms of interactivity. We challenged our partners, they challenged us, and we all learned a lot from the experience. And by "learned a lot" I mean we learned we needed an exhibition philosophy--a starting point for dialogue that could happen earlier in the exhibition planning process.

Debates about interpretative materials, interactivity, audience needs, and visitor participation are often seen as internal museum wonk issues. But at a small community museum that primarily creates exhibitions with living, local artists and collaborators, we have to involve our partners in this conversation. If an artist is uncomfortable with the idea of interactivity around his work, or a historian is unwilling to allow visitors to comment on her research, that's a problem for us. It goes against our goals for the visitor experience, and those goals are ultimately more important to us than showing any particular artwork or artifact. In most cases, there's a way to work through the disagreements to come up with a solution that satisfies everyone's needs. But we wanted to be direct with potential partners about what we're trying to do--and why.

We're working to create a comparable philosophy for our community programs, the vast majority of which are planned with dozens of community partners. We feel like it's a good starting point for any new collaboration--you tell me what you're about, I tell you what I'm about, and we all understand what the goals are. Artist Mark Allen raised this issue in the recent report on the Machine Project residency at the Hammer Museum, saying (p. 40):
I think the hardest thing was that I never did and still don’t understand what people wanted, what they were expecting to get, and whether they got it or not. I think it was a little unclear what the mandate was. To a certain degree, I’m happy to do my own projects and it was amazing to work with you guys and I learned a lot, but any situation where you’re invited to do something and you don’t know if you’re fulfilling expectations is emotionally challenging. 
I'm curious about other ways that museums directly express their philosophy on exhibitions, or learning, or programming, as a guide for partners and visitors. I know a few institutions have internal documents on these kinds of things (ASTC just published several from science centers around the world), but I'm curious about the use and value of external statements. Have you done this at your museum, either directly with a document or indirectly through conversation? How do you help your community understand your goals and related methods?
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