Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Issues Exhibitions: Questions as a Basis for Design

It's good to have some time to write amidst hectic traveling. You know you've spent too much time in airports when you stick your hands under your bathroom faucet at home and expect it to magically turn on.

I've been thinking recently about ways to represent issues (social, political, scientific) in museum settings. Museums often pursue the dual goals of presenting accurate, objective information while encouraging visitors to think for themselves, take a stand, engage with the issue at hand. These goals are often contradictory, if not opposing, in nature. How does the visitor perceive there is an issue with which to engage if the content is presented in a dry, authoritative style? Even when the content itself is incendiary, the tone of the presentation style can wash it out. I was required to read Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States in high school. Zinn once said in an interview that his goal with the book was "quiet revolution." Did I find it revolutionary? No. The simple act of placing it on a curriculum as a required text made me categorize its content in the world of the textbook--dry, factual, straight. Why question? Why care?

So there's a second path, one that museums like the US Holocaust Memorial Museum follow. In this alternative, the museum takes a stand on an issue (in USHMM's case, genocide), and breathes life into that side of the issue, helping visitors engage with and experience that side of the story. With something like genocide, the "side taking" is fairly soft--but museums like the soon-to-open Creation Museum may be a different story.

These kinds of museums, which put aside neutrality in favor of espousing an opinion, do a better job on the "Why care?" side of things, because instead of presenting an objective tableau, they present a narrative, which, while potentially complex, is not weighed down by the "this side says this, and that side says that" objective balancing act. Stories are compelling. They help you connect. They help you care.

But is stand-taking always right for museums? Of course not. While I think the Museum of Freedom in Chicago is too objective/vanilla, I wouldn't prefer a hall of exhibits (sponsored by the appropriate PACs and corporations) on the freedom to drill for oil, the freedom to redistrict, etc.

There's a third path I'd prefer to see museums head down: pursuing design that attacks "Why question?" problem. This is the path in which the exhibition is designed not to make the visitor react with statements (I agree; I care) but with questions (Is that really true?). Many objective exhibitions are overpresumptuous that the fair and balanced outline of facts will lead people to draw their own conclusions and question their preconceptions. Instead, I'd argue that such presentations just add more data to the pot--more facts to be ignored. On the other side of the fence, stand-taking exhibitions presuppose the conclusion and present a story--to endorse or reject. On both of these paths, the museum is providing answers--either varied or singular. I want questions.

I'm framing this with regard to question-asking largely because of an excellent book I'm reading right now about the Rwandan genocide in 1994 by Philip Gourevitch. In the book, Gourevitch tells many stories about genocide, but he's mostly interested in the story behind questions: Why does genocide happen? How do people understand it? How do people deal with it? Focusing on these questions humanizes Gourevitch, transforming him from an all-knowing (or, alternatively, biased) journalist into a person dealing wtih a perplexing situation. Rather than adding more information to my database on Rwanda and genocide, I find myself asking alongside the author, asking myself instead of the authority. Gourevitch isn't a great journalist because he tells great stories; it's because he asks us to question those stories and provides a model for doing so.

This doesn't just apply to issues exhibitions. From the little I know about evaluation, it seems that most museum folks focus on what visitors come out saying--not what they come out asking. If we want people to come back to the museum, to "extend the visit" on the web and elsewhere, we can't do it by allowing them to close the door on museum content when they leave. Questions keep the door open.

So how would this kind of design look? Some simple thoughts:
  • Present stories and situations where the characters change their minds. I frequently see exhibitions in which "both sides" tell their story. I'd rather see individuals tell their stories of how they grapple with issues, and how different things have impacted their thinking.
  • Make visitors start with their opinions rather than conclude with them. Many exhibits give you the opportunity to see both sides and then weigh in with your opinion. Well, fabulous exhibit designer, you have yet to sway me from my preconceived notions with a thirty-second walk on the other side. Assume that I have a starting point. I've never seen an exhibit that forces me to pick first, and then examine the consequences of the side/story I've chosen. "What do you believe?" is too simplistic; let's try to push people for the "Why?"
  • Instead of providing opportunities for visitors to leave comments or register their opinions, give them opportunities to articulate the questions the exhibition brings up.
  • Wherever possible, directly and without artiface answer the implied visitor question, "Why should I care?" Let the curator stick his/her neck out and do a quick video clip, not on an object/story's cultural significance, but on its personal relevance. Push visitors to ask, "Do I value this thing?" instead of letting them just pass judgement and move on.
There's an improv game in which the actors are required to speak solely in questions. It often descends quickly into suspicious, "Why did you do that?" "Why do you care?" exchanges. We aren't well-versed in conversational questioning. I think I'm going to do an experiment later this week and try to visit a museum and write down my questions instead of my thoughts. And so I conclude with a question--but not "what do you think?"

Instead, let's end with this: What do you ask?

1 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Best post yet?

Very intriguing line of questioning, Nina.

When I leave a museum, I try to always ask myself: what do I remember? It's the memorable stuff that affected me, that left an impression, right? By natural selection, wouldn't the memorable stuff thus be the best exhibitry?

Why do preschoolers constantly ask "why?" Why do grown-ups rarely ask good questions?

Are the exhibitions out there that force participants to ask questions? I'd love to visit some.

...It's specified within the mission statement of my science museum that we are engaged upon a great project to "galvanize curiosity." I'd really like to analyze further how we think we're doing that, exactly. Are we doing it, would be my first question. How do we know, would be my second.

...That improv game always reminded me of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern --

"Rosencrantz: Do you want to play questions?
Guildenstern: How do you play that?
Rosencrantz: You have to ask a question.
Guildenstern: Statement. One - Love.
Rosencrantz: Cheating.
Guildenstern: How?
Rosencrantz: I haven't started yet.
Guildenstern: Statement. Two - Love.
Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: Are you counting that?
Guildenstern: Foul. No repetition. Three - Love and game.
Rosencrantz: I'm not going to play if you're going to be like that."

My troupes used to play for hours.