Monday, May 14, 2007

Who Created the Exhibitions that Changed Your Life?

Was it a museum professional or an outsider? Was it an individual or a team?

I'm kneedeep in the final run-up to the opening of Operation Spy at the Spy Museum, but in the fleeting moments between disasters and near-disasters, I'm thinking about AAM. One of the most arresting sessions I attended last year was Exhibitions that Changed My Life. The speakers spoke lovingly and intelligently about star moments in unforgettable spaces--both as visitors and as designers.

Two things struck me about these exhibitions: the prominence of story and the individual creator. Several were created or conceived by a single person, often an artist/non-museum professional. In particular, Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society was lauded as a transformative experience--both for visitors and for museum practitioners. And when I think of the exhibitions that have changed my life, most share that characteristic: James Turrell's installation at the Mattress Factory (image above), BodyWorlds, anything David Wilson created at the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

What's the deal here? Is this an example of Kathy Sierra's observation that groups of people can only create a watered-down, muddled shadow of what an individual can envision? Is this different from anything else we know about design, that Steve Jobs is, as they say, a tyrant with an extreme and extraordinary eye?

Yes, an individual can bring clarity of vision to any project that might otherwise be sullied by the ups and downs of collaboration and compromise. One of the presenters last year spoke about an exhibition he had created on animal extinction, which displayed each species on its own domino, with the first several tipped (and presumably, tipping the next ones) to evoke their extinction, commented explicitly that he did not think such an exhibition could have been created by committee. But groups can be fabulous creative machines as well. A friend recently described her work (in an Australian political organization) in this way:
"The attitude at GetUp is that when someone thinks of something cool, like an ad concept or a new feature for the website or a way to get members involved offline or a slogan for the electoral program, they blurt it out and then everyone else immediately piles on and tries to thinks of ways to make it cooler."
What Taren is describing is not an individual's vision but an individual story, namely, that coolness and cooler-ness are valued and supported by her organization. When everyone in an organization is led by the same story, the organization's content output reflects that story and a mythic central storyteller. The story can come from an individual leader like Walt Disney, Frank Oppenheimer, or Steve Jobs, or from a shared vision, like the folks at IDEO.

The exhibitions that change our lives share this same oneness of story. The stories they tell may be simple, as in the domino effect metaphor for animal extinction, or complex, as in Fred Wilson or David Wilson's (no relation) explorations of how we perceive the authority of the museum, but whatever the level, the stories are singular and powerful. An exhibition that is made to tell a story promotes and invites anything that enhances the story and rejects anything that distracts from or dilutes it. It doesn't try to add in points to hit certain standards of the eigth grade curriculum. It doesn't avoid emotional or potentially uncomfortable content. It speaks in a distinctive, unapologetic voice--whether that voice reflects a single person or a team. As one presenter at AAM put it last year, these are narrative experiences that value and prioritize the visitor: "based in fact, created in the imagination."

So if a group can tell a story in one voice, why are so many of the exhibitions that change our lives created by individuals? And why by non "museum professionals?"

The stories that individuals are willing to tell are more risky than those a group can tell. When an individual assumes the onus of responsibility, suddenly they are empowered to do things that would be "can't" out of committee. "Based in fact, created in the imagination" sounds lovely, but it also implies exaggeration, selective storytelling, and other risks museums are not often willing to take overtly. In last year's session, I saw one exhibition that didn't resonate with me; an immersive, highly themed historic town, late at night. The speaker was clearly rapt in the mystery and beauty of this undiscovered world; to me, it looked like a big dollhouse (and not in a "let's rock out with the easy bake oven" kind of way). I saw that there was a strong unifying story to that exhibition, but not one that resonated with me. Similarly, the domino exhibition on animal extinction is based on a singular metaphor. I found it powerful, but what if it didn't work for me? There aren't other stories on the same topic or other ways to get into the content in that exhibition. The story has to hit to succeed, which means its creator has to feel confident, totally wild for the story they've created. It's easier to do that when you don't have a team of designers to raise doubts.

When your voice is the only one out there, you have to acknowledge and develop it. In her essay "The Museum as a Socially Responsible Institution" (1988), Elaine Gurian asks museum people to consider:
"In the area of exhibitions... are the topics intended to be overt propaganda, covert propaganda, or a personal point of view?"
I love this quotation because it forces the reader to presume that exhibitions ALWAYS reflect an intentional perspective. When you design as a team, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking that you are presenting an objective, well-balanced, measured story and voice. But when you are the only one developing the content, that delusion quickly goes out the window. Of course the exhibit reflects your point of view--you're the only storyteller in the room! Dealing with that reality may lead individuals to embrace their own voice more fully and comfortably than might designers working in a team, striving to present something less overtly pointed.

Non-museum professionals tell their own stories; museum professionals tell stories they are given. Exhibit designers' jobs are to develop exhibitions on topics. This is rather different than the job of other content creators--say, composers or artists--whose jobs are to create within their medium on topics of their own choosing. Artists who create to preassigned topics are not the ones we admire most; they are the hacks who write the Babysitters' Club, who paint the Hallmark puppies, who make the wedding videos. And yet exhibit designers are often brought to the table to breathe life into a topic. We all learned in fifth grade that the stories we are forced to write, the "how I spent my summer vacations," are not the most compelling stories we can tell, nor do we tell them as well as the ones we want to tell.

So much of what exhibit designers do is hunt for the story within a topic, trying to tease out the life in an artifact or a scientific process or a historical event. But story-mining is tricky business. At its best, we become evangelical preachers of the topics, infused by the story and desperate to tell it in a way people will best receive it. But when the designer doesn't find that magic story, fall in love with it, and feel compelled to share it, the exhibition falls flat. It becomes a recitation written on college-ruled paper in a chalk-filled classroom on a September afternoon.

The exhibitions that have changed my life were stories told to me by the people who created them, wrapped and packaged by museums that loved them. One of my favorite things about the Mattress Factory, an installation art museum in Pittsburgh, is the way they give over the whole museum, structural configuration and all, to one artist at a time. The exhibition that has most changed my life was Into the Light, which was mounted there in 2002 and 2003. When I saw James Turrell's extraordinary art there, art made of light, the entire museum served as a series of wondrous invitations into these transcendent and unusual scientific and artistic stories. To enter each exhibit, you passed through a totally pitch black curtained area, then emerged into the light space. I was there with my best friend on a quiet January morning. We entered every black curtain holding hands, apprehensive and fumbling towards the punchline that was waiting around the corner. Each black tunnel whispered "once upon a time;" each installation took us into a new world, a new and extraordinary ending. Turrell and the museum had taken the strange stories Turrrell had created with light and made them special by teasing them out in a drama-filled design. The experience was emotional. The more we tried to understand the pieces the more we wondered about how they were made. We never looked at a label while in the exhibition, but afterwards, poured over material on Turrell. We were totally enthralled by the stories that were being told to us with black curtains and glowing light.

Why are we letting outsiders take the risks and reap the rewards of provocative stories passionately told? What's keeping us from doing so ourselves? If you are an exhibit designer, no doubt you have worked on projects that captivated you, where you bought into the story you were given and told it beautifully and powerfully to visitors. But we don't have to just be story transferrers, making DNA understandable and old coins loveable. What are the stories you most want to tell, from yourself? Which is the one that will change my life?

1 comments, add yours!:

Marti said...

I struggled with the question of what makes a memorable (life-changing might be asking too much) in some thesis work - Designing for Delight: The Role of Wonder, Discovery, Invention and Ingenuity in Exhibit Design(,%20M.)
Design by committee often fails for obvious reasons. 'Auteur' approaches seem to work best on narrow, but deeply conceived subjects of passion.
But most exhibit designers work in teams to tackle broad thematic subjects freighted with "edutainment" demands, funding expectations, and rarely is there a deeply shared communication goal that motivates and enlivens the team and provides them with a vision of the experience to rally behind.

It's a bit arcane but the old master tropes of metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony suggest some powerful rhetorical ways to connect to visitors.
I would suggest Turrell and Wilson are using forms of irony to suggest what something is by what it is not causing us to wonder - and that is a powerful experience.