Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Book Club Part 4: Teams and Superstars

This week, a look at Chapters 16 and 17 of Elaine Gurian's Civilizing the Museum. These essays are of a pair and represent one of my favorite things about Elaine's personal philosophy: support for contradiction, for ANDing what others might OR.

The first essay, Let's Empower All Those Who Have a Stake in Exhibitions: About the uses, meaning, and failings of the team approach, advocates for a multi-pronged approach to exhibition design involving "three equal advocacy positions - content, design, and audience." By now, this concept of team design is firmly engrained--for better or worse--into most institutions; if it's a tiny museum, everyone is pitching in, and at large museums, there are often formal processes for the assembly of exhibition teams that balance curators, designers, educators, and evaluators.

In some ways, the essay is historical, discussing the erosion of curator control and the rise of the educator as an equal player at the table. But the issues raised and the ideal presented are still highly contested today. Many educators still feel like unequal partners, arguing that exhibition designers dump finished or nearly-finished products on them for interpretation. Contract design and traveling exhibitions add complexity; how are in-house staff involved when creative development and design happen somewhere else?

In many institutions, these questions cause problems that cost both emotionally and economically. Underdeveloped strategies for communication and decision-making among stakeholders--including board members, outside contractors, and in-house staff--often lead to cyclical hand-wringing. There's often little or no thought put into conscious development of professional team strategies, whether training for staff to learn more about the perspectives of other advocates at the table, or clear decision-making processes. Many design firms--from architecture to video games--have structured ways for staff to engage in a variety of projects, teams, and disciplines to learn the business, develop strong working relationships, and understand the stakeholders better. Why don't more museums do this? Many museums, especially large ones, exhibit the worst of the feudal cubicle wars--the Collections Department vs. the Exhibition Department vs. the Education Department. There's a serious need for more cross-department training and teaming--so we can build better experiences AND avoid WWE-style smackdowns (though those might be a good source of ancillary income).

But the staff experience, while important, isn't the key. The real question is how the team approach affects the visitor experience. Dan Spock, commenting on the rise in museum attendance from 1990-2000, offers this hopeful note in Elaine's essay:
...could [the rise] also be related to the fact that museums have become more engaging? And might this be correlated to the increased preponderance of exhibitions developed by teams? Perhaps the inclusion of a wide variety of skills and perspectives in development also generates a more multivalent and attractive visitor experience in the finished product.
Perhaps. It's certainly true that a diversity of voices has changed the way that exhibits are presented, objects labeled, and artifacts interpreted. But what about the soul of the exhibition? As Elaine notes, "It is evident that creative vision is not a collective activity, but it is an essential ingredient for successful exhibitions." So who owns the vision? Kathy Sierra has written brilliantly about the dumbness of crowds and the inability of teams to create anything truly revolutionary. And I've heard many museum professionals bemoan the tepid, shiny, overbuilt exhibits that grace the halls of too many contemporary museums. Where's the balance in a team that allows originality and passion to shine through?

Which leads to Chapter 17, Reluctant Recognition of the Superstar: A paean to individual brilliance, and how it operates, which leads with the refreshing statement: "I was wrong! The team approach to exhibition production is not the only way to go." In this essay, Elaine relates her experience with "superstar" exhibition developers, who have extraordinary talent and force of aesthetic will to create truly special museum experiences. She writes at length about Jeshajahu Weinberg, the founding director and visionary of the US Holocaust Museum, who in many ways defied museum convention to create extraordinary experiences.

I'm enamored of the superstar as well, and wrote about it at length in this post about exhibitions that change your life. Interestingly, Elaine comments that working for or with a superstar does not mean that other staff are "mere serfs acting out the decisions of the master." Instead,
The team members believe that they are in the presence of a rare talent who, like the artist in the atelier, is worth working for, and has final authority. With the voluntary permission of the group, the content of the exhibition is shaped by a single intelligence. The group's acquiescence resembles the eagerness of actors in a repertory company.
So should we turn over all the museums to superstars? Maybe. Like Elaine, I find their exhibitions to be the most memorable.
But they may not be a dependable source. I'm glad the Elaine distinguishes the superstar as a truly rare breed. They aren't just the best in the business; often, they are outside the business and drop in infrequently, like comets. And absent that opportunity, we need to develop team approaches that allow the bit of superstar within each team member to be acknowledged and supported. It's not an easy task; what is creative brainstorming for one team member is an overwhelming mess for another.

We also have to find good ways to make the team approach as appealing as following (or being) the superstar. Problems arise when leaders style themselves as superstars to avoid team decision-making (a role typified by the boss on The Office). As Elaine comments, following a superstar is a voluntary thrill, not a bureaucratic trudge. How can we bring the same thrill into teamwork--and allow all members of the team to provide those challenging, exciting, brilliant moments for staff and visitors alike?

Where do you come down on the team approach? Give us your comments, and get ready for next week on Chapter 11 on mixed-use spaces in museums.

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