Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Improving Family Exhibitions by Co-Creating with Children

Every once in a while I come across a project I wish I could have included in The Participatory Museum. Shh... it's a Secret!, an exhibition produced with schoolchildren at the Wallace Collection in London, is a lovely example of co-creation that demonstrates the multiple benefits of inviting audience members to act as partners in arts organizations.

Here are the basics. For one year, a group of twelve schoolchildren age 9-11 were invited to work with staff at the Wallace Collection to develop a family-focused exhibition using the museum's artifacts. With the support of museum staff, children developed the exhibition theme, selected the objects, designed the space, developed interpretative materials (including interactives), managed the budget, raised sponsorship, created press and marketing materials, put on the opening party, led interpretative tours, and trained museum guides. The exhibition was open for 54 days and was visited by 14,000 people. You can read a full report on the exhibition process, including lots of quotes from the young curators, staff, and educators involved, here [pdf]. You can also watch some lovely footage of the children showing off their favorite objects along with staff reflecting on the process here.

Pouring through these materials, I was struck by several key elements of this project that made it work. While the staff who led the project cheerfully commented that they didn't know what they were doing when they started, the process they ended up with bears remarkable similarity to other successful co-creative efforts, like the Wing Luke Asian Museum's community exhibition process or the Oakland Museum's Days of the Dead project.

What made Shh... it's a Secret! a success?
  • It started with a real institutional need. The Learning Staff wanted to develop a family-friendly exhibition, and they couldn't figure out what to focus on. They decided to ask children, and the project was born. The exhibition had a real story and theme determined by the young curators. It wasn't just "here's what kids like at the Wallace Collection"--it was a real exhibition designed by the community it was intended to serve.
  • The process was professional. My favorite part of the report is the clear expectations set out for the students, museum staff, and the school (page 7). While the staff did guide students through the exhibition development process, the students had serious responsibilities and lived up to professional expectations. Even without knowing exactly how the process would go, the museum staff set themselves up for success by treating the young curators as respected partners.
  • Everybody learned something. While the exhibition report disproportionately focuses on the learning value of the experience for the children involved (reasonable considering they developed the exhibition during school hours), the staff at the museum learned quite a lot about designing for and with children. As Learning Director Emma Bryant commented, "The exhibition is much more subtle than I think we would have done if we had done it by ourselves for children."
  • The project wasn't isolated to one department of the museum. Because the children were organized into teams (design, interpretation, finance, marketing), they intersected with many staff members across the museum. This created opportunities for institution-wide learning about working with children and understanding family audiences. A curatorial assistant, Rebecca Wallis, reflected that "their creative imaginations allowed me to see the collections in a new light. From the interesting objects they chose, not the usual well-known pieces, to the way they described them in their own words, not museum speak!" The exhibition report includes both successes and challenges of the project from multiple perspectives--children, staff, parents, teachers.
  • The exhibition reflects the particular interests and abilities of children while maintaining high quality. Judging from the videos, the exhibition was well-designed, well-lit, and generally in keeping with others at the Wallace Collection. This was not a poor man's "community gallery;" it was a real show. From the limited view on the Web, I found the artifacts novel (who doesn't love a desk with secret compartments?) and the interactives that connected to the objects smart and appealing. These young curators really made 18th century design, art, and armory accessible and intriguing. I loved the mannequins you could use to understand the relative positions of people in a complex painting, and the hats you could try on to feel what it was like to wear a hidden metal protective cap under your fashionably floppy chapeau. As a lover of audience participation, I was particularly taken by the "souvenir tree," which invited visitors to emulate a woman in a painting carving a message into a tree by writing their own secrets on postcards and putting them in a box on a graphic tree on the wall.
  • The partnership was a manageable starting point for future collaborations. The museum worked with St. Vincent's school because it was just down the road from the museum, making it easy for the children to meet weekly throughout the year at either site to work on the project. While the museum and the school didn't have a strong history of collaboration, this project seemed reasonable enough to try. The project was carefully designed to achieve related but different goals for each institution--for the museum, to learn more about children and generate an exhibition, and for the school, to support children's educational development through a novel opportunity. The museum and school are now planning future projects together, including a youth advisory board for the museum and some shared professional development opportunities across museum staff and teachers at St. Vincent's.
  • The project was well-documented. The Wallace Collection folks did the little things that matter--shooting photos and video throughout the process--as well as the big things--writing a report that included multiple stakeholders. While the exhibition report could certainly be more rigorous in terms of evaluation, I appreciated the focus not only on the children's experience but that of museum staff, school staff, and parents. To me, the group most lacking from the report is the general audience. While there is some reporting about audience numbers and visitor comments, there isn't a lot of content about how people responded to the exhibition. There is an appendix with the full visitor survey, but it was administered with only a handful of folks.
Rather than write more, I urge to you to read the Wallace Collection report and enjoy the story of an institution thoughtfully engaging with community members as partners for the mutual benefit of everyone involved. Here's to many more such projects!

And by the way, I learned about this project through a blog comment by Maria Gilbert. If you know about great projects we should be discussing, please share!
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