Friday, January 08, 2016

An autumn of exhibits

In this new year, I'm looking forward to a busy exhibit schedule at work starting with a partnership with the Ben M'Sik Community Museum in Casablanca, Morocco, to produce an exhibit about Morocco during WWII. As I work on putting together my research and production schedule for the next several months, it seems like a good time to reflect on the the past few months of exhibitions viewed and created here in Atlanta.
Standing beside Oscar the Grouch in the Jim Henson collection exhibit at the Center for Puppetry Arts on opening night!

Right after I started my new job, I created a template for reviewing exhibits with an eye toward how they were produced, their effectiveness, and their sustainability. It's easier to be a critic than a creator, so I tried to be sensitive to the balancing act that is exhibit conception, production, fabrication, and marketing.  I reviewed a number of exhibits with content or style relevant to my biggest task at hand: creating a new exhibit focused on WWII from a Georgia perspective.  For that reason, it has been nice to take a break and look at a few exhibits with no specific content or style relevance to my work.  Of those viewed this fall, the cream of the crop include the new Worlds of Puppetry exhibits at the Center for Puppetry Arts, Habsburg Splendor  and Seriously Silly at the High Museum, and Women of Vision at Fernbank. Fernbank's higher profile exhibit, Searching for the Queen of Sheba, was disappointing.

Women of Vision and Queen of Sheba contrasted greatly with each other. Queen of Sheba tried too hard to capitalize on the exotic allure and mysterious legend of the South Arabian queen. The real essence of the exhibit was a collection of artifacts related to the incense trade that sustained a civilization that existed in what is now Yemen.  "Dating from at least 1050 BCE, the Kingdom of Saba played an important role in the early development of ancient South Arabian civilization and in the trade of locally produced and highly prized aromatic resins, known generally as incense." (Quoted in Occupy My Family.) The parts of the exhibit actually about the legend of Sheba consisted mostly of reproductions of Sheba legends from four different cultures: Jewish, Christian, Ethiopian, and Muslim.  Although these divergent tales are interesting, I found myself wishing that the exhibit could have attracted attention without all the History Channel-style hype  as a detailed exploration of an ancient middle eastern civilization...

Women of Vision put photography front and center.  It was more of an art exhibit than a science exhibit which led to some visitor orientation issues given its location at Fernbank.  However, some simple design choices including monochrome white frames around gloriously large full-color photographs, biographical panels featuring only on the eyes of each photographer, and ceiling banners with the full-size body of each photographer delineating sections helped to bring coherence to an exhibit whose content might otherwise be too divergent.  This exhibit avoided the pitfalls often associated with exhibits highlighting the contributions of a particular gender or ethnic minority. It didn't try too hard to make a big deal about the identity of the group.  Instead, it focused on each photographer as an artist with a unique vision. For that reason, each photograph was permitted to stand alone aesthetically while also grouped comprehensively with other examples from the photographer's body of work.  I found this approach refreshing.

Reflections on my experiences teaching my first exhibition development class deserve their own blog post, so I will leave my dear readers here.




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