Thursday, January 21, 2016

Teaching the art of exhibition development

Yesterday, in a warm conference room in Albany, Georgia, I had the privilege of attending a workshop at  the Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries (GAMG) conference entitled "Enhancing the Exhibitions Development Process."  The workshop was beautifully presented and well-paced, passing the torch from Kathy Dixson of Emory University MARBL (overall project management) to Don Rooney of the Atlanta History Center (new exhibitions proposal worksheet) to Todd Rivers of the Georgia Museum of Art (design and installation) to Jose Santamaria of the Tellus Science Museum (dos and don't of exhibit label writing and display). I had had the privilege of working with Kathy and Don this past semester, as both had agreed to speak to my GSU HIST8730 Exhibition Planning and Development Students. As museum folks well know, it is invaluable to encounter the same information again and again in slightly altered contexts.

Beside the artifact case at the Wells Brown House in Stone Mountain


Applying the principles of sound project management and the tips and tricks of the sages of exhibition development proved challenging in the truncated time frame of a semester-long graduate course. My students invariably commented on the necessity of unprecedented levels of communication with their group members, the difficulties of coordinating efforts to produce content needed for different groups to accomplish their tasks, and the unique compromises necessary when working with a client. All-told, we produced an exhibit that met the needs and expectations of the Stone Mountain Historical Society.

The medicine cabinet was an exercise in label placement.
Teaching the class was an invaluable learning experience for me, especially because I will likely teach similar classes in the future. Even now, I am working with a group of interns on a project to produce an exhibit about WWII in Morocco in partnership with the Ben M'Sik Community Museum in Casablanca. It is significantly easier so far with a group of four interns, but we will be joined by 25 Moroccan students in March. In a teaching environment, it is not only important to produce a sound project that pleases your audience, client, and partners, but you must also provide a solid and rewarding learning experience for your students. In the case of our exhibit for Stone Mountain Historical Society, The Doctor is In:: Medical Practice in Stone Mountain 1900-1950, the students all wished they'd had more time and help doing initial research before honing in on the exhibit's "big idea," and they all wished they'd had more time to work with each other writing label text. I had made the decision when creating the syllabus for the course to divide the students into groups each responsible for different tasks, but the greatest responsibility for research and writing fell on the curatorial, education, and registration teams. Different levels of experience in historical research and universal inexperience in exhibition writing led to some difficulties in translating research efforts into exhibit text in support of our big idea.

We were fortunate in that we had access to some very compelling artifacts, and the Stone Mountain Historical Society was comfortable displaying them under less than ideal security and climate conditions. The Stone Mountain Historical Society also had a clear idea of the historical content and tone they desired for the exhibit, so they ended up taking a heavy editorial hand. This was a disappointment to some of the students, but overall, I think it was an important and positive learning experience.

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