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.

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.