26 February 2011

Exhibits in Science, Technology, and Medicine

Biomedicine on Display offers an amazing manifesto on creating exhibits focused on science, technology, and medicine. Two "rules" struck me as being particularly important for public humanities projects:

Reject most exhibition ideas: Exhibitions represent the meeting point between subjects and material culture, and can be approached from either end – themes or objects first, or a mixture of the two. But often, topics that seem promising will not be worth developing because there simply aren’t good enough objects with which to explore or support them.Similarly, many areas of material culture end up just not being interesting enough to make a show about. Too often, exhibitions are made from empty ideas of stupid objects. It is worth searching for a topic and a set of objects that harmoniously amplify and mutually enrich each other.
And also:
Make exhibitions for inquisitive adults: If you aim at educationally under-achieving primary school children, it will be impossible to engage anyone else (and you are unlikely to engage even your target audience). Many children and teenagers are keenly attracted to adult culture, but very few adults see the attraction of young material. Never make exhibitions for educational purposes – other media and methods are more effective. It’s also worth bearing in mind that exhibitions are, by their nature, a “childish” medium, bringing out playfulness in all of us. This should be encouraged, but to focus deliberately on young audiences reaps diminishing returns.
It is striking how many museums are guilty of making both of these mistakes. I have noticed that many museums in the United States often assume that the people attending their exhibits have a junior school education only and accordingly "lower the tone". Yet part of what makes museums "entertainment" is the uncertainty and ambiguity. Cultivate those qualities in your visitors and they will come back for more. Patronize them, and next time they'll ask whether its worth the price of admission.

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