Saturday, January 24, 2009

Conceptualizing Exhibits

I've often had conversations with colleagues about whether the conceptual work of exhibit development can be taught, or whether it's something that is creative and intuitive, and hence difficult to actually teach. I'm a big fan of Beverly Serrell's book Exhibit Labels as a helpful way to think about what exhibits do and how you develop them. But sometimes I think the best exhibits come out of a sort of creative dreaming, inspired by objects or events--and I heard an interesting example of this yesterday.

I met with (thanks again to the wonderful Irina) Tanya Kochubynska of the Research and Development dept. at the Kyiv Museum of Russian Art. She's a young museum professional and is in the stages of developing an exhibition for 2010 about Russian fairy tales and art. But what was so interesting, and so great, was that she had, pretty much working by herself, with I believe no formal training in thinking about exhibits, developed a thoughtful approach to a well-sequenced exhibit. When completed, the visitor will be able to learn about fairy tales in opera and theater, and even in Soviet animation; the use of fairy tales in paintings; the ways in which heroes and animals play roles in fairy tales; and the ways in which Soviet era fairy tale images and stories had, as did earlier tales, quite specific messages to convey to the listener or reader.

She shared some of the images from their collection and elsewhere--and they were incredible. The Soviet cartoon of a fairy tale, which we watched, was really beautiful, and very different than American animation, making great use of traditional design motifs. Paintings, watercolor illustrations for books, set designs, engravings and more will make this an exhibit interesting to both children and adults.

So how did Tanya come up with the idea which is very different from any other exhibit at the museum? She said she was closing up the museum one day, and in the room with decorative arts, noticed an object with a fairy tale illustration. I'd been in that room a few days before on a visit and I had only thought about how dull the long glass cases of glass and ceramics were.

But Tatiana's imagination and continued observation led her to think about fairy tales, and about what in their collection was relevant. A little collection digging with her colleagues, and then inquiries to other museums about their collections, has set her well on the road to the exhibit. I also noticed that she was very much a visual thinker, and so her understanding of the work was not only scholarly, but very much also about the visual connections. So I think that her learning style, and a sort of openness to ideas, wherever they come, guided her approach to the project.

I think the challenge for many of the museums I've seen here is how to take that deep curatorial knowledge and enthusiasm and develop ways to translate it into an exhibition format that doesn't require the visitor to take a guided tour to gain the full understanding. (Because, by the way, virtually all of these young museum professionals also have a responsibility for giving guided tours which are a standard feature of all museums here and really the way to gain information.)

Just great to see imagination at work in any museum!

Three Princesses of the Underground by Viktor Vasnetsov from the Kyiv Museum of Russian Art Collection
Illustration by Ivan Bilbin of a Russian fairy tale


Patrick said...

Hi Linda,

Its great to hear of your travels. I also liked this post.

Just about everyone thinks they can design good exhibitions and no doubt start out with good intentions. Too often they drill down and get serious without letting their imagination wander. It's good to "play" -- we are all kids at heart, have fun with it. The more the designers play, the more fun that the visitors will have. (Hopefully..)


Linda Norris said...

You're right Patrick--good intentions are where we all start. When play and imagination come into what is generally still thought of in many places as the curatorial part, I think the rewards can be many. One of my best exhibit development memories was a team project at the Berkshire Museum about innovation--as a team, we often integrated play and imagination into our work and had a great time, and I think,produced a fascinating exhibit. Work should be fun!