Thursday, September 3, 2009

What Is It?

Reach Advisors, on their blog Museum Audience Insight recently posted a entry about a NY Times article discussing visitor behavior in museums--what commenters to the Times article called "compulsive consumerism." They raised issues about our responsibilities as museum professionals to our audience of picture-snappers.

Last month I saw an exhibit that I thought was a brilliant example of how museums can more directly provide visitors with the information and the perspectives that encourage deep thinking and looking. The Rubin Museum of Art, which focuses on art of the Himalayas has a permanent exhibition called, What is It? And it does just what is says it's going to do. The introductory label says that Himalayan art is "new terrain" for many people and that the exhibit will introduce this "exhilarating cultural landscape." The exhibit accomplishes that through four sections:
  • Where is it made?
  • Why is it made?
  • How is it made?
  • What's going on?
The introductory section has three objects--and it encourages you to return, after looking at the exhibit, to reconsider the objects. Every label in the exhibit repeats one of these four questions at the top, so it's continually reinforced that this object will help to answer that question. The labels are well-written, clearly by staff with both an understanding of audience and a passion for this particular form of art. Laminated cards provide additional information and then of course, your new knowledge can be put to work throughout the museum.

I think what's particularly important about this exhibition is that I didn't feel condescended to--the material was not "dumbed down" in any way. Rather, the Rubin communicated and shared a joy for learning about these works, something that's perhaps missing from many museums.

It's not just this particular exhibition that conveys that connection with the audience at the Rubin. As I entered a new temporary exhibit, a docent welcomed me, and said, "if you have any questions, please let me know. I'll be circulating around the exhibit and will be back around. Enjoy!" Magnifying glasses, simple but beautifully designed interactives, and video installations that are informative but don't compete with the art all make the Rubin one of my favorite places.

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