Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Whoa, what is this about?" An Arsenal of Ideas

Last week I had a chance to see Armed and Dangerous:  Art of the Arsenal at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA.  It's been a while since I've seen an exhibit here in the US where so many types of visitors seemed to be having a great time. According to director Stuart Chase, the museum broke records for attendance during school vacation week.  What did I see?

There were many sociable objects.  Visitors of all ages pointed, discussed, and read the labels about all kinds of objects from natural history to contemporary art.

Hands-on elements were engaging enough for everyone.  Even adults wanted to put on the big helmets.

A very simple but compelling and consistent graphic design made it easy to gain information both in a general and specific sense.  I tended to read the top of the label, while a colleague I was with read the red type in the center of the text--and for each of us, there was something to gain and it was easy to read more.

Massing of objects made something that might be just okay look much more interesting.   One set of horns is ho hum, a large group, theatrically lit, is exciting.

And much of the exhibit is drawn from the museum's own collections--which means visitors get a chance to see new and exciting things--and understand that those fascinating things live in their own community.

Combining those objects from the basement (literally and figuratively here) with work by contemporary artists means that people with interests in both take a look at objects in new ways.  Interested in weaponry and looking at contemporary art--great!  Interested in contemporary art and looking at taxidermy?  Equally great.  These two boys literally looked at the piece above and one said, "Whoa, what is this about?" launching them into a discussion of how it was made and what it meant.

Importantly,  none of these exhibit techniques are costly.  No computer interactives,  no extra-special lighting, re-used pedestals and platforms.   As my friend Anne says, "ideas don't cost money."  Wise words in this times.   For more about how the exhibit was developed,  listen to this interview with director Stuart Chase and director of interpretation Maria Mingalone on WAMC. 

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