Sunday, April 25, 2010

Велика ідея/The Big Idea

What's the big idea?  That's a conversation I always have when I work with teams on exhibit projects.  I'm indebted to Beverly Serrell and her book Exhibit Labels:  An Interpretive Approach for the chapter on the Big Idea--it's a wonderful distillation of how to think conceptually about exhibitions  and I make great use of it as well as the rest of the book.

This past week, I had the opportunity to put it to use for the first time (for me) here in Ukraine.  I'm working with the Tusten Preserve,  an historic site in the Carpathians with the bare stone remains of a medieval fortress, high in the mountains (see the picture above).   The site's enthusiastic young director, Vasyl Rozhko,  wants to redo the badly dated exhibitions in the small museum (below)  located in a nearby village.

He and I spent much of a day talking about ideas for the exhibits--to show the technology used to create and defend the fort;  to show how it was a part of several different trade routes;  and how the site was used for border defense;  what medieval life in the fortress was like, and how scientists continue to learn more about Tusten using new technologies.   Vasyl had some great ideas for interactive exhibits, and he's also recruited a student to help do some audience evaluation (Tusten is best known for a September festival which draws thousands of visitors) so ideas flew fast and furiously.

At the end of the day, we gathered with the team he had put together for the project.  None of them are experienced in exhibits, but as a group, they bring a tremendous number of skills:  designer, editor, fund-raiser, archaeologist,  architect and more.  With our cups of tea in hand, we set about trying to wrestle down the big idea,  using Serrell's framework of subject, verb and consequence, via a Ukrainian translation of one of Exhibit Label's chapters. As when I've worked on US exhibit teams, the subject and the verb is the easy part--it's the consequence that's hard.

How did we do?  A great start, I think.  (As in all my Ukrainian endeavors, my immense thanks go to colleagues acting as translators who do incredible work to keep up with fast-flowing conversations--in this case, thanks to Vasyl and Olya, both at right above.)  We haven't come up with a final big idea sentence, but I think we're well on our way.  It reads something like, "Human intelligence and natural features combined to make Tusten a critical line of defense and center for trade."     We'll work to refine that idea, and to use that sentence as a frame for all the exhibit development to come.

Ukrainian exhibits are generally organized not around ideas, but around a scholarly arrangement of facts and details.  So it's very exciting to see this small museum, in a small village, make plans to connect with visitors in new ways.

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