Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Leave Your Desk Behind: Thoughts on Outdoor Exhibits

I've been in several conversations about outreach lately, a word that seems perhaps a bit outdated--sort of colonialistic, I think.   But the idea of getting outside your museum doors to reach visitors is never outdated--and a project I worked on in Kyiv this past month reminded me that sometimes connecting with visitors doesn't necessarily require the bells and whistles of mobile apps,  hugely expensive permanent signage or the like.

I collaborated on the outdoor exhibit of Borderlands,  a project of fellow Fulbrighter Olga Trusova.  The exhibit, supported by the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine,  was mounted in Shevchenko Park, a beautiful park in the center of the city.   Borderlands is a comic book that tells 7 stories of human trafficking--you can read more here.   The use of the comic book format (drawn by Dan Archer) is an unusual way to tell compelling, important human stories, and equally unusual to then convert it to an exhibit.
So on a cold, misty morning in early April,  we installed the exhibit frameworks--and then, amazing things began to happen.  People walk by;  they're busy;  but something in the exhibit catches their eye.  Someone stops, reads a panel, walks around the corner of the framework, reads the next panel,  then goes to the next.   Another couple read, and turn and talk to each other,  pointing at a panel.  Those passersby are an audience who might never visit a museum,  might never think about human trafficking.  By choosing a public location (as we did for an earlier project, about Chernobyl in 2009) we help ensure that we reach, not just those dedicated free-choice learners,  but a cross-section of the community that uses this park.   (and, by the way,  I highly recommend Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud as a great way to expand thinking about exhibits and what we do).   I'm enough of a museum nerd that I find it incredibly exciting to watch people stop and read and think about what we do.
Over the last two years, with the support of the Institute for Museum and Library Services, I've worked with the Montgomery County Historical Society in Rockville, MD on a project that also got history out into the community.  Montgomery Connections uses banners,  bus stop ads,  and a website to engage, in three different languages,  non-yet museum visitors in the history of the county.  Using the tag line,  Did You Ever Wonder?  the print materials introduced visitors to authentic characters from county history and invited them to call a phone number to learn a bit more.  In our formative evaluation, we learned some surprising things about what interested who. 

But a voice message (after listening to the audio, callers were invited to leave a comment) reinforced for me how important it is that we get out of our offices, out of our museums, and out into the community.   After listening to an audio about the first Chinese immigrant to the county in the early 20th century,  a Spanish-speaking listener commented (this is a rough paraphrase) "I am here in this country alone--and listening to this has given me hope for my future." 

Think history doesn't matter?  Think again.


Rye History said...

I'm working on a permanent outdoor exhibit for our historical society. We'll have about 20 signs at various points of interest with stories, history and reproductions of archival photos. It's a collaborative project involving several community groups and organizations. Hopefully, we'll convince people that history does matter!

Linda Norris said...

Sounds like a great project--I'd encourage some testing with various community groups/audiences/ages as you go along...good luck!

Samantha said...
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Samantha said...

I enjoy seeing exhibits in unique places. Whether it's outdoors like you mentioned above or in an airport--I think exhibits that are in unexpected or different areas can ultimately draw in different types, if not more visitors to a museum. In a way, exhibits like this are the ultimate marketing idea for a museum. Just like a large buildboard on the side of the road--an outdoor exhibit can catch the visitor's eye and draw them into the museum


Michelle Moon said...

A couple of weekends ago I was visiting my family in New Jersey, and encountered the "NJ Hall of Fame," an attractive installation of photography, with biographical notes and an audio interactive, of famous NJ natives. The difference? It was right on the Asbury Park Boardwalk, and people were wandering in having just come from the souvenir kiosks and arcades and on their way to the beach bar. The place was full of lively conversation, surprise, and interest and folks were devoting a fair amount of time to experiencing the NJ stories of the celebrities. I really admired this approach - taking the museum to a place where the people are, and celebrating state heritage in a place strongly associated with it. And what a treat to find it there - enhancing a relaxing day at the seaside with just a little learning and reflection on recent local/regional history.

Linda Norris said...

Lovely--and somehow the boardwalk seems like a great place to learn about NJ celebrities--I assume Bruce Springsteen was among them! And in a way I think it's easier to have conversation sometimes when we're not "supposed" to be learning something.

Meghan said...

This makes me think of a project a museum I worked for did several years back. While the museum was closed for renovations, they opened a "micro-museum" - just a single exhibit case - in the college library. Students who may have never come to the museum interacted with ideas and objects as often as they frequented the library. It was hugely popular. Goes to show that working outside the physical bounds of our space is a good idea!