Sunday, March 29, 2015

Label? What?

I'm in L'viv, Ukraine, for a month, so many posts to come from here (and if you want to see what this beautiful city looks like, you can follow me on Instagram). but first I'm trying to catch up on some other interesting things I've seen this year.  This post goes way back to January, to visits to the Dennis Severs House and to the Museum of London's Sherlock Holmes exhibit.   Both, in their ways, are works of the imagination--creative museums at work in ways that stimulate and challenge visitors.

If you haven't been to the Dennis Sever's House, it's not like any other historic house. You have to make a reservation, for the evening.  I walked down a cobbled street, knocked on the door, and a museum staffer steps outside with his Ipad in hand, welcomes me, and sends me into the house, asking for quiet.  No guided tour, no labels.  You are free to wander in silence, with just a few other visitors, through the rooms of this 18th century house, set up as if lived in by a family of silk weavers; lit by candles, surrounded by the debris and decay of everyday life.  But it's totally made up.  Dennis Sever was an artist. His goal, says the website,  "what you his art."  No photos, not surprisingly, so the below is from their website.  But a picture really doesn't convey the sounds, the smell, the entire experience.  It really encouraged slowing down, taking your time, wondering.

But there are labels.  And that's part of what made it really interesting to me as a museum person. Here's just a few of them I scribbled down.
"Every object in this house should be seen as part of an arrangement.  Each array tells a story..." 
"What?  You're still looking at "things" instead of what things are doing?" 
"Make no the house it is not what you see, but what you have only just missed, and are being asked to imagine."
What would happen if we wrote labels like that?  That we trusted our visitors to go for it, in terms of what they're thinking and feeling?  If we allowed their own imaginations rather than filling their heads with facts?  There's no touching in the house (and funny it seems like people don't try to) but it is a full immersion experience.  Severs has given visitors a great gift--his imagination stimulates ours. If you're in London, go!

On that same trip, I visited the Sherlock Holmes exhibit at the Museum of London.  Holmes, of course, is a great imaginative creation, who lives on in books, movies, and television (and yes, they did have Benedict Cumberbatch's coat on exhibit).   This wasn't the work of a single imagination, but rather I suspect a clear team effort--and one where a team somehow felt spurred on by each other.  I imagine a meeting where someone says, "Let's start the exhibit with a bookcase,"  and then someone else says, "Yes, and it can be a secret bookcase,"  and someone else says, "Yes, and visitors have to enter secretly," and some exhibit designer says, "sure!"

I loved the interplay of historical fact--the London of Conan Doyle's day, that he surrounded Holmes with, and the written words from the mysteries.  I loved that certain abstractions and talents of Holmes--observation and deduction, for instance, were explored through very clear installations of objects, some of them very everyday (shoes and eyeglasses, for instance).

And of course, although I didn't take one, I loved the nod to contemporary life at the final stop (and the Sherlock-shaped shortbread in the cafe)

My takeaways?  To remember that great, creative ideas sometimes come from individuals and sometimes from collective work; and to make space for both those in exhibit development; to always remember that many exhibits need a sense of humor; to understand the power of emotions; and to keep looking out for those inspiring exhibits.  What have you seen lately that inspired you?  What has brought you out of the abyss of boring exhibits?

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