Is the Museum Exhibition Model Broken?

Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities, from ”Museum Wormianum”, 1655. Original source Smithsonian Museum

Over the last fortnight I’ve been in the midst of a lot of discussion about exhibition development for museums. Primarily the question has been approached from … what are our exhibitions going to be about and how do we get them on the floor?

Both valid and necessary questions when it comes to upgrading the museum’s exhibition space and it’s certainly seen as core function of most museums – if not the primary function. Indeed for many the exhibition provides the main mechanism by which museum professionals believe they broker their mandate with the community at large.

But in the middle of a conversation about how an exhibition’s design and content was to be fed into the ‘Ford-like’ production line to create the labels, design it, and then fabricate and advertise it I had this thought …


This sounds a bit of a radical thought but perhaps not as much as one would at first think. Museum’s haven’t always adopted the model of using themed exhibitions to broker audience contact. In fact the earliest museums, the cabinets of curiosities and the history museums that followed them, were actually incredibly open experiences in relation to the display of their collections.

In the 1560s the Belgian scholar Samuel Quiccheberg made the modest claim that the museum (read .. Cabinet of curiusities) was, .. A theatre of the broadest scope, containing authentic materials and precise reproductions of the whole of the universe

These private collectors could of course never attain such a universal collection but the objects they had were all on show for their public, albeit a very limited one. It’s clear when looking at images of these phantasmagorical collections like those of Ferrante Imperato, Septimus Jorger,and Francesco Calzolari that the museum was a kind of scholarly open book, a visual microcosm of the worlds objects collected, and arranged, to inspire, amaze and encourage serious research.

The civic museum in the 19th century was also in many ways a much more open book when it came to brokering the interactions between audience and museum collections. And some of those great institutions like the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Louvre, and many others around the have carried that legacy right through to the present. Its embedded in their very DNA; the architecture that houses them, and the desire to be a three-dimensional archive of the culture that surrounds them.

But of course the scale of these collections ensure well over 90% of the collections are stored away from the public. And increasingly the museum as a site from which to glimpse the narrative of culture across time has shifted toward emphasising the culture of the present. Not really unexpected given change and culture appear to have sped up. It is now more global in nature, but change is also increasingly found in digital containers hard for museum exhibitions to grapple with, and produced on a scale that makes many ownable by people who once might have visited the museum to engage with these technologies.

But in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the exhibition was a solution for addressing problems relating to access to collections and contemporary culture. And its almost universal adoption has, for many years, made real sense of some of the museums activities. In the earliest years exhibitions provided a mechanism by which the curator,(and in those days it was a curator with a few assistants), could rearrange the displays in a designated area by changing over objects. Design was in fact quite modular as the existing cabinets and collection area designated how and where they were displayed. But it wasn’t a very dynamic environment for other museum professionals and as museums expanded to include a broader range of staff: non-curatorial managers, registrars, educators, marketers, conservator, loans officers, etc., this curator controlled mode began to show signs of redundancy – and not just in the area of exhibitions.

The most prevalent exhibition model adopted seems to have been inherited from Art Museums. And this still shows in the way exhibitions are implemented and thought about. Even now discussions about exhibition are contingent on style, design, often white boxes, certainly white labels, and developed around a person, a single theme, a particular manufacturer. By the end of the C20th they had turned into the primary focus for resources in most large scale museums. They had also generated a massive infrastructure for developing and marketing exhibitions all justified because people coming though the doors of the museum were believed to be the primary way in which the museum brokered its madate and relationship with the communities that surrounded them.

All well and good. But what about now? Museums have their collections online, wireless devices mean people can experience these collections in spaces outside the museum, and its staff are interacting over multiple platforms in the social media space,publishing e-books, and talking live with students online: the list is an ever expanding one.

As Seb Chan points out in his blog post, mobile tech impacts in museums blog post, the new museum has to acknowledge the experience starts well before, and continues long after, the visit. In fact the notions constructed around building permanent or temporary, large or small, exhibitions and then tearing them down and replacing them with a new crop may also be open to question. I certainly believe the way people interact with museum collections and their interests are changing and broadening. These collections can now service a wider group than the cliched bespectacled enthusiast or academic.

In many ways museum business has already changed, its just we have spent such a long time developing a particular way of doing things its hard to change direction, and like ships it sometimes feels like the bigger the institution the bigger the curve it takes to change direction. Ironically I think we can actually learn some lessons from re-visiting some of the methodology adopted by the earliest museums. The open display style of the Cabinet of Curiosities with its multitude of objects when combined with new wireless technologies and interactive databases could provide engaging and ever-changing museum experiences. Ones tailored to the visitors needs not dictated by museum audience research. Scalable experiences where objects could be requested for display, stories are developed through broader community interaction and narratives are expanded to merge the past, present and the future.

cc by sa

Geoff Barker, 2012


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