Museum Exhibit Musings -- Intellect V. Emotion

The other article I read last weekend (Visitors as Partners in Exhibition) was a report on a forum from a conference. The discussion focused on the role visitors have in the creation of exhibitions.

This article dealt with the issues: Are we really making visitors a partner in exhibitions? Whom are our exhibits useful to? How are we dealing with highly-polarized populations? We say we want to design for spontaneous community, civic engagement and to provide open-ended visitor driven experiences, but are we really doing it?

The discussion developed around five general topics: relevance of exhibits to visitors; being challenging and provocative (but also having a dialogue about visitor preconceptions); working with community, risk (risking failure, risking the exhibit going into areas you weren’t expecting); and polarization and diversity.

What do I need to do to make this exhibit about the visitor? About the community?

Two of the statements that participants said during the discussion have stayed with me. The first was that: Museums “just want to talk; we don’t want to listen.” And the second was:
“Museums are dying because they are blatantly factual and non-inspiring. ‘Where’s the passion in the truth you’re trying to present, the compelling, engaging experience?’ We offer too many facts, and not enough emotion.”

Why don’t museums focus on “emotions?” I have to immediately admit a bias. When I do oral presentations (tours, classes, etc.) I often employ emotions. I try to get people to feel, to not only see the facts of history but to think about how people felt and why they reacted the ways they did. I still have students angry at me years later for crashing the stock market and taking their money in one of our role playing games around the Great Depression. And I find the frisson of fear some people experience on the flashlight cemetery tours get them much more involved in the stories. But I find it incredibly difficult to do this in writing – especially without coming across too emotional or sounding stupid. Things that work in spoken conversation don’t always translate to a written environment such as an exhibit. Even if a museum wanted to create an exhibit that offered less facts and more emotion, how could it be achieved while still maintaining professionalism and balance? Could it be done without coming across as heavy-handed? Do visitors want an emotional connection with an exhibit?

Again, let me know your thoughts. And if you have ideas on how to be compelling and engaging and include emotion in an exhibit setting, please let me know.