Museum Exhibit Musings -- Moderator or Advocate?

Had a chance this weekend to read some articles. One I read was called “The Latest in Exhibit Trends (From the Designer’s Perspective” and was in the Fall ’06 Exhibitionist (a magazine about museum exhibits). The article had 8 exhibit designers present on what they believed were the newest trends in exhibit development

Larry Bell said that exhibits had to be CLEAR:

  • Curiosity (does it provoke curiosity and an emotional response?),

  • Learning (does the exhibit create the kinds of non-verbal learning experiences hard to get elsewhere – experiential, visceral learning?),

  • Empowerment (do the visitors feel like they can do something they couldn’t do before?),

  • Access (is the content accessible to lots of different kinds of visitors?) and

  • Relevance (can the visitors relate this content to their lives?).

Bell got me thinking about what I want to achieve with the exhibit. More knowledge of the time period? Sure. But knowledge is only a part of it. The empowerment portion speaks to me. With a program, we often want people to learn, experience and do something differently because of having attended the program. But I hadn’t thought of exhibits in that same way. What do I want people to DO after having seen the 1906-1913 exhibit? Leave knowing how they can and why they should protect buildings from this time period? Encourage organizations, places and institutions to celebrate the many centennials coming up in the next few years? Celebrate that cultural diversity has always been a part of Lethbridge and recognize the contributions of all groups in Lethbridge? Is building empowerment into the exhibit presumptuous? Can I decide how people will be “empowered” or is that up to each visitor? What does, can or should an exhibit do regarding empowerment?

In the same article, Peter Kuttner spoke about museums and a point of view. He broke museums into 3 groups: museums that stop short of tough issues and avoid the risk of controversy, museums dedicated to a particular point of view and, a new type, advocacy groups/museums. He concluded that some (most?) museums put themselves in as moderators – illustrating multiple points of view and opening the floor for debate. Some museums, which he says “occupy a place of dubious merit in the exhibit world” are about making a partisan point of view. The last group, the advocacy groups, he has between the partisan and moderators – this group has a point of view but work to keep the discussion open.

I know I have very definite opinions about certain events, people and themes in the 1906-1913 time period. Where on the spectrum discussed above should I aim to place the exhibit? Can I be an advocate (if I’m fully up front about my opinions and biases and accept those of visitors)? Or should I try to be neutral? Thinking back to the earlier article that suggested “signing” an exhibit, does linking an exhibit to an author encourage or discourage advocacy? Please let me know what you think and your thoughts on the exhibit.