Across museums, aside from the model that they adopt for exhibition development, there is considerable variation in the nomenclature used and the stages or phases into which exhibition development is divided. Except in institutions with multiple museums, the variation in nomenclature is not especially important. The difference in phases or stages, ranging from two to eighteen across museums, has implications for the internal review process. Most of the reviews occur at the end of stages; thus, more detailed processes include more review.
In this post, we identify broad stages in the actual making of an exhibition and describe how various types of museums carry them out using various models of creation. The very first stage, Idea Generation, and the acceptance of an idea as a possible exhibition.
The making of an exhibition begins once the museum has allowed an idea to move forward into concept development. Most interviewees agree that concept development is when the “serious” work on the parameters for content, ideas, design, size and cost begins. The product of this stage is a relatively well-defined proposal for additional review and possible presentation to potential funders.
Some museums consciously generate several concept options for the same idea. Other approaches include “brainstorming” workshops among internal staff or with the assistance of outside facilitators to open up the possibilities. Universally, the control of the process remains essentially with the same group of people who initiated the idea for the exhibition and saw it through the initial approval process. Assessments with visitors are particularly helpful during concept development. Some museums routinely try to assess potential audiences’ levels of interest in and understanding of basic concepts. For example, the Minnesota Historical Society collects data about audience interest and baseline knowledge in a formal exhibition proposal, then tests assumptions further during the concept development phase. One natural history museum developed several alternative concepts for an exhibition, made preliminary drawings and sketches and tested them systematically with visitors. Most museums, however, do not include visitor assessments at this stage in their process.
While some museums use outside contractors for design, especially if the exhibition involves complex technology, most design takes place within the initiating museum. The core team, exhibition developer, or lead curator work with the designer to orchestrate the exhibition design. Some museums are moving to in-house design after years of contracting. For example, according to the vice president of exhibitions at a major museum, they moved away from contract designers to strengthen their in-house exhibition staff. “The decision involved cost as well as how the museum represents itself in terms of control and accountability,” he commented.
In case studies of exhibitions conducted by OP&A (2002d), as well as in our interviews with museum staff inside and outside the museum, the design phase of exhibition development has the most struggles and conflicts—decisions need to be made on a day-by-day basis about how many objects, how much text, whose words, and whose “voice.” The concept model of the exhibition generally drives decisions. For example, we encountered situations in which the curator proposed more objects than the designer felt were appropriate in order to communicate, but the curator insisted that visitors need to see all the objects. Since a model of the exhibition as artifact display persisted, the objects stayed. If, however, the team had agreed that the visitor experience would be immersive, design considerations would have driven the decision and might have resulted in a reduction in the number of objects. Some elements of design are amenable to research with visitors. Exhibition development in science centers and children’s museums, and in exhibitions that involve visitor-object interaction, includes prototyping and other forms of testing.
Fabrication and Installation.
At the point at which exhibition fabrication begins, almost all of the decisions have been made. In the course of the OP&A study, interviewees raised very few issues relating to fabrication and installation. Unless unexpected problems arise, the main challenges here are monitoring and scheduling. Skillful project management that incorporates flexibility appears to solve most of the issues that arise. Like design, fabrication is either conducted in-house or contracted out. Many interviewees prefer to contract out but their museums do not have the resources to do so.
In an ideal world, exhibitions would have “soft” opening dates with time and funds to make adjustments in response to obvious faults identified after installation. With the exception of exhibitions at some science centers and children’s museums, very few museums routinely plan for adjustments or corrections. Even when they conduct full-scale visitor evaluations, they rarely make changes. Some museum process documents specify that an amount of the budget must be held back for visitor studies and remediation. Interviewees told us, however, that these are seen as contingency funds and often are used for other purposes.
A number of museums include a “post partum” stage in their process documents. In the case of one museum, tasks at this stage include documentation, an audit of expenses, evaluation and revisions, and recommendations for future projects. In practice, by the time an exhibition has opened, most of the actors have moved on to the next project, and enthusiasm for revisiting decisions has evaporated. In small museums, there is a sharing of lessons learned from exhibition to exhibition. This is less the case in larger museums, where the individuals who occupy specific exhibition-making roles change repeatedly. Since unsuccessful experiments in design, presentation and process are rarely reported in the professional literature, there is little sharing of lessons across museum lines.
No single overall exhibition-making structure guarantees the production of high quality, cost- effective and timely exhibitions. Some models work better than others in certain situations. We can conclude that it is important to select an appropriate model for each exhibition project, based on the nature of the exhibition and the talents and availability of staff, but that museums need to retain flexibility to accommodate the varied nature of exhibition projects.
Resources: THE MAKING OF EXHIBITIONS: PURPOSE, STRUCTURE, ROLES AND PROCESS / Smithsonian Institution / Office of Policy and Analysis Washington, DC 20560-0039
Main photo: Ryue Nishizawa IV