Tis the season for existential doubts, it seems, because I think I don’t believe in exhibitions anymore. A number of factors have come together recently to make me question whether the way we develop exhibitions is the way we should be developing them.
1) I’ve read a number of articles (that I maddeningly can’t lay my hands on) problematizing exhibitions as money pits and resource drains on museums, at the expense of other things. Exhibitions are slow, they are expensive, and they tend to be rigid frameworks within which it’s hard to innovate. I am working on exhibition projects at the moment that are three or fours years away from opening. One project will have taken almost a decade by the time it opens. A decade. That’s a long time. And a lot of it will be spent in testing and evaluating and making sure it addresses the formal education frameworks and standards that govern so much of what we do nowadays. And in all that measuring, I often remember the sociologist W.B. Cameron’s quote that “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
2) While cleaning my office, I found a cryptic piece of note paper covered with random words like “magic”, “storyworlds”, “metanarratives” and more. After a few minutes of deciphering, I realized it was my scrawled notes from a talk Seb Chan and I had at the bar the New Media Consortium retreat last year. We’re both been interested in why there isn’t more “magic” in science exhibitions, and by that I mean that sense of wonder and mystery, not card tricks and disappearing rabbits. I’ve been having versions of this conversation for over a year and I just can’t shake it. The brilliant folks at the Medical Museion in Denmark have in their manifesto, “Jealously guard a place for wonder and mystery” and I think it’s advice not enough of us take.
3) In part, the series of posts I’m writing on Making a Museum from Scratch flows from this same impulse, particularly the concept of a continuum of transparency, with collections being most transparent and exhibitions being least. I am certain there’s something there, and we’re missing an opportunity to engage visitors differently.
4) I recently worked on an interactive for interpreting a period room. When I wrote the first spec for the application I realized that from the visitors’ vantage point, the room looked a lot like a scene from Myst. And that brought back a flood of memories of playing the game with my lovely and talented wife when it first came out. We’d come home from our jobs, make supper and look at each other across the table afterwards, “You wanna maybe play some…?” “I get to drive this time!” and ZOOM! we’d be at the computer, ready to spend a few hours getting lost in the game world. How would one make an exhibition that prompted that same kind of response?
5) All the museums on my list of must see places are ones that don’t do traditional exhibitions. I think they are all, at their core, emotional experiences; Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris…
This dissatisfaction with exhibitions has left me wondering what would an exhibition that’s not an exhibition look like? What’s the opposite of an exhibition?
Thanks to my Greek teacher in high school, I have an abiding love of knowing roots and meanings. The opposite of ex-hibition should be in-hibition. So I went to see what the etymology of the word might tell me. And this what the Online Etymology dictionary said:
early 14c., from O.Fr. exhibicion, exibicion “show, exhibition, display,” from L.L. exhibitionem (nom. exhibitio), noun of action from pp. stem of exhibere “to show, display,” lit. “to hold out,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + habere “to hold” (see habit).
late 14c., “formal prohibition; interdiction of legal proceedings by authority;” also, the document setting forth such a prohibition, from O.Fr. inibicion and directly from L. inhibitionem (nom. inhibitio) “a restraining,” from pp. stem of inhibere “to hold in, hold back, keep back,” from in- “in, on” (see in- (2)) + habere “to hold” (see habit).
To hold out or to hold back? The minute I read this, I thought,”Oh, that’s interesting!” Revealing versus concealing is deeply involved in this, but “inhibition” is such a weird word with so many other meanings that it didn’t seem quite right as the opposite for (and antidote to) “exhibition”. When I threw all this in a document and showed it to Suse Cairns, she shared an article from Psychological Review, entitled “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” and I realized the piece that had been eluding me: power.
Power, Approach, and Inhibition
The authors start their article with a quote from Bertrand Russell, “The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense that Energy is the fundamental concept in physics . . . The laws of social dynamics are laws which can only be stated in terms of power.”
Here’s the abstract:
This article examines how power influences behavior. Elevated power is associated with increasedrewards and freedom and thereby activates approach-related tendencies. Reduced power is associated with increased threat, punishment, and social constraint and thereby activates inhibition-related tendencies. The authors derive predictions from recent theorizing about approach and inhibition and review relevant evidence. Specifically, power is associated with (a) positive affect, (b) attention to rewards, (c) automatic information processing, and (d) disinhibited behavior. In contrast, reduced power is associated with (a) negative affect; (b) attention to threat, punishment, others’ interests, and those features of the self that are relevant to others’ goals; (c) controlled information processing; and (d) inhibited social behavior. The potential moderators and consequences of these power-related behavioral patterns are discussed.
The authors’ basic argument is that people’s feeling of power in a given situation determines whether they feel like engaging (approach) or holding back (inhibition). This power influences the balance of approach and inhibition tendencies. So, elevated power activates approach-related processes, and reduced power activates inhibition-related processes.
Or as Gang of Four put it,
“Natural is not in it,
Your relations are all power,
We all have good intentions,
but all with strings attached.”
Natural’s Not in It, Gang of Four
Sounds kinda like an exhibition team, doesn’t it? We wish visitors only good things like learning, and enjoyment. But only to the extent that they are willing to do it on our terms. The power balance is entirely on the exhibition’s side.
If you can find the article, it’s an interesting read. Of the authors’ 12 propositions, several of them express things I’ve witnessed in exhibitions I’ve worked on or visited.
- Elevated Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Positive Affect
- Reduced Power Increases the Experience and Expression of Negative Affect
- Elevated Power Increases the Sensitivity to Rewards
- Reduced Power Increases the Sensitivity to Threat and Punishment
- Elevated Power Increases the Likelihood of Approach-Related Behavior
- Reduced Power Increases Behavioral Inhibition
So I wonder if it’s a question of empowering visitors, or is it rather a question of inhibiting ourselves more in how we exhibit, in being less strident and overt?
Shifting the balance in the power equation
Power, Approach and Inhibition made me think that maybe what I want to do is be more explicit in inhibiting the dominating power of the exhibition so that visitors have more personal agency and power within the space. I think it’s a zero-sum game so raising everybody’s power level doesn’t sound plausible to me. So how do we push the power balance further in the visitors’ favor without totally abrogating our responsibility to be accurate, honest, and authoritative? How could we inhibit the exhibition?
The first thing that popped into my mind was another tidbit from Copenhagen, “Use exhibitions to find out, not to disseminate what you already know”, which has a certain power to it. If the process of making an exhibition were itself more of a discovery process, and less of a dissemination process, that might inhibit us more, since we’d be coming from a place of uncertainty, and learning as we went along, just like we want our visitors to learn.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I kept coming back to the idea of storyworlds.
The exhibition as a storyworld?
I think one of the most obvious ways could be to treat them more like immersive narratives than as collections of discrete experiences that are thematically linked, which is what I’d argue most non-art exhibitions are nowadays. If you’ve read this blog for any time, you know I’m no booster for gamification (ack!). That said, there are valuable lessons to be learned from game theorists. Chris Crawford (I think) first proposed the notion that a game is a world in which a story occurs and that players are free to move through this bounded space and time and encounter pieces of a story, or follow a story arc. This has clear parallels to what museums do, and addresses a lot of the concerns I’ve voiced about what exhibitions lack..
This kind of storyworld is by nature immersive. There is enough to it that the player (or visitor) feels part of it, and is able to move through it in a self-directed way. It is also decidedly non-linear, which museum exhibitions have to be.
A storyworld is a narrative. There is a premise, and (at least) one plot unfolds over the course of the narrative. They may intertwine, double back, and perform other gymnastics, but they are there contiunously throughout the experience.
A storyworld is a constructivist endeavor, and therefore deeply personal. You put together the elements as you navigate the space, and your edifice of knowledge will look different than anyone else’s. This was at least half the fun of Myst. I’d decide that everything we’d learned meant one thing, and my wife would often have constructed a completely different narrative. Part of our playing the game was the dialogic interaction we’d have about what was going on.
Storyworlds allow visitors to have more of a personalized experience, without the technological backflips we try to do to encourage them to “personalize” the experience. Sleep No More is a great example of this. The audience decides where they want to go, and can follow the action, follow a particular character, or just wander randomly through the story of Macbeth.
There are probably other parallels as well, but I haven’t had the time to let this idea season. I’ve been sick for days and hope you will be able to make something of this, or point out the obvious flaws in my thinking. Or give me examples or counterexamples.
Keltner, Dacher, Deborah H. Gruenfeld, and Cameron Anderson, “Power, Approach, and Inhibition” in Psychological Review, 2003, Vol. 110, No. 2, 265–284
Sublime early morning reading this morning, Brian Peterson’s Making Magic: Beauty in Word and Image, the catalogue for the current exhibition at the James A. Mitchener Museum, Doylestown, PA. Photography, poetry, and Brian’s thoughts tying them together. Absolutely nothing better than a talented curator gathering together and generously giving, making us take the time to look.
Maybe there is something about scale and objects (carefully chosen by someone who knows them). Brian’s exhibition took even longer than the ones mentioned above; they took his lifetime to prepare.
Reminds me of the best experience I have had in a museum exhibition in recent years: I wandered into an exhibit at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center through the back door, and found myself in the middle of a what appeared to be a Victorian living room, hung about with paintings and curio cabinets, and no guide as to what it was “about.” It felt a lot like wandering around Myst–I examined all the objects, letters, drawings, and realized it told the story of the grief of the Stanford family on the death of their son, and how that lead to the founding of the university. When I exited (through the entrance) I found I had been in “Splendid Grief: Darren Waterston and the Afterlife
of Leland Stanford Jr.” Even the title, much less the meticulous and detailed intro copy, would have completely spoiled the experience for me by telling me the story, rather than letting me piece together the narrative by myself. I find myself searching for that experience again–a museum embedding hidden narrative, and trusting me to figure it out for myself (or not).
This was informed and thoughtful provoking. Thank you.
Great reading Ed, resonating strongly with the path I’ve been on. Wondering, did you read Jay Rounds’ piece in the most recent issue of Curator: The Museum Journal? http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)2151-6952
I did. It’s a great issue! I love Jay’s piece and the Kirchberg & Tröndle piece that follows it.
One of the things I’ve puzzled out is my sense that museum-goers come to us in a playful spirit. Piaget defined play as any activity that was voluntary and undertaken for pleasure. This means that exhibition approaches that smack of coercion, no matter how earnest or well-intentioned, tend to undercut what museum-goers hope to experience. This extends to the physical environment in captured path exhibitions, or to mediated experiences like dreadfully didactic and boring guided tours, or to interpretive positions, particularly on sensitive issues, that come across as strident, inflexible or preachy. Most museum-goers seek an experience that reinforces desires for freedom: freedom of navigation, freedom of time expenditure and commitment, freedom of thought. This can clash with a museum’s sense that its expertise is not only sacrosanct, but is what the public desires. Still, a museum cannot be about nothing, every choice comes freighted with explicit or implicit content.
And yes, exhibits should not have to take so long to make.
I’m having my first exhibition design experience now and this post sums up a lot of the thoughts and feelings I’ve been having. As I look at the exhibition, I’m thinking, “Where’s the sense of play? Are we dictating the experience? What story are we telling here?” As a writer, I tend to view everything through story and narrative. I used to think that my “museum” life and “writer” life had to follow divergent paths. Now I realize that those paths need to cross and merge and integrate, much like a double helix.
Ed this post has helped immensely in bringing together two disparate thoughts that have been hounding me for some time. I’m writing up a blog response now, but in the meantime, I think that you’ll find this relatively quick and easy-read blog of mine pretty darn relevant:
Quick quote: “…it really wasn’t until today that I realized my opinions about technology and social engagement in museums really do boil down to my views on education: just as the classroom should be shaped around student interests, the museum experience should be shaped by visitor interests. And not in the way of “here are our exhibit options, choose what interests you” but in users within the community having a say from the beginning on what their museum has to offer them.”
As a PS: It’s worth noting that Reggio-Emilia is a quite progressive constructivist approach, with discovery being core to learning (to the extreme, even… which is why I love it.)
I can’t wait to read your post as soon as I get back from NYC!
Thanks Ed! Here is my actual response to this post : ) Safe travels!
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