The Future of Exhibitions

Kathleen McLean was at the Smithsonian last week, and provided a provocative discussion about the future of museum exhibitions.  If you haven’t read her work or heard her speak, I would highly recommend it.  Kathleen is the president of the Visitor Services Association, and the author/editor of several pivotal works on the topic, including Visitor Voices in Museum Exhibitions, Are We There Yet? Conversations about Best Practices in Science Exhibition Development; and Planning for People in Museum Exhibitions.

Among her predictions for the future was the absolute necessity of experimentation.  She echoed a sentiment expressed by Michael Chabon at the AAM conference this year – that a museum’s primary mission should be to convey a sense of curiosity, wonder, and delight, rather than to convey a series of accurate facts. 

She urged museums, and the Smithsonian in particular, to rethink the “industrial age,” linear way in which expensive exhibitions are currently developed, in favor of a model that is much more flexible, experimental, responsive, and interactive in all ways.  She pointed out quite poignantly that “best practices” can also be a trap.  Who says there’s the “right” kind of font for wall labels or that darkness in galleries is taboo?  She made the case that museums that venture to break the rules are paving the way to the future of meaningful exhibitions.

As for traveling exhibitions, she practically declared them “a thing of the past” in favor of a model where digital files, reproduced anywhere, would replace hardware and trucks.  She mused about whether the traditional training for this field, Museum Studies programs, are all wrong, and we should be looking more to artists and educators to spearhead exhibition development.  And one of the most frightening questions – do upcoming generations of museum visitors value the “real thing” as much as we do?  Studies are beginning to show that perhaps they don’t… that younger visitors value the digital version of our collections, because they can be manipulated and customized.

She quoted some interesting and current references to check out – the 2008 Horizon Report by the New Media Consortium and an Irvine Foundation Report on Critical Issues Facing the Arts in California.

Anyway, how about you – any experiments coming up at your museum?!