Judging exhibitions

Every quarter, educators from across the Smitsonian meet for an “exchange” of ideas around a common topic of interest. Last week I attended my first educators’ exchange, where we deconstructed the National Museum of Natural History’s Mammal Hall. We were trying out the theories of Beverly Serrell, whose new book, Judging Exhibitions: A Framework for Assessing Excellence provided parameters, criteria, and a scoring system.

NMNH's Mammal Hall Tiger in NMNH's Mammal Hall While this may sound a little formulaic (an exhibition is not an algebra problem after all), in practice of course, it is not – we discovered wildly varied responses to the same stimuli. Some of my collegues came away knowing more about the basics of being a mammal than they ever had, while others found the display somewhat too textbook-like. And so on.

It was worthwhile and enjoyable to me though, to subject an exhibition to these questions, even if we can’t agree on the results. I was forced to confront my “meaning of life” -type questions of why I go to museums in the first place, and what do I expect from them? What are my core values in spending my time this way? Ok, Museum 101. But aren’t these questions worth re-asking ourselves, and our exhibition teams, from time to time?

I do want an exhibition to challenge my thinking. Going with very simple ideas is ok, unless they are simple to a fault. I find successful interactives to be those that redirect my focus back to critical observation of objects to illuminate a point (that I could otherwise read in a book.) Low-tech (crawling under a tree trunk to see how squirrels live) is as, if not more, effective than computers and video. No, you can’t please every audience demographic. But little gestures to those outside the core target audience are significant and not difficult. Do you agree or are your values different?

My favorite comment was about majesty. To hear Smithsonian scientists talk about their work is to hear inspiration; they are professionals who truly love what they do. Translating passion into physical space is a lofty goal for which any exhibition should strive. That the Hall of Mammals achieved a level of majesty, a passionate spectacular majesty, is something on which we all could agree.

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