Intro to Public History Week 6: Exhibits, Pt. 2

On the bookshelf:
Polly McKenna-Cress and Janet A. Kamien, Creating Exhibitions
An “advocacy starfish” metaphor seems appropriate here. Image credit: Lisa Pote

This week’s reading continued along the same theme as Beverly Serrell’s Exhibit Labels. Polly McKenna-Cress and Janet A. Kamien’s Creating Exhibitions is similarly manual-like and intended for practical application, but looks at the broader picture of exhibition design from the planning stages to evaluation. The biggest theme is that of collaboration and how to make that work in the exhibition development and design process. McKenna-Cress and Kamien provide a compelling blueprint for an ideal division of labor and responsibility for a project into five “advocacies”- that for institution, subject matter, visitor experience, design, and project and team. Each advocacy is provided detailed advice about what questions to ask, what issues might arise, what responsibilities they might encounter, and how to integrate into the rest of the team.

Although I appreciate the cogent plan for collaboration laid out in these pages, and I’m grateful to have a resource like this on my bookshelf for future consultation, I struggle a little bit with how to apply the advice to the current Influenza project. I understand that collaboration is vital, and I’m totally on board with that, but as we haven’t split ourselves into different “advocacies,” we are all essentially advocating for the same thing in different ways. I also think back to various work experiences I’ve had where the project planning advice would have been absolutely fantastic, but would have fallen on deaf ears. As the low historians on the totem pole, so to speak, we don’t generally have as much say in the process as would be served by McKenna-Cress and Kamien’s holistic, top-down method.

That’s not to say that I don’t think we can use some of the collaborative advice here. But I think what might be more helpful in both the short-and-long-term are some guidelines on fruitful interpersonal communication. Listening effectively is really hard but extremely valuable- and when I think back to those chaotic work projects, it would have been one of the single most important things that would have improved the working process. I found a Cliff’s Notes version of what I’m talking about here.

The other point that stuck out to me about the book is what seems to be the motivation for its creation- the desire to make museums successful in a changing world. The museum mission has shifted from collection and preservation to education to relevance, advocacy, and social responsibility- and now they must perform all those functions simultaneously. Collaboration has the potential to make work in a museum more lucrative for institutions, more engaging for visitors, and more meaningful to contemporary society. As they assert on page 19, “In order to survive, museums must be actively relevant for contemporary audiences.”

The not-so-subtle theme of this book: RELEVANCE IS KEY

Which brings me to my next topic: Nina Simon’s “The Art of Relevance” talk at the Barnes Foundation on September 30. Simon is also concerned with the role of the museum in a changing world. I haven’t yet read her book (titled, not surprisingly, The Art of Relevance), but I think I managed to pull some of its main ideas from her presentation. Simon, the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (website tagline: “Your home for the best creative collaborations in Santa Cruz”) and creator of the Museum 2.0 blog  confronted the problems the MAH was having with finances and relevance in an innovative way. She spoke about drastically changing the mission statement (for McKenna-Cress and Kamien, “institutional advocacy”) to connect the diverse local communities that were not previously being served (advocacy for subject matter, visitor experience, and design). Finances would follow, she decided. The real issue was to reestablish the museum’s relevance.

Relevance, to Simon, has several characteristics:
1) It is not universal: You can’t please everyone.
2) It generates a positive cognitive effect: Visitors come away feeling enriched in some way.
3) It requires low effort: Patrons should not have to rack their brains to come up with a way that an exhibit connects to them and their lives.
4) It unlocks meaning: The positive cognitive effect and low effort combine to make meaningful connections within the visitor.

There’s a lot more to her talk that I won’t go into here. But I think that these guidelines for relevance are simple and vital and should be kept in mind as we work toward both the Influenza and WWI Olympians projects for this class. Another currently-applicable point I got from her talk was about the nature of collaboration. Namely, EVERYONE MUST AGREE. Not everyone’s idea will win, but they must be willing to listen and put in the work toward agreeing and being engaged in the process. MAH has instituted a “3 meeting rule,” meaning that if they can’t come to a workable consensus about something in three meetings, it’s not going to get done. I think this is a bold technique that would absolutely fall flat in some situations, so it really speaks to the quality of the team that Simon has put together that they can make this work for them. Should we institute a “3 meeting rule” for our project? Maybe not, but I think there should be a real motivation to come to an agreeable consensus that everyone is willing to work toward fulfilling.


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