One of our members forwarded around this TedTalk last week as a model to follow in our proceeding, before leaving the group (that’s right we’re down to three members now.) I’m not going to get into it too much (hint: there’s a lot in it I disagree with), but I think it gives rise to a number of discussions about the field.
Whenever I begin a new project, there is a single question I seek to answer in the development process: what can you gain from the museum exhibit that you get nowhere else? Why is the audience not better served with a book, website, video game, app, simulator, message board, historical reenactor, TV show, movie, performance piece, class or workshop? That’s not even an exhaustive list. Actually, a lot of exhibits incorporate some if not all of these in some degree. But great exhibits harness something unique.
There are two components of museums that cannot be replicated in other media. Objects are the first component, and authentic objects at that. You can see a picture of Lincoln’s stove top hat, or the Code of Hammurabi, but there is something in the ether when you stand in front of the real thing that connects you to its creator or owner. It is almost as if its history is channeled through you. The difference is the equivalent of watching a celebrity on TV and standing next to them at a party. Objects have a certain energy to them, even more so when placed in a context. This is the deeply contemplative aspect of museums.
Interestingly enough, the second component touches exactly on a theme central to our exhibit: Gathering Places. Museums can be a social space like a bar, a football game, or, yes, a dog park. They are opportunities for face to face social interaction. Places to start conversations with random strangers and not have it be weird (or at least too weird). They foster not only an environment of shared learning, but of a shared experience.
This may also explain their popularity as party venues and evening at the museum events.
To briefly go back to the ted talk. Community engagement is not a guestbook or a wall to put post it’s up; that’s what online message boards are for, and to me it reeks of lazy design. With rare exception, exhibits that dedicate space to this seem to have extra space to fill before the exit, and it has been my experience that nine out of ten visitors pass by these sections without a thought. But there are ways to foster conversation.
I have seen it dealt with a number ways. With the exhibits that have strong characters throughout, passports or info cards are passed out at the beginning, tracing that character’s journey through the exhibit. Families compare and contrast their respective character’s journey and the decisions they make. Other museums used staffed activity carts, teaching small groups key exhibit concepts. Even color coding different levels of text can help visitors navigate an exhibit together, as younger visitors gain the basic knowledge that they can share with older audience members, and vice versa.
Given our small budget/timeframe/staffing, creating the right engagement tools will be a challenge, but I’m confident our team of three can figure out something new and interesting for the visitors at Sandy Spring.