Monday, 25 May 2015

VISIT A MUSEUM LIKE A MASTER

THE GRAD SCHOOL GUIDE

BY: JENNY FORD

I am probably the worst person to visit a museum with. I question everything and notice the smallest details. To be honest, I wouldn’t visit a museum any other way. Museum Studies has taught me to look at museums differently. It has taught me to appreciate the careful thought and balance that goes into an exhibition. But for those who can’t wait to get started, here’s how to visit a museum like a master's student.

Person walks by art installation made up of thousand of magazine pictures.
Exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Credit: Jenny Ford

THE HOOK

Panel text
The introductory panel to Brain. Credit: Jenny Ford
The first thing I notice in an exhibition are the words on the introductory panel. Does it capture my attention? Does it tell me what the exhibition is about? Sure you may have a lot of pretty objects, but I’m not going to learn anything if the text is poorly written.

Take this good example from the American Museum of Natural History's traveling exhibition Brain: The Inside Story. The introductory panel hooks you in and invokes all your senses. In the words of John Veverka, it provokes the visitor's interest, relates it to their lives, and reveals something new. On top of all this, it tells me what the exhibition is about.

CAREFUL OBSERVATION

People watching is also an important part of my museum experience. I take note of other people’s behaviours when they enter an exhibition, which way they turn, what objects they gravitate towards, and what text they end up reading (if any). Are visitors missing out on the most important object simply because of where it’s placed or how it’s presented? Sometimes, if I’m feeling bold, I eavesdrop on their conversations to see what's of interest to them, and if the exhibition's point is getting across.

Canadian Journeys Gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
 Canadian Journeys Gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Credit: Jenny Ford

WHO'S IN AND WHO'S OUT

Objects, places, people, and organisms have a thousand stories, but which one(s) is the museum telling? I always pay attention to who’s talking in an exhibition. Is it the curator? The artist? The people connected to the objects? I’ve definitely been to some one-sided museums, where the curator’s voice is loud and clear, but the people who used, for instance, are nowhere to be found.

I also look for the visitor’s voice in an exhibition. Is it a one-sided dialogue, or can the visitor contribute? Are they given time to reflect on diverse opinions or share their own? The picture below from the Parliament Interpretive Centre in Toronto is a lovely example of the multiplicity of voices in an exhibition.

Panel at the Parliament Interpretive Centre.
Panel at the Parliament Interpretive Centre. Credit: Jenny Ford

PUTTING THE WORLD ON DISPLAY

There are so many ways to showcase objects and stories. How this is done says a lot. I not only look where an object is displayed, but also what goes along with it. Accompanying labels, videos, and pictures can change how we view an object.

A taxidermy zebra in a glass case by itself is removed from its natural habitat. Does this give us an isolated sense of a zebra? But does placing it within a diorama, like the one below, give us an unrealistic and idealistic view of its natural world? You can now see why people love to hate visiting museums with me...

Diorama of African mamals at the American Museum of Natural History.
Diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. Credit: Jenny Ford

WHY AM I HERE AGAIN?

Finally, as I exit a museum or exhibition, I think back to what I’ve learned. Can I sum up the exhibition or was it just a blur of “stuff”? If it's the latter, we have a problem. It means the exhibition wasn’t successful in getting its message across, and something was lost in translation. A good exhibition should always leave you capable of answering the question “what was that all about”?

HAVE A TIP FOR VISITING A MUSEUM LIKE A PRO? SHARE IT IN THE COMMENTS!

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