A guest blog post by Joanna Fisher, ExhibitFiles member since July 2007
Since the beginning of the year, I have been meeting with fellow museum professionals from a variety of local museums to experiment with and learn from the use of Judging Exhibitions: A Framework for Assessing Excellence, by Beverly Serrell. Our group includes people from a variety of backgrounds and a spectrum of museum types. Each person in the group uses the Framework to review an exhibition on their own. Then we meet over sack lunches once every two months to follow up and discuss our findings. I try to capture the views of the entire group in a review, informed by their reviews and the discussion, which I post on Exhibitfiles. (Two have been posted—Destination Argentina and galleries at the John Hutchings Museum of Natural History—and two more will be posted in the next few weeks.)
We held our first meeting in February and reviewed how we would use the Framework. (See below for link to PDF.) It is exciting to talk about what makes a good exhibition, we agreed, and there would be differences of opinion. The Framework would help get us all on the same page, speaking the same language, and thinking more carefully and thoroughly about what we see as evidence of excellence. The process of thinking and discussing has increased our abilities to review, critique and evaluate for excellence—and to strive for exhibitions that have the most excellence possible.
When we visit an exhibition on our own, we complete the steps to come up with a rating. Beverly defines them this way:
- Call-outs: your experiences in the exhibition as a visitor
- Aspects: the evidence you found that supported each criterion (Comfortable? Engaging? Reinforcing? Meaningful?)
I really enjoy coming up with call-outs. I can wonder on paper about the things I see and hear. I can like things just because I like them. And I can note when I think something is stupid. There aren’t really any “rules” that I need to consider, I just need to experience the exhibition. When I “finish” my visit, it is time to assess the “aspects.” I am mostly considering questions that are laid out pretty explicitly in the Framework. Basically, I just ask myself if the exhibition “is” or “isn’t” comfortable, engaging, reinforcing, and meaningful, based on what I wrote in my call-outs.
After finishing these two steps, it is time to use my brain, to “rate the criteria”—then to identify the evidence to support those ratings. Rating the criteria requires that I 1) start using a different part of my brain, and keep using it until my brain adjusts to the shift and 2) make commitments. I love to analyze and think, but I still have to talk myself into assigning ratings, to be a judge. Once I get into it, it does get easier and more enjoyable.
I am reminded of the dreaded annual reviews with the boss: I love it when the review tells me I have exceeded expectations and done more than required, and a bit disappointed when told that I am doing the job I was hired for at the level it needs to be done. I think we find most exhibitions also to be a mixture of good, bad, and “acceptable.” But I am very confident that most, if not all, exhibitions have something in them that is excellent. One purpose for the Judging Exhibitions experiment is to find the ways that we can increase excellence and not always have to settle for “acceptable.”
The group discussions have lived up to all my expectations. One discussion stands out in my mind: during one of our reviews, each of us was able to identify ways that the exhibition could be improved. Some were pretty simple things like removing some of the artifacts to allow room for the artifacts that were on display. Some ideas were getting pretty elaborate, including knocking out walls and redesigning entire galleries to focus the storytelling and interpretation to provide increased context and relevance for multiple styles of visitors. Frankly, I think we batted around some pretty good ideas that would address missed opportunities, improve the visitors’ experiences, and increase the excellence of the exhibition, but we had to stop to notice a very important point: The purpose of reviewing an exhibition (formally or informally) is not to completely redesign the exhibition or to tear down the work of those who planned it, but to critically observe where the exhibit planners did well and not so well so that we can learn from their experience. These grand schemes of redesign were not for the existing exhibition—to be honest, we all rather enjoyed ourselves and found much to be impressed with. We were using the existing exhibition as a shared reference. The ideas and recommendations were for future exhibitions we would work on. This is how we build on the past and learn from each other.
So far, this has been an exhilarating experiment. Everyone involved has found opportunity to learn from the experiences and insight of our colleagues. But even more exciting has been the opportunity to be guided by the Framework to pull lessons about what makes a truly great exhibition from each and every exhibition we visit, review, and discuss.
I am enjoying the involvement of different perspectives, learning from colleagues, and stretching my own thinking. I recommend that others try it – develop your own group in your own city, and use the Framework to focus and direct your discussions. I would love to hear how it goes.
Framework: Assessing Excellence in Exhibitions from a Visitor-Centered Perspective, by Beverly Serrell (PDF)