Archive for August, 2011

The humble appeal of smart, quirky, and beautiful little exhibits

Monday, August 8th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Daniel Burnham, celebrated for his outsize impact on the shape of modern Chicago, famously said, “Make no little plans.” But sometimes, in museums, there’s a place for little plans – for cosy nooks and modest materials, for exhibits that may be small in scale, but outsize in appeal, with an  eye for the quirky and beautiful, and with lots of heart. Often it seems that those that cost less than large-scale, hardened exhibitions meant to travel and last for years, have a kind of humble appeal. Maybe it’s because they seem to allow more space for give-and-take, for human error and modest change, for meeting on level ground.

A number of ExhibitFiles posts have celebrated the delightfully simple and small. This seems like a good day to remember some of them.Take, for example, Nina Simon’s post about the “decaying dice of Ricky Jay” at LA’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. Nothing but dice and labels, dramatically lit. The exhibit “drops a tiny question mark like a monkey wrench into assumptions we make every day,” she says. “It takes the basic concept of chance and turns it into a beautiful challenge to think—an open question instead of a closed experience.”

Paul Orselli wrote about toasters – that’s right, an exhibit about toasters at St. Louis’s City Museum, where a volunteer armed with a loaf of bread offered to make visitors a slice of toast. Dan Spock added a comment: “I liked the simplicity of the conception and design and the use of real toasting and the delicious toasty aromas.”

Beth Redmond-Jones wrote about an installation at the Battery Maritime Building in New York (right) that turned the building, with its pipes and pillars, “into a giant musical instrument.”

Kathy Krafft wrote about a low-budget in-house exhibition the Sciencenter in Ithaca made, with inspiration from a book of puzzles available from the public library.

Dave Stroud wrote about the Try It! Lab, a prototyping space at Utah’s Thanksgiving Point Institute where visitors and developers interact and “the ‘wow factor’ of the décor” is limited.

And how about Tom Nielsen’s beautiful essay about soap bubbles? What could be simpler, or more beautiful?

Setting the stage for conviviality

Monday, August 1st, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Chicago Botanic GardenIn an essay called “Convivial Cities,” Lisa Peattie wrote that “Conviviality can take place with few props. . . But it must have some sort of material base–the right-shaped corner, the piece of vacant land and a couple of rakes–and it must have the rules that permit it. Conviviality cannot be coerced, but it can be encouraged by the right rules, the right props, and the right places and spaces.” These two images (seating at the Chicago Botanic Garden, right, and below, the Hull-House Museum‘s urban farm) suggest ways museums can be staging grounds for conviviality, not only in planning exhibitions, but in arranging other spaces where people can come together and feel connected and revitalized.

Last week, the Hull-House Museum’s director, Lisa Yun Lee, spoke at the closing session of the Visitor Studies Association meeting in Chicago about her vision for museums. She critiqued the economic impact argument that’s often made these days– that museums are important as economic engines and generators of local revenue and jobs. While this is certainly valid, museums contribute much more, she said, including fostering conviviality and offering “an opportunity to unleash our visitors’ radical imaginations about what might have been and might be.”

It seems a modest beginning, a corner and a couple of rakes. But even with limited resources, there are things we can do to make a real difference.

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