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

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?

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