Creating ExhibitFiles – looking back, looking ahead

December 9th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

As the National Science Foundation grant that supported development of ExhibitFiles comes to an end,  Kathleen McLean and I share some reflections.

Opening ExhibitFiles in April 2007 was like opening a public park. There was a vision and a setting—but until people began to arrive, this community website for the exhibition field was almost literally empty.

ExhibitFiles site architecture in March 2007We had projected that perhaps 100 people would join and contribute 30 exhibition case studies. Five years later, membership exceeds 2,000 and continues to grow, with 390+ case studies and reviews posted to date. Instead of the projected 1,000 visits a month, the site regularly exceeds 5,000.

When we received National Science Foundation funding to develop ExhibitFiles in January 2006 (with ASTC as grantee organization, Ideum as designer/software developer), we conceived of the site as part archive and part community. It would be a place to preserve and share experiences and build reflective exhibition practice. The site—including its architecture, software, user interface, and what we came to think of as its human system—was designed to be a work in progress.

We have been able to extend a three-year grant to cover six years of work, three rounds of evaluation, and two major redesigns. Although the NSF grant ends in December, program officers have come to speak of ExhibitFiles as part of the “infrastructure” that supports work in informal science education, and we are grateful that ASTC remains committed to maintaining the site.

As with many other design experiments, along the way there have been insights and unexpected delights as well as some dilemmas still unresolved. With the benefit of evaluation findings and critical review by friends of the site, we share here some observations and reflections on what might happen next.

We have delighted in watching ExhibitFiles grow into an international and interdisciplinary community of practitioners who join together for inspiration, knowledge building, and critique. Members come from 57 countries and a wide variety of museums, academic institutions, and other organizations. Evaluation tells us that while some members post case studies and reviews to raise their professional visibility, more altruistic motivations—like contributing to their professional community—are at least as common.

Discovery Room, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, DCMany case studies have been about science exhibitions, 26 of them NSF-funded, including classics like the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Discovery Room in Washington, D.C. (Judith White), and more recent award-winners like the Huntington Botanical Garden’s Plants Are Up to Something in San Marino, California (Karina White). But over time, we have seen more posts about art galleries and offbeat museums like St. Louis’s City Museum (Jason Jay Stevens). The site provides us with both delightful and haunting glimpses of places near and far—from Austin, Minnesota’s Spam Museum (Dan Spock) to the Choeung Ek Genocide Museum near Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Mary Marcussen).

ExhibitFiles includes both thorough pieces by museum elders and first attempts at review by museum studies students on assignment. The sense of camaraderie, common purpose, devotion to the larger museum field, and sometimes even celebration is evident in contributions and comments. In addition, participants have told project evaluator Carey Tisdal why they value the site. “I love, love, love the case study forum,” said one participant. “That alone provides insight into design and exhibits that is invaluable to designers who don’t have large travel budgets. It is great for inspiration as well as critical reflection.”

We have also identified some areas where ExhibitFiles could be improved. As content builds beyond original expectations, findability becomes more important. We have added open tagging and a browse page. But search functionality is still not what we wish it would be, and evaluation suggests this contributes to a sense that the site is slowly getting bogged down.

People want places to discuss issues and listen in on important conversations. But we wonder whether the current format of ExhibitFiles will be sufficiently adaptable given how much has changed since early 2006. Back then, Facebook wasn’t in general use and Twitter was just on the horizon. It’s now so easy to start a blog or create an online presence that the role of centralized gathering places is an open question. What happens, then, to a devotion not only to my online profile but also to our common field?

What now?
Although the media landscape has changed in recent years, the need for shared experience, reflection, and inspiration has not. The fact that people continue to join ExhibitFiles—even though some may hesitate to disclose details of their own experience or venture a review—seems to us evidence of a continuing thirst for what communities at their best have to offer.

What might help ExhibitFiles remain of service to the exhibition community? Here are some things we hope the site and its community will accomplish in the coming months and years:

  • Welcome. Much of the richness of ExhibitFiles comes from its embrace of the whole museum exhibition community, not just science centers. Members of the site have recommended that ExhibitFiles be more explicit in its inclusion of all sectors of the museum field. We agree.
  • Remember. From the beginning, we hoped ExhibitFiles would be hospitable to both new discoveries and old traditions. As the site has evolved, however, current reviews and recently completed projects have tended to take center stage. But there is much wisdom in past experience. We want to see more reviews and case studies of older, classic exhibitions. One of Kathy’s first posts on ExhibitFiles quotes Canadian designer Bruce Mau: “Growth is only possible as a product of history. Without memory, innovation is mere novelty. History gives growth a direction.”
  • Take risks. Every exhibition is an opportunity to see the world in a different way and tempt people beyond their comfort zones. We want to see more criticism and deep reflection on ExhibitFiles—that’s what other members have told the evaluator, too. We wonder: What would have to happen to make ExhibitFiles more congenial for conversations that wake us up and shake us up?

We are grateful to NSF for taking a risk with this project and to our collaborators, the Ideum programming and design team led by Jim Spadaccini, and evaluators Randi Korn (front-end studies) and Carey Tisdal (remedial and summative studies). And we are grateful to our Core Contributors who were the first to venture into the new and empty public park—and to every one of you, for making it your own. We look forward to continuing our own participation—and to contributing our own pre-internet memories and provocations.

Wendy Pollock was director of research, publications, and exhibitions at ASTC until 2009 and principal investigator (PI) of the NSF grant that supported development of ExhibitFiles. Kathleen McLean, principal of the museum consulting firm Independent Exhibitions, was co-PI. Wendy now lives in Evanston, Illinois, mostly working these days with urban and community forestry projects.

This look back at the creation of ExhibitFiles also appears in the January/February issue of ASTC Dimensions. A report on the evaluation just completed by Carey Tisdal will also be shared here in early 2012.

To learn more about ExhibitFiles or for assistance in posting a case study or review, contact Wendy Hancock (

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