Archive for the 'Collective memory' Category

Creating ExhibitFiles – looking back, looking ahead

Friday, 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 (

How not to reinvent the wheel

Thursday, July 28th, 2011 by Wendy Pollock

Shaby Levy's 1977 Directory of Exhibits at Science and Technology CentersThirty years ago, people who developed museum exhibits had a lot more trouble finding out about exhibits in other museums, and there was practically no critical review of each other’s work. (A 1977 Directory of Exhibits at Science and Technology Museums, compiled by Shab Levy of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, was one answer to the problem, left.) There were frequent comments from funders and others that museums were too often reinventing the wheel (or, as our funder, the National Science Foundation, put it, not “building on prior work”). ExhibitFiles was conceived as a way to change that, taking advantage of what were then (when we were funded, in 2005) new possibilities for sharing content online.

In a session about “Improving Our Practice” at the Visitor Studies Association (VSA) meeting in Chicago this week, Carey Tisdal and I shared some of the history, the fast-changing context, and the remedial evaluation that has helped the site identify areas for improvement. You can find our slides on a VSA wiki site. The remedial evaluation report is posted on

Common as air? Lewis Hyde challenges museums on questions of culture, property, and the collective good

Monday, June 20th, 2011 by myriam

Lewis Hyde at 2011 AAM ConferenceThanks to Myriam Springuel of Springuel Consulting for this guest post. She is Vice-Chair of The Museum Group, sponsors of Lewis Hyde’s Thought Leader session at the Houston 2011 American Association of Museums Conference. Hyde is author of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (2010), The Gift, Creativity and the Artists in the Modern World (1979), and Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art (1998).

Lewis Hyde challenges those working in the cultural arena to be more engaged in protecting the cultural commons – those inventions, discoveries, and creative works that are our common heritage. It is a tough challenge because this is not about joining a campaign based on a sound-bite slogan. Rather it is about understanding the complicated ways in which we create civil society based on the idealism of the founding fathers of the United States. Ultimately, it is about the ways in which the expression of culture, limited by enclosures or encroachments – like those that shut 18th-century English villagers out of the commons on which they had traditionally grazed their sheep – defines how we express ourselves as human beings. Part of what makes Lewis Hyde’s challenge so difficult is that we have to learn vocabulary and pay attention to history to talk about the subject.

Common as Air, by Lewis HydeThe focus of Lewis Hyde’s presentation at the recent AAM conference was on questions raised in his latest book, Common as Air, around who owns the cultural commons, why that commons is being increasingly restricted, and ways in which various communities are organizing to challenge those restrictions to find new ways of working that are appropriate for the Internet age.

It was in order to encourage creativity and the “useful arts” that the founders in 1790 created the legal tools that protect the work of inventors, writers, and artists for a limited time. They believed democratic self-governance requires a free flow of ideas; copyright and patents allowed for a limited monopoly, giving the inventor or thinker remuneration as an incentive to work, with a limited time during which others could not profit from that work. Recently, the length of time for exclusion, originally about 14 years, has greatly increased; in many cases, the burden of proof has shifted, making it more expensive and complicated to defend fair use.

Property, whether tangible or intangible, is a right of action; those actions have limits. For example, I own my house and can keep people out. But I cannot turn that house into a factory or a parking lot, or do any number of other things with or from that house. The 18th century saw important arguments about property and ownership. Jefferson, for instance, argued that the only way to exclude someone from an idea is to keep it in your head. Non-rivalrous and non-excludable property was much discussed by the founders. It has long been understood that water, air, and fire are common goods. Public policy generally addresses the balance between property held in common and property held individually. The Internet had fundamentally challenged how we share ideas. In response, we are just starting to develop different ways of owning and sharing ideas.

Hyde was particularly provocative in reminding us that these questions are rooted in how we imagine the human self. For whom do we make works of art, explore science, or express creativity? Where do ideas come from? Hyde reminded us that the creative self is both individual and collective. He offered the term “dividual” – the many parts that make me including my self, my family, my community – as opposed to “individual.” Benjamin Franklin and Bob Dylan, for example, had remarkable gifts. But their talent is both an expression of the many influences on their work and their “dividual” self. Once I mix my labor with culture, how much can I take credit for?

In museums, Hyde suggested, I become myself. I become present. What is the self that comes to life? Is it a dividual or an individual self?

Practices around cultural property allow us to be certain kinds of selves. With them we enable or disable ways of being human. Hyde challenges us to participate in the debate about what it means to be a cultural citizen in the 21st century; knowing the history of the debate is critical to understanding its implications. Hyde did not provide pat answers but gave examples of how some fields are responding to these questions. For instance Creative Commons, the Bermuda Principles for the Human Genome, or the principles behind Cap and Trade are each grounded in “declaration”; academic scientists, French chefs, and comedians police each other, yet build on each others’ work through agreed-upon conventions.

During this AAM Thought Leader session, Lewis Hyde challenged museum professionals to be active participants in discussions about the philosophies and values that will guide the choices we make as a society – a discussion that is much broader than the museum field, but is at the heart of why so many of us are passionate about museum work.

Stories from the Boston Children’s Museum

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010 by Wendy Pollock

Practicing bubblemaking: a child explores an exhibit at the Boston Children's MuseumThere are some influences that run so deep, we may forget where they came from and how they got started. Like the use of everyday materials in exhibits, and the deep belief in the value of tinkering and messing about.

Boston Stories, a website that’s being lovingly created by Mike Spock and colleagues, promises to help us remember one very important influence on the museum scene – the Boston Children’s Museum and all those who were part of what George Hein calls “an optimistic time.” Check it out.

At right, in an image from the website’s archives, a child explores an exhibit and practices blowing bubbles.

ExhibitFiles in Fort Worth

Friday, October 16th, 2009 by Wendy Pollock

If you’ll be in Fort Worth for the ASTC Annual Conference, please come to the ExhibitFiles Happy Hour on Friday, October 30, 5:00-6:30 pm, at Shula’s Bar, in the lobby of the Sheraton Fort Worth Hotel (cash bar).

We’ll be recognizing some of the outstanding contributors to the site over the last year. KC Cole, author of the recent biography of Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer, also will be there to give a signed copy of her book to an ExhibitFiles member who’s helped keep Frank’s memory alive in a post on the site.

Between now and then, we hope you’ll consider contributing a case study or review – it can be of a whole exhibition, or just one exhibit that was an inspiration to you, or that taught you something you want to share with others.

Hope to see you in Fort Worth!

Remembering Frank

Monday, July 27th, 2009 by Wendy Pollock

A new biography of Frank Oppenheimer by K.C. Cole is out this summer, just in time for the Exploratorium’s 40th anniversary.

We invite the ExhibitFiles community to help celebrate – and to take time to revisit and reflect on Frank Oppenheimer’s exhibit philosophy and practice.

Over the next three months, contribute a case study or review of an exhibit that was developed by Frank himself, or in his spirit. Then on October 30, at the ExhibitFiles Happy Hour at the ASTC Annual Conference in Fort Worth, we’ll recognize the most highly rated contributor with a copy of K.C.’s book. She’ll be there to sign the book and talk about her memories of Frank.

If you want to learn more about Frank Oppenheimer’s ideas about exhibits, there’s also a wonderful collection of his writings on the Exploratorium website – a great source of inspiration, even after all these years.

What’s your unpublished case study?

Thursday, June 11th, 2009 by Wendy Pollock
Rotten Truth About Garbage - an exhibition that was never built

From what I’ve heard, it sounds as if there are quite a few of us who’ve started writing case studies, but haven’t quite finished – or haven’t gotten around to hitting “publish.” I started a post some time ago about an exhibition called Rotten Truth that I worked on with Kathy McLean, Beth Redmond-Jones, and colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, about 15 years ago. (The exhibition was never actually built – which is part of the story.) One thing that’s held me up is that this all happened so long ago that records aren’t that easy to pull together, few were in digital format back then, and documents will need scanning. It was such a collaborative project, shouldn’t we all  consult on the case study? And then there were some sensitive issues – what Gretchen referred to recently as “exhibition frictions.” Should those be mentioned? What are the “frictions” or tensions that would be meaningful to recount? I gather others are stymied by those “intellectual property” issues Paul was commenting on earlier this week. In the interest of sharing experiences that may save some reinventing-of-the-wheel – one of the reasons we created this site – I think I ought to take on those challenges and finish this case study. I hope others will overcome hesitations and do the same. The stories, however imperfect they may seem to us, are part of our collective memory, the foundation of the “wisdom of practice” that informs our field.


Tuesday, July 25th, 2006 by Kathy McLean

In 1998, Canadian designer Bruce Mau wrote “An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth“—43 ideas that exemplify his beliefs, motivations, and strategies, and describe how his BMD studio operates. While I appreciate all 43 of these ideas, it is #42 that sticks with me as I think about our wonderful new project, ExhibitFiles:

“42. REMEMBER. Growth is only possible as a product of history. Without memory, innovation is merely novelty. History gives growth a direction. But a memory is never perfect. Every memory is a degraded or composite image of a previous moment or event. That’s what makes us aware of its quality as a past and not a present. It means that every memory is new, a partial construct different from its source, and as such, a potential for growth itself.”

I envision ExhibitFiles as a collective memory-space for our field. In ExhibitFiles, we will be able to record our memories of exhibits past, our successes and failures, our inspirations and struggles. And in the remembering, we will grow the field. In my recent article in The Exhibitionist, “We Still Need Criticism,” I suggest that exhibition criticism needs to be more than simple opinion. I make a plea for criticism in context, for building upon past practice, referencing other similar media, comparing similarities and differences. In a similar vein, as Bruce Mau says, “Without memory, innovation is merely novelty.”

But in order to “remember,” we need collective memories. We need a place to record what has been done so that we may all experience it, even as “a partial construct different from its source.” ExhibitFiles will contain our partial constructs of the many exhibitions that have gone before, that we created in the past, that visitors have experienced over time.

ExhibitFiles won’t be a memory-space only. If it is truly self sustaining and nurturing, it will also be a current space, where we can reflect on our practices, get advice and consent from our colleagues, and perhaps foster future alliances.

“We Still Need Criticism” PDF (263KB), reprinted with permission from The Exhibitionist, Volume 25, Number 1, a journal published by the National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME).