Massive Change


of an Exhibition

by Kathleen McLean

Published on April 12, 2007, Modified on October 02, 2009

  • Description:

    I first saw Massive Change at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. I had heard about it from staff at the Vancouver Art Gallery, where the exhibition originated, and from all the press materials I received, it sounded like it might be different from the usual museum fare. In terms of uniqueness, I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, designer Bruce Mau broke some hefty rules with this one. The exhibition was full of wall text, sometimes from floor to ceiling. Objects were displayed without labels or accompanying information.

    In one room, designers wrote by hand on the walls. Another room was completely dark, except for the glow of digital screens. (I can hear so many museum operations folks warning about trip hazards and lawsuits.) One room was covered from floor to ceiling with images. And there was even a café serving food and drink in the exhibition.

    I had to keep my museum biases in check. The exhibition was, indeed, a “book on the walls,” and lo and behold—people were reading. Visitors seemed to spend a lot of time in one space primarily comprised of gossamer banners that contained images and text. As each person moved through the space, the banners would wave gently, sometimes making it difficult to read. Nevertheless, people were reading, even if they had to hold onto the banner to steady it.

    In the room covered with images, there were no captions, and it was often impossible to decipher what an image represented. Still, people stayed, mingled, and looked at the images from ankle to ceiling.

    A number of elements were disappointing, particularly because they could have been avoided easily if the design team had worked with a seasoned exhibition professional. In one display, for example, about the transport device called a Segway, hasty “do not touch” signs were accompanied by cheap and cheerful brackets and bolts clamping the vehicles to their platforms. Too bad the designers hadn’t foreseen how tempting these devices would be for visitors—and how clear it was that they wanted to try them out. In another room, the cacophony of talking heads was more than most visitors could bear, and the room was relatively empty the whole time I was there.

    In retrospect, what I found most interesting was that visitors were engaged in all sorts of conversation. The exhibition took a strong point of view, with declarative statements throughout that got us all thinking. And we, most of us strangers to each other, ended up sharing our questions and ideas over a glass of juice in the cafe.

Latest Comments (8)

Exhibition content??

by Diana Issidorides - May 26, 2007

I am intrigued by this review and the photos. But what was this exhibition about??

about Bruce Mau

by Jennifer Martin - June 06, 2007

Bruce has said two key things about the motivation for this exhibition. First that Design is about everything, and everything is design (cloning is design for example). Second, that now that we can do anything – or at least so many things – as a civilization, what will be choose to do? Again, think about the cloning as design point.
Finally, this exhibition was done by college students who Bruce and his studio worked with via a partnership he has with the college called Institute Without Boundaries.

Thanks Jennifer

by Kathleen Mclean - June 07, 2007

for answering Diana’s question. And Diana, when I got your message, I thought, “oh my—right. I didn’t even mention what it was about. hmmmm.” To elaborate on Jennifer’s description, the exhibition is based on the premise that “design” is an essential human activity—planning and making and visioning—and that today our design activities can have HUGE effects. There are subtexts about sustainability, war and peace, genetic engineering, etc. I consider it to be more of an art piece and a philosophical statement than a lesson on the implications of design.


by Daniel Spock - March 27, 2008

Kathy and I have talked about this exhibit some and I was stuck by many of the same things. I thought one of the coolest things about the exhibit from a conceptual standpoint was how it subverted (transcended?) the traditional museum dispcipline boundaries. I actually tried for a while to bring this exhibit to my museum and the organizers at VAG were telling me how many potential venues couldn’t get their heads around whether it was mission appropriate. History? Well, it’s mostly about the future. Science? But so much of it is about design…does urban design count as science? Art? But yes people were reading — reading alot — primarily I think because the subject was actually really interesting, the stuff itself begged some questions that provoked curiosity, the subject was relevant and, perhaps most heretically, the point of view — that our power to shape our own destiny means that we can pick the right outcome — was quite optimistic about the future. There were many amateurish mistakes to be sure (ironic, because Mau is regarded as such a design guru,) but these were compensated for generally by the freshness of the design and conceptual approach. Thank God there are still people out there who don’t know what they can’t do!


by Kathleen Mclean - March 28, 2008

Thanks for the comment Dan. I talked with the organizers of the exhibition a few months back, and found out that it never was fully booked. In fact, I think it only had three venues, two of them in Canada. Without any museums to host the exhibition, the organizers had to dismantle it. Very discouraging. It was a very imaginative exhibition that found no place in our conservative field. K


by Daniel Spock - March 28, 2008

The dealbreaker for us was that it would be a very expensive show to mount and very large too. Otherwise, we’d have gone for it.

Wonderful Exhibit

by Joe Imholte - April 09, 2008

I saw this exhibit in Chicago the year AAM was there at the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was simply brilliant. I remember we considered the exhibit, but at the time didn’t have the space available to host it when it was available. And it would have been so expensive – though I suspect our local vinyl suppliers would have been very pleased. Too bad it didn’t tour more widely – it was an incredible exhibition.

Inspiring, Refreshing...with just the right amount of shock

by Bianca Message - March 24, 2010

I was so pleased to read this review as I am hungry to learn more about the making of this exhibition. I felt Bruce Mau and his team did a brilliant job of breaking the rules. I found my self a little shocked and overwhelmed by the masses of floor to ceiling text, the visual noise… but I liked that my world of design sensibilities was rocked. I felt stretched as a designer—and I liked that. I felt the exhibition was powerful, poetic, challenging and extremely informative. I felt morally challenged at my use of resources as I looked at the variety of cooking devices used around the world. I was a bit shaken at the science fiction appearance of the larger than life-sized military personnel, but horrified when I saw they were Canadian. An outstanding, refreshing experience. Yes, I went to the gift shop and bought the book!

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