Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Other

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Michael Pearce

Published on March 09, 2008, Modified on August 05, 2009

  • Description and goals

    Memory began as a 1988 exhibition of paintings by the artist Franco Magnani, showing remembered scenes of his hometown in Tuscany. The late Bob Miller had seen Magnani’s work and suggested that the paintings, coupled with photos of the same views, might reveal something about the accuracies, distortions, and inventions of the artist’s memory. Bob’s intuition proved correct—as it so often did. Magnani’s paintings and Susan Schwartzenberg’s photos of the streets and buildings of Pontito, Italy, could serve as the basis of a college course on human memory—not only as a personal and psychological faculty, but as a public, historical process as well. We developed a few interactive exhibits and invited the public in. (The Exploratorium was smaller and simpler back then.)

    Ten years later we revisited memory. The Exploratorium had made an institutional commitment to extend its comprehensive work in perception into the more squishy and less individually predictable realms of thought and feeling. We chose memory as our first subject, since it was an area we had touched on, but which we knew held lots more to explore. Our earlier experience had shown us that it was a compelling subject for visitors, and that there was a lot of good science to dig into.

    With NSF support we were able to undertake a much more comprehensive and systematic exploration of the subject. We set out to explore human memory as a cognitive, biological, autobiographical, and cultural phenomenon. This broad—some might say grandiose—approach was no doubt influenced by Memory’s origin in Magnani’s paintings, whose richness informs all of these perspectives. Our overriding thesis statement (eventually) came to be: We continually relive and reshape past experience, which, in turn, shapes the ways in which we perceive and understand the world and ourselves. The dozens of paintings and photos of the Magnani show were crammed into a computer and became one of over fifty interactive exhibits, including some original artworks.

    The exhibit elements in Memory were grouped into eight sections: The Senses, with an interactive exhibit about each of the five senses and its connection to memory; Remembering What’s Meaningful, showing the connection between personal meaning and memorability; Forgetting, which showed how the ways in which we forget and distort events can help us construct a kind of anatomy of how memory works; Faces (they’re important, and people like them); Remembering Without Thinking, about implicit or unconscious memory; The Brain; Personal Memory, focusing on autobiographical memory and its deep connection to a sense of self; and Shared Memories, about the relationship between memory and culture.

    In its inception, Memory was both very much in the Exploratorium’s tradition and a radical departure. It began with a compelling phenomenon—the memory paintings of Franco Magnani—and an inquiry into all that could be seen there. Yet it was about an elusive, essentially unseeable, cognitive process. Visitors entering the museum expecting to interact with compelling stuff, were asked to look inside their own heads. This posed some challenges.

  • Development process and challenges

    A great deal of memory research shows how our remembering systems predictably make mistakes. These consistencies of error in turn give researchers a window into the cognitive and neurological mechanisms for making rapid, pragmatic choices in a complex environment. The worry in making exhibits based on such research is that they have the potential for making people feel defeated or stupid. “Oh, and here’s another way my mind comes up short.” Our job in developing exhibits about the shortcomings of memory was to make it clear that most remembering works very well, that it in fact often takes some clever manipulations to uncover our propensities for error. As it turned out, evaluation of the exhibition revealed little dismay or vexation on the part of visitors about their memory’s faultiness. I like to think this speaks to the soundness of our exhibit design and editorial approach… but I also suspect we overestimated people’s intellectual insecurity.

    Another challenge in making exhibits about memory (or almost any area of cognition) is that there’s a lot of research that involves wading through lists and narratives that people read and are subsequently asked to recall—not a promising recipe for dynamic exhibits. In Memory we did some of this sort of verbal testing, but maintained what I think is a healthy bias against it, acting on the premise that people don’t come to a hands-on science museum to read.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    One lesson we learned came from Beverly Serrell’s summative evaluation. As noted above, the exhibition was divided into sections that reflected different kinds of memory and approaches to exploring it. We thought we demarcated these sections pretty clearly, but learned that visitors were not really aware of them at all. (As it turns out, the available research indicates that this is commonly the case. And in fact, even when we had a second chance in the traveling exhibition to make what we thought were very obvious boundaries between sections, using color coding and signs, people still didn’t notice these sectional differences or the conceptual distinctions they announced.) I find this a little disheartening, as I always feel a certain attachment to the conceptual framework for an exhibition, which is reflected in the grouping of exhibits. I do think it’s still valuable to have such groupings: they help in making decisions about the balance of subject matter, and can be of use in more formally led walkthroughs of the exhibition.

    A second area of difficulty, for me at least, is one that I still don’t feel totally resolved about. The Exploratorium has a long tradition of incorporating artworks among its exhibits, and many of our exhibit development projects include work by artists. It’s a complicated enterprise: an artist—pretty much by definition an independent and unpredictable soul—is asked to create a work that will fit into an exhibition or exhibit collection that’s not yet fully conceived. It’s one of those situations where the word “process” comes up a lot, as in, “the process is more important than the product here.” This is certainly not just a convenient rationalization: the Exploratorium has a long-standing commitment to working with artists, with an explicit acknowledgment that a key part of the collaboration is the exchange of ideas and skills in the development of the artwork.

    We commissioned three art projects for Memory. While all of the artworks were thoughtful, challenging explorations of aspects of memory, in my opinion only one of the three turned out to be a good fit for the exhibition. (It was the only one included in the subsequent traveling show.) I can’t help thinking that we could have achieved a better ratio.

    I derive two lessons. The first I’ve already stated—collaborations with artists are chancy, but are valuable regardless of the final product (and there have been some pretty wonderful final products over the years); as I also mentioned, this is pretty much an orthodoxy at the Exploratorium. The second is at odds with at least some of my colleagues: I now attempt to set more constraints, more junctures for evaluation and bargaining about the scope and nature of an art piece, than I used to. In essence, I try to treat an artist-in-residence project more like any other exhibit development endeavor. In practice this is just a difference of degree; and, as I said, I know I have more to learn in this regard. I’d be curious hear more about how other people in science museums work with artists.

  • Exhibition Opened: May 1998

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: San Francisco, CA, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $500,000 to $1,000,000 (US)

  • Size: 5,000 to 10,000 sq ft.

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. 9453029

  • Other funding source(s): Bank of America

  • Website(s):

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