Gene's Exhibit Philosophies


Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia?

OK, if you insist on criteria, how's this:

Surveys at the Science Museum of Minnesota indicate that visitors come wanting three things: a safe, inexpensive social experience; the chance to see things they can't otherwise see; and the opportunity for hands-on learning. (A little patina of "education" or "something good for the kids" doesn't hurt, either.) This little bench at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia meets all three criteria. Dad and his kids sit together at a bench and examine dinosaur skulls. Nothing fancy, nothing expensive, and yet it fulfills their requirements for an exhibit experience. Sounds like a good rule of thumb to me.

MSU museum, East Lansing, Mich.

Here's another photo of a great exhibit. This is at the Michigan State University Museum, a rather small natural history museum in a small college town. Their exhibit, Diversity in Our World, has very few of the bells and whistles of modern exhibit practice. No interactives, no computers, few touchables, one little video that's usually not running. The case layouts are nothing special, the mounts are fairly old and in some cases showing their age. If you saw it on a quiet weekday afternoon, with the whole place to yourself, you'd think is was pretty dry and dusty. And yet...

On a weekday morning, the place is packed with school kids. The go from case to case, looking at the animals, reading the short, well-written labels, looking for the traits and features that are called out, or simply taking the opportunity to look a tusked deer in the eye. It's a totally engaging experience for them, as they call to one another and point out the discoveries they've made. This is the essence of the museum experience, something we all too often forget.


Melbourne Cricket Grounds

As for Gene's Exhibit Philosophy...

Here's a photo of the trophy room at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds in Melbourne, Australia. They give daily tours, the ads for which state "MCG is Mecca for Australian cricket fans." And Mecca is exactly what it felt like: an elaborate shrine dedicated to a religion I know nothing about, the lone heretic surrounded by a sea of nodding faithful. The design language was the same as at any American museum: lighting and placement told me which objects were important, even sacred. But what did any of it mean? Yibbie-yabbie. The Long Room. Batting for a Century. I was completely and utterly lost.

This is what our museums feel like to a lot of visitors. They come because they've been told it's important or good for them or something. And they get here, and they hear us yammering on about symbiosis or proton decay or post-impressionism or something equally incomprehensible, and they walk away defeated. We offer all this wonderful stuff, but give them no way to access it. Shame on us.

Exhibits and Objects,


What Is a Museum, Anyway?

What is the proper relationship between exhibits and collections? What are their relative roles within the museum? How should exhibits use objects?

A lot of museum professionals -- and not a few museums -- hold by something like this:

Collection Sign at MSU Museum

This sign, from a temporary exhibit at the Michigan State University Museum, gets it almost exactly wrong. Not only is it completely and utterly incorrect, but the very exibit it appears in demonstrates, clearly and conclusively, just how erroneous it is.

Collection exhibit at MSU Museum The Kris Morrisey Memorial Teapot Collection at the MSU Museum

The sign is part of an introductory exhibit on the collecting impulse. Not ten feet away we see a variety of collections: Toy horses. Stamps. Baseball cards. Nostalgic memorabilia. Tea pots. These collections are extensive. They are maintained by people knowledgeable in these fields. Many are expertly cared for: archived, conserved, preserved. Some have significant artistic or scientific value. They are owned by hobbyists. Art collectors. Investors. World travellers.

Yet, not one of these private collections would ever be mistaken for a museum. Why? Because they aren't on public display!

Simply having a collection doesn't make you a museum. Indeed, the very point of this exhibit is that lots of people have collections. Objects alone do not a museum make. If they did, I would be writing to you from the Dillenburg Museum of Loud Shirts, Blurry Photographs, and Weird CDs.

Often, when I make these points, I am accused of being anti-object. Far from it. I love objects. However, I agree with museology's resident philosopher, Steven Weil, that the proper business of museums is ideas, rather than things. Our collections are not ends unto themselves, but means unto ends -- they are valuable not for what they are, but for what they do: educate, inspire, resonate.

But What Does All This Have To Do With Exhibits?

I'm getting to that. But first, the dreaded Poetry Analogy.

Imagery, as any decent book of poetics will tell you, is the life's blood of poetry. It's the little bits and pieces of the real world that resonate with the reader's experience, give them an entry into the world of the poem, and make the poem come alive. And there are three types of imagery: properties, metaphors, and symbols.

(See, I knew those Humanities classes would come in handy some day!)

Properties, or "props," are what they are, and nothing more. No secret hidden meanings to decipher; just a bit of scenery -- carefully chosen to evoke a mood, but nevertheless simply meant to be appreciated for their own qualities. Metaphors are things that aren't really there themselves, but are referenced for some quality they evoke. In the phrase "as cold as ice," there is no ice literally present; the author is simply refering to ice to help us better understand the real point. And symbols pull double-duty: they are physically present, like props, but also have referential meaning, like metaphors. Think of The Beatles' song Here Comes the Sun. In that lyric, the sun is both that big bright ball in the sky that warms the Earth in spring, and also a symbol for a thawing in previously icy relationships.

In a very similar way, objects are the life's blood of exhibits. They are the little pieces of the real world that make the exhibit's subject matter come alive. They are the experiences that resonate with the visitor. And, just like images in poetry, objects in exhibits perform three functions. Unlike poetry, however, where the lines between prop, metaphor, and symbol are pretty clearly drawn, each object on display in a museum can, and often does, serve all three purposes. Nevertheless, each object tends to function primarily as:

(I used to think I was really clever for having thought this up. Then I discovered that Harris Shettel had said almost the exact same thing in 1973.)

Aesthetic objects, like properties, are those presented AS THEMSELVES. We are invited to appreciate their inherent physical characteristics -- shape, size, detail, and usually their beauty -- but not to assign any deeper significance. It is what it is, and is wonderful for being so. Art objects obviously fall into this category, though one may also appreciate the beauty of a well-preserved fossil, a well-crafted historic artifact, a physical phenomenon.

Totemic objects are presented AS METAPHORS FOR SOMETHING ELSE. The object itself is not as important as what it represents. Abraham Lincoln's hat is not particularly beautiful or stylish or rare; it doesn't tell us anything much about the man; but, my God, Abraham Lincoln wore this hat! It is a direct link to one of the most important figures in American history. It is like the relic of a saint. A dinosaur bone can be a totem for an ancient world; a painting can be a totem for an artist, a country, a period of history.

Didactic objects are presented AS SYMBOLS FOR THE INFORMATION THEY CONTAIN. This is a combination of the other two uses. Look at this dinosaur bone. Notice its physical attributes (Aesthetic) -- size, shape, muscle attachments, etc. From those features, extrapolate to other ideas (Totemic) -- biomechanics, evolution, ecology. The object is wonderful, and what the object means is wonderful as well. This is the approach of most science exhibits, though, again, art and history objects also contain information.

The reader moves through the poem, line by line, responding to some images, glossing over others, and slowly building their own meaning. If the poet is skillful, they will communicate their intent to the reader, but also provide enough room for the reader to insert themselves. Except for a few scholars, people don't read Shakespeare's sonnets in order to understand what Shakespeare was feeling; we read them to better understand our own feelings.

The visitor moves through the exhibit, component by component, absorbing some, brushing past others, and slowly building their own meaning. If the exhibitor is skillful, they will communicate their main message, but also provide enough room for the visitors to relate it to their own lives. Except for a few scholars, people don't come to the museum in order to understand an object, but to better understand our world and our place in it.

So, the definition of a museum (and there's a contentious subject!) becomes: an institution or organization with a primary purpose of presenting public exhibits for education, enlightenment, and/or interpretation. (Many would add that the institution must be “permanent” and “non-profit.” I do not see these as necessary conditions, though they do help in clarifying that purpose. And of course, "collections" is nowhere to be found in my definition. It's almost as if I'm begging for a fight!)

And, if it is exhibits that make a museum, then it is physical objects -- however broadly and loosely defined -- that make an exhibit.

Garfield Goose and Friends, Museum of Broadcast Communications, Chicago

OK, it's not Abe Lincoln's hat, but this is about as totemic an image as you will find. These puppets were the stars of Garfield Goose and his Friends, a locally- produced children's TV show I grew up with in Chicago. They are certainly not aesthetic objects. And there is little we can learn from studying them. (Studying tapes and scripts of the shows may offer us insights into mid-century, Midwestern childhood, but probably not studying the puppets themselves.) But as totems, these are powerfully evocative reminders of my personal past. A chunk of half-remembered ephemera is suddenly physically present. The Word made Flesh; the Electrons made Real. Oh my God -- this is the actual thing that I stared at for all those hours as a kid! Sure, it's just a stupid puppet. But it is associated with a whole suite of events and memories of events from that time, that are now validated, contextualized, and brought into the present. No photo, video, or website can do that. This is the power of the Real Thing. But that power is only unleashed through the medium of exhibition.

The Tank Joke

A group of new Army recruits was going through Basic Training. And Basic Training included three days of Tank School: one day on Mobility (driving the tank), one day on Communications (operating the radio), and one day on Munitions (firing the big gun).

On the first day, the recruits had Mobility training. A big, mean-looking Sergeant stood in the front of the classroom and shouted "Men!" (This was back in the days of the all-male military.) "The most important thing about tank warfare is mobility! You've got to be able to get into position. You've got to be able to pursue the enemy. Without mobility, a tank is just another big gun!" And all the recruits dutifully wrote in their notebooks "Mobility = most important," and they spent the rest of the day learning how to drive a tank.

On the second day, they had Communications training. A second Sergeant, bigger and meaner than the one from the day before, stood at the front of the classroom and shouted "MEN! THE most important thing about tank warfare is COMMUNICATIONS! You've GOT to be in contact with your base. You've GOT to be in contact with the other tanks. Without Communication, a tank is just another big gun!" And all the recruits looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and wrote down in their notebooks "Communication = most important."

On the third day, the biggest, meanest Sergeant on the base stood in front of the class. He opened his mouth, and very quietly said, "Men, I don't know what they told you in the other two classes. But without a gun, a tank is basically just a four-ton portable radio."

What does this have to do with exhibits? Quite simply, without exhibits you don't have a museum.

You can have a collection, and a collection is a wonderful thing. But simply having objects does not make us museums. I have a collection of objects in my living room -- so what? It's what we do with objects -- share them with the public through the medium of exhibition -- that makes us museums. Yes, objects can also be used for research; they can be used for private enjoyment. Both of those are very important. But unless at least part of the collection is on display, then you don't have a museum.

Likewise, museums have educational programs, which are certainly wonderful. But you can have education in a classroom, or in a lecture hall. But unless your programs incorporate exhibits, they are not a museum. (To read more rantings about the relationship between education and museums, go to page 4b.)

As I said before, collections do not make a museum. Education does not make a museum. Exhibits make a museum. I'm not saying exhibits are better or more important than these other things (or more important than visitor services, or maintenance, or administration, or development, or any of the hundred other parts of a museum). All are important; all have a vital role to play. But exhibits are the defining characteristic. Exhibits are what make a museum a museum. And that's why it's so vitally important that we think about excellence in exhibition, and get into the habit of producing it regularly.

Medium-Well, or My Second-Favorite Joke

I was having an e-mail debate last year with my good bud and radical museum thinker, Rich Faron, when he said "Exhibition is not a medium." I challenged him on that one. My dictionary defines "medium" as "a specific type of artistic technique or means of expression as determined by the materials used or the creative methods involved." In other words, exhibition is a form of communication with its own nuances; a specialty -- or, rather, a series of specialties -- which no one can just walk in off the street (or in from another department) and expect to do well.

But I cheated. The above definition was, in fact, number 7 in my dictionary. The first six were:

  • "an intermediate course of action"
  • "an intervening substance through which something is transmitted"
  • "an agency by which something is accomplished, conveyed or transferred"
  • "a means of mass communication"
  • "a surrounding environment in which something functions or thrives"

and, of course,

  • "a person thought to have the power to communicate with the spirits of the dead"

Don't ALL of these describe exhibition, to some extent?

(This page updated May 24, 2003.)

All photos copyright © 1990-2002 by Eugene Dillenburg. These photos may be used free of charge for non-profit or educational purposes only. If anyone figures out a way to make money off my lousy photographs without my permission, you'll be hearing from a lawyer. So there.

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