Go back to article: Thinking things through: reviving museum research

The exhibition as experiment

It follows that the rejuvenation of a research agenda for museums may fruitfully be grounded on a core concern with material culture, approached as a series of authentic, singular opportunities for heightened aesthetic delving, and this through a range of experiences, intelligences and disciplines. This may sound rather contrived and convoluted, but it is precisely these convictions that have inspired the best of museum programming over recent decades, and in particular the more effective experimental temporary exhibitions and events that aim not just at reflecting and disseminating established knowledge, but rather at shifting understanding and producing new ideas. It is this type of ‘show business’ that provides museums with their most articulate and attractive means of demonstrating the enhanced epistemological significance that I am claiming for them (MacDonald and Basu, 2007, pp 2–3).

The first step of tackling exhibitions as a means visually to demonstrate rather than just say something is one that has gradually become almost routine, particularly in museums focused on art history and anthropology. But at an altogether more intense level of inventiveness, the short-duration exhibitions that have made greatest impact on our increasingly pop-up culture have come from contemporary art. Curator and exhibition-as-art advocate Hans Ulrich Obrist describes the essence of this highly experimental practice as ‘the attempted pollination of culture, or a form of map-making that opens new routes through a city, a people or a world view’ (Obrist, 2014, pp 1, 4, 24, 168, and Obrist, in conversation). As a form of public artistic deliberation, these temporary shows have been licensed to defy expectations precisely because they are that: short-lived. They are likely to induce less anxiety about whether they can stand the test of extended and repeated inspection: an invitation to play. They have also ushered in more fluid approaches to defining creative roles, with curators taking turns as investigators, artists becoming curators and/or researchers and designers sharing in the task of converting ideas into visitor experiences. Further, as Peter Weibel and Bruno Latour have pointed out, these exhibitions have taken a decidedly ‘performative turn’, with audiences anticipating a form of ‘enactment’ and ‘encounter’ rather than just ‘representation’ (Weibel and Latour, 2007).

The language of performance is suggestive, reminding us of a crucial role taken by one other set of players cast in acting out this form of research – the visiting public. Without them the museum-thinking that I am promoting would be thoroughly anaemic, and maybe just plain meaningless. But it is just as important to be clear that on its own, without curatorial, academic, creative and other professional inputs, the visitor experience would risk being empty. We have recently witnessed a considerable clamour to replace models of passive public dissemination with others based on the active involvement of those who would earlier have been identified as passive recipients. A particularly influential version of this viewpoint is advanced by Nina Simon, who tellingly draws ammunition from the dramatic shifts witnessed in the short history of digital culture, where a ‘broadcast’ mode of engagement characterising older websites and digital platforms has effectively been engulfed by myriad modes of user-participation unleashed by web 2.0. Her book The Participatory Museum provides a powerful justification for going beyond rather limp attempts to let visitors ‘have a bit of fun with the collection… [to much more serious invitations] to make meaningful contributions to museums in ways that improve the experience for staff, participants and visitors alike’ (Simon, 2010b, p 38; and Simon, 2010a). What is key is the interaction between these different roles: that is where meaning is created. Museum-based investigations are made real through the infinitely varied ways in which participants bring them to life, but we need to be careful about drifting towards the idea of co-production as a lazy orthodoxy. Wellcome Collection operates with the assumption that its visitors are all likely to be experts in something (themselves, if nothing else); but, and this is crucial, that they are all also going to be ignorant of many other aspects of its content, and that the balance of an average visitor’s expertise and ignorance does not have to be assumed equal in order to foster a rich investigative environment.

One other aspect of museum-research that needs highlighting is the heuristic role of museums themselves – for just by choosing to step over their institutional thresholds provides visitors with one other ingredient likely to induce public thoughtfulness, and that is an environment that positively promotes it. The refined territory occupied by museums profoundly influences the tone and quality of all that goes on within them (all the other ingredients I’ve described so far); but when artfully prepared and imaginatively designed such special houses can possess a thought-inducing value all of its own. Their significance as investigative spaces lies in the potential to support and induce an enhanced thirst for exploration. It is tempting to invoke laboratories, but also artists’ studios, as suggestively analogous spaces, with museums unusually welcoming and indeed thriving on direct visitor involvement. Interestingly, all three charged spaces (laboratories, studios and museums) were invented at roughly the same time in early-modern Europe; and all, arguably, provided those who pursued investigations within them with refined places removed from the distractions of the everyday world on the streets outside, where scientists, artists, curators and visitors could make better sense of it (Alpers, 1998). The particular distinction of museums lies then in their hybrid character, crucially crossed with forms of public display. Even here, further refinement is required, because as Richard Wentworth explains, exhibition spaces need to be distinguished from other displays, occupying something of an ‘exclusion zone… [where things] are laid out for you as they are in a shop, but there’s the possibility of research, of each person exploring it in their own way’ (Wentworth, 1998, p 6). While in museums the creation and dissemination of insights happens almost simultaneously; in laboratories and studios they are sequential, with potentially elaborate preparatory processes and considerable time-lags lying between.

And finally, it is vital to recall that museums are fundamentally public institutions, and that this too considerably influences the nature of our experiences in them. Our ‘public behaviour’ whilst there is, as Michel de Certeau observes, influenced from above by a top-down orchestration of public demeanour defined by official ‘places’ (museums have their written and unwritten rules!), and from below by visitors’ wilful intent to decide for themselves how to act in such ‘spaces’ (Certeau, 1984, p 117). Arriving with our anticipations of what types of behaviour are encouraged, augmented by what, frankly, we think we can get away with, we then set about exploring what is on offer; and this both by indulging our genuinely private imaginations and simultaneously by exercising other strands of thought animated by the exciting, but also potentially dangerous, company of strangers. For as David Carr has said, it is conversations (though as much imagined ones as actual chats we might have with other visitors) that inspire us to gain knowledge in museums: it is ‘the evidence of another intelligence at work next to ours; … [that ultimately enables us] to understand what we might independently become’ (Carr, 2006, p 16). This process of museum-understanding-as-research is undeniably and inevitably complicated (visitors are left to make so many decisions about how they should spend their time), but within these creative tensions museums are set to emerge as richer and more animated places and spaces in which to think out loud.

Figure 3

Colour photograph of the Wellcome Collections Reading Room which appears as a cross between a library and a museum gallery

Wellcome Collection's Reading Room: a cross between a gallery and library space where visitors are free to create their own content from delving into and making connections between exhibits, books, board games, practical activities and small-scale, pop-up live events.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160505/002