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Science in Museums: Paths to Exhibit Development

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on February 27, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Cira Louise Brown

When I tell people that I’m going to school for Museum Studies, I often encounter confusion about what the profession actually entails (“you’re going to be a curator? … what is a curator?”). Once I explain that I want to develop the exhibits for science museums, I’m usually met with something along the lines of, “oh wow – people actually do that?” I remember my similar epiphany about six years ago, realizing that exhibits are indeed created by real people.

So who are they? One of the first things I did after the big “a-ha!” moment (apparently a common occurrence among my peers in the Museum Studies program), was to try and learn more about the backgrounds of exhibit developers. How did they arrive at that coveted position? Through researching and networking (and an admitted abundance of LinkedIn stalking), I’ve found that there isn’t a clear path at all, though a graduate degree in Museum Studies or Education is frequently cited. Some people were previously teachers (at all levels of schooling), while others have backgrounds in architecture and industrial design. Some are academics, completing immense amounts of scholarly work before moving on to the museum sector, while others were artists and sculptors, sometimes even having their own work shown in a museum. An overlap from the library field can be found, with archival work often being presented for public display, both in the physical and digital realms. Those familiar with best practices in collection management, from classification frameworks to restorative techniques, are almost always needed as well. Fabrication specialists, ranging from carpenters with decades worth of hands-on experience to experts in material science are vital in the creation of the exhibit, with the tactical aspects of an exhibit often being among the most decisive experiential attributes. People with a history of working with nonprofits and local organizations tend to transition toward the museum field, which can be expected since almost all museums strive to support their community. Evaluators, with knowledge in psychology, sociology, statistics,and educational philosophy, are vital to the creation of a successful and meaningful exhibit, all the way from conception to refinement. Ever increasingly, backgrounds in computer science and interaction design are skills that prove essential, with digital components becoming ubiquitous and information visualization becoming a booming industry in and of itself. And we can’t forget those with managerial and budgeting skills who are tasked with orchestrating and steering this whirlwind of creative energy!

With all of these trades meshing together under the umbrella of exhibit development, I have to wonder if there is another field that rivals in the variation of its constituents. Of course, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. These collective backgrounds are representative of the sheer magnitude of differing skills that are essential in building a successful exhibit. All strive to create a singular exhibition that is simultaneously tangible and abstract – an exhibition is an experience!

As I look through this landscape of museum exhibit development, I am continually finding tensions at play within the creative process. The design of an exhibition must be visually appealing and engaging, but also must still comply with universal readability standards and not incite visual fatigue. There is a fine line between being captivating and obnoxious, and the developer must find that balance. The information presented must not be so dense to turn off visitors, but must be interesting enough to hold the attention of those with prior knowledge. Then there is the persistent issue of making an experience distinctive and authentic, something that lends itself well to the museum venue, and cannot be easily replicated in a book or on a website. With interactivity easily achievable on websites and apps, standards for what makes an engaging museum exhibit are raised significantly. Even the degree of interactivity is a point of contention – I was surprised to learn that a component can even be considered too intriguing, potentially stagnating the foot traffic in an exhibition that generates revenue by the number of tickets sold.

Having just completing an exhibit development internship at the Museum of Science and currently creating interactive demonstrations at the MIT Museum, I’m fortunate to be able to observe and participate in this creative process firsthand. I always refer to exhibit development as a craft, based not only on the various skills needed, but also that I believe it’s best learned through active participation, a summation of endless tips, tricks, techniques and lessons learned. I’m eager to explore these themes through a series of blog posts, each focusing on a different facet in the development process. Stay tuned!

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