by columnist Madeline Karp

I have never had the desire to design exhibits, write labels or work in conservation. When it comes to museums, I am Team Education, Outreach and Interpretation through and through.

But I still want exhibits to be well executed. It makes my job easier as an educator if I have good material to work with; it makes my time as a visitor more enjoyable if I can follow an exhibit’s narrative thread.


I spent last Saturday afternoon at the Franklin Institute here in Philadelphia. Like most science museums, the Franklin has some notable permanent exhibits, and a large temporary exhibit hall to house traveling shows.

In 2012, the museum hosted Titanic, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the famous sinking and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Life and Faith in Ancient Times, as part of the international unveiling of ten new scroll pieces.

For the most part, the Franklin’s temporary exhibitions are amazing, and worth the extra admission money.

So I was really pumped when my friend asked me if I wanted to go see SPY: The Secret World of Espionage. I never made it to the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, and I like James Bond and the U2 scandals as much as the next girl.

The exhibit’s concept was really, really cool. The execution was not so cool. I was disappointed – and it really stemmed from the fact that “good exhibition” theory and practice was irreversibly drilled into my head at Tufts.

Each room in the exhibit had a clear theme – bugging, the biographies of Soviet-era spies, spy gadgets, famous assassinations – but there wasn’t a narrative to tie it all together. Going through the show, all I could thing was, “Why am I looking at this? What does it mean? Why do I care about this?” When we finally exited (through the gift shop, of course) I turned to my friend and said, “Did you get what the Big Idea was? I think I missed it.”

Instead of answering me, he sort of stared blankly, shrugged, and then suggested we go to the Giant Heart.

Spy Mission: Not Accomplished.

I confess, I hated reading Beverly Serrell in school. Her book, Exhibit Labels, seemed so obvious. Of course your exhibition should have a Big Idea. Of course your labels should tie your objects to that idea. Of course those labels should be less than 100 words long, placed in good lighting and written in dynamic – but accessible! – language. This is Exhibition Studies 101.

So why didn’t the creators of SPY do any of it? I hate to walk out of an exhibit and just tear it apart, but the fact that I walked out and could only say that maybe spies carried hollow nickels and sometimes they killed people disturbs me.

SPY was a great opportunity to talk about things like right to privacy. Is it spying to place hidden cameras in public places? Who should have access to your personal information? How does one determine if spying in a war crime? It was also a chance to clear up some common misconceptions about spies – are they all like James Bond? If not, how are they different? From where did the idea of a slick tuxedo-wearing English guy with a hot ride and an equally hot girl sidekick come

Yes, I know, Ian Fleming. But did he just make it all up? Or is it based in reality? And why isn’t the hot man candy ever the sidekick to the smart lady spy?

The exhibit addressed none of these things and didn’t achieve much more than piquing my interest in maybe reading some spy books if I have time after I finish up Jasper Fford. (By the way, read something by Jasper Fford – he’s hilarious, smart and a great read for you people who like Jane Austen.)

It just felt like the exhibit was more about “hey, look at these cool objects” than “here, learn something new about espionage.”

Sorry, Franklin Institute and the creators of SPY. This one was a flop. A great afternoon out, but a huge flop of an exhibit. I learned about as little as one can in an exhibit with too much information crammed into it.

Did you see SPY? What did you think? Share your thoughts with me in the comments!

To learn more about the exhibit, check out this New York Times article, or watch this video from Philadelphia’s local CBS news station.

PS – In lighter exhibition news, if you missed the Pompeii exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science, start planning your trip to Philadelphia. A Day In Pompeii will be opening here in January 2014, and is excellent.