vid Edinburgh Research Data Blog

Concept Development

The Smithsonian, in theirThe Making of Exhibitions: Purpose, Structure, Roles and Process” report from 2002, identifies five stages of exhibition making:
  • Idea Generation
  • Concept Development: “when the ‘serious’ work on the parameters for content, ideas, design, size, and cost begins” (Smithsonian 25)
    • Some institutions “generate several concepts for the same idea”; some brainstorm; some assess their ideas with visitors (25)
  • Design Development: the phase with “the most struggles and conflicts – decisions need to be made on a day-to-day basis about how many objects, how much text, whose words, and whose ‘voice’” (25-6)
  • Fabrication and Installation
  • Post-Opening Activities

We’re in the idea-generation stage. The Smithsonian report also discusses a variety of practices by which exhibition ideas are generated and approved at different institutions:

  • In-house curators and subject-specialists often define exhibition ideas based on their curatorial or research interests.
  • Sometimes exhibition ideas emerge through an “environmental scan” of past, present, and future exhibitions at other institutions.
  • Ideas are often drawn from the pool of traveling exhibitions from other institutions.
    • Might we also think about generating ideas for exhibitions in partnership with other local institutions?
  • Proposals are reviewed by an exhibition committee – comprised of the institution’s director, other senior staff, and representatives from curatorial disciplines and subject departments and, if they exist, exhibitions, collections, design, public programs and/or education, visitor services / public affairs, and marketing and development (and sometimes publications) teams.
  • Criteria for evaluation of those proposals often include “relationship to mission, merit, fundability, availability of objects (in-house or available on loan), and audience draw and appeal” (Smithsonian 11).
  • Top-level management ultimately approves proposals.

We might begin our own idea-generation process by considering our Exhibition Mission Statement & Plan:

  • What are our goals for this exhibition? What values, identities define TNS – we might want to revisit the institution’s mission statement – and how can we align our project with those values?
  • Museum plans typically lie on a continuum ranging from, on one end, collection-driven, and on the other end, user- or market-driven.
    • What aspects of or elements in the NS archive do we want to feature?
    • Who are our target audiences? And what topics / themes / execution strategies would most likely appeal to those target audiences? (In a few weeks we’ll work on strengthening this appeal through user testing.)

Since many exhibitions arrive from individual curators’ or curatorial/research departments’ interests, let’s consider our individual topical or thematic interests; any particular collections and /or objects we’d ideally like to work with; and preliminary hopes – not plans, since we don’t want get hung up on concrete visions at this early, speculative stage – for how those interests might be executed. We’ll create a mind map. 

Lia Perjovschi, Knowledge Museum, 1999-2007, via Christine König Galerie

Lia Perjovschi, Knowledge Museum, 1999-2007, via Christine König Galerie

Now, how do we take all these individual ideas and merge them into a collaborative project? The Smithsonian report talks about division of responsibility in designing exhibitions:

  • Exhibitions have a project director, and, in some cases, a project manager. Staff are assigned to the exhibition team and are often given a charter spelling out the expectations for the exhibition and, perhaps, the roles and responsibilities for each member of the team.
  • “Until about [thirty] years ago, museums generally developed their exhibitions using a ‘linear’ or ‘curatorial’ model. One individual (generally a curator) had sole responsibility for development and implementation and, under his or her supervision, the exhibition moved sequentially from one support professional to the next.” Starting in the early 80s, due to changes in organizational structures, museums’ responsiveness to social changes, increased staff specialization, etc., “responsibility for exhibition development is now shared among multiple players…” With the “team approach,” “several professional interact and share creative responsibility throughout the process.” (Smithsonian 12 – 13).
  • The Smithsonian identifies several roles played by members of contemporary exhibition teams:
  1. Client: “usually a director of an upper-level administrator, provides the overall landscape for exhibit efforts” (15)
  2. Content Specialist: “provide the content and assure the accuracy of that content” (15)
  3. Designer: provides the 3-D or interactive “frame for the exhibit’s elements and the drawing/documents that will allow the exhibit to be built and installed as designed” (15)
  4. Content Interpreter: edits and translates content “for the visitor to best understand and appreciate” (16)
    …..Many teams exclude educators, or bring the person serving this role onto the team late in the process.
    …..“There are strong advocates for museums to support a full range of visitor evaluation activities during development. Downey (2002), for example, urges museums to develop audience input at three stages in the process: before design (concept assessment), during design (prototyping) and post-installation (evaluation)” (22).
  5. Project Manager: oversees schedule and budget

In our project, we’re all going to be playing each of these roles – but, ideally, we’d find people to take on “oversight roles,” attending to particular dimensions of the exhibition on the macro-scale. Let’s now consider what that macro-scale structure might be.

The fifth issue of OnCurating focuses on exhibition development, and features several essays, and interviews with curators and exhibition designers, about collaborative process. Iris Dressler and Hand D. Christ, joint directors of the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, say that with “process-related collaboration, you don’t know what comes out at the end.” Dressler explains: “I think it is important to show that especially contemporary art cannot be read in one direction, but that it instead offers multiple ways of interpretation.” But even if their execution allows for the acknowledgment of ambiguity, or even contradiction, they do have to begin an exhibition on common ground: “the starting points,” Dressler says, “are specific questions and problems that we share with other people.” The exhibition title often emerges “at a later moment of the process. The point of departure in these projects is never a title nor a certain thesis but an interest in circling around certain open questions and problems” (5).

Now, we’ll break into small groups and consider potential macro-scale groupings for your individual projects: how might we “cluster” various projects into thematic units, and how might we ultimately tie everything (or almost everything) together under one umbrella theme – or questions or problems?

  • Each group should propose at least two different uber-themes, and at least two possible sub-section organizations for each of those uber-themes. 

For the remainder of the class, we’ll discuss these possible schematic organizations. And we’ll discuss the format of your individual proposals, which are due next week