Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Smithsonian Conference Report Part II- Objects, Ideas, People

Tuesday morning at the Smithsonian workshop I attended a few weeks ago began at the National Museum of American History, one of my all-time favorites. We met with an exhibition development team who had finished a 10% plan for a possible upcoming exhibit and shared their process with us. One of their tips for making a compelling exhibit is lesson number two from the workshop:

There are object people, idea people, and people people.

There are, of course, infinite ways to classify and categorize museum visitors. For the purposes of writing text, one usually focuses on three levels of interest: the person who literally walked in to come out of the cold and has no interest in your topic, the person who is curious and knows a little about your topic but is not formally educated in it, and scholars of the topic who have come to learn more (or to catch your errors). The "object/idea/people" people classification basically means that when visitors come to a museum, they are primarily motivated by one of three things: they want to see interesting artifacts ("the real thing"), they want to learn more about certain ideas and concepts, or they want to learn about and relate to interesting people. Of course most people like all three, but have one primary interest. I would classify myself as an "objects" person: I've got my nose an inch from the glass looking at every detail, I want to know who made it, who sold it, who used it, what mark each of them left on it, I want to know how it fits into the design and aesthetics of its time (or doesn't), etc.

So what does this mean for exhibit development? It helps us remember to maintain balance and connection between the three groups in order to hold the interest of a varied audience. An exhibit that is mainly about objects can keep idea and people people interested by incorporating the stories of the people who made or used them and the ideas behind why they were created or why they are now in a museum, for example. Ideas are perhaps the hardest of the three to exhibit and require some thinking out of the box; our speakers suggested using words in an interactive way, with touch-screens or other AV components that allow the user to manipulate text and connect ideas in a manual and visual way.

What kind of visitor are you? Do you have any good ideas for how to exhibit ideas? Have you been to an exhibit that addresses these three interests well (or doesn't)?

As a side note, the Museum at FIT has opened their exhibit on Fashion and Politics, which will certainly be worth seeing. I'm planning on going in early August to see it and the Model as Muse exhibit at the Met and I'll report back on my thoughts!

Image of the Star-Spangled Banner (before recent conservation), Life, photo by Ralph Crane.

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