Monday, May 24, 2010


I'm volunteering at the American Association of Museums (AAM) Conference this week and I've had the chance to enjoy some really interesting sessions. One such session was On the Road: Ephemeral Exhibits and the Visitor Experience. It was all about the emergence of transient exhibits in museums and the "pop-up" museum trend. The discussion was lively and as someone without a museum studies background, some of the theory was hard to follow, but since the talk I've been mulling over the idea of impermanent exhibitions and the concept of the temporary museum.

Each of the panelists were curators of transient exhibitions and museums including FAX at the Drawing Center of New York, the McCormick Freedom Project of Chicago, the Denver Community Museum, and the Torrance Art Museum of Los Angeles. Through discussion of their exhibits and museums, the panelists gave us insight into their own reasons for exploring the medium of pop-up museums and exhibitions.

One of the most valuable aspects of the transient exhibition is its ability to empower visitors and curators alike. The experience of visiting a fleeting exhibit experience is a lot like buying a limited edition print or attending an exclusive small-venue concert: you are one of only select number of buyers or visitors or concert-goers and as a result, you become a special person. The transient exhibit also offers transparency to visitors as the exhibit process unfolds in front of them. They can witness the full life-cycle of the exhibition: from creation, over change, through disassembly. From a curatorial standpoint transient exhibitions can be freeing. They can be a way to take on risk in an isolated window of time and if done independently, a curator can take on full creative control and bypass lengthy approval processes.

Interestingly enough, I heard more skepticism of the exhibition style from some of the presenters themselves. Some of the complaints against the medium cited a lack of history-making, catering to short attention spans, and bringing the museum experience to people who don't want it to begin with. I'm glad these concerns were raised because they're important questions to ask when creating such an exhibit.

More and more, contemporary artists are expressing a need for venues to show work that changes over time, is added to or taken from by visitors, or simply has a limited lifespan. It can cause a museum some anxiety to have to deal with that kind of ephemeral art, especially since museums have always been dedicated to preservation and conservation. And it's fair to worry about the legacy of these pieces if we can't add them to our permanent collections. In response to this, the Torrance Art Museum has decided not to keep a collection at all and effectually all exhibitions are of the pop-up variety. Even without a policy of non-collection, some of that fear of impermanence can be alleviated with an ever-widening range of ways to record transient experiences. After all, performance artists have been making their work permanent with video and photography since the invention of film. Likewise, temporary museums that have come and gone, like the Denver Community Museum, live on in website form with photos of exhibitions and details about the location and mission.

I understand the concern that these transient exhibits might be riding the trend of catering to over-caffeinated, over-extended, focus-lacking multi-taskers. That said, as long as the vision is not compromised and delivers an experience that meets the long-term mission of the museum, it’s less like enabling and instead giving more entry points to an institution. Offering a variety of ways to access a museum can be one of the most welcoming things an institution does.

Museums argue over audience-expanding initiatives all the time. Many include in their missions that they hope to engage new under-represented community members and expand their visitorship. At the same time, there also exists the mentality that if people want to go to museums, they’ll go and that it’s our bias as museum professionals that everyone should be interested in what interests us. My response is this: not everyone will want what we offer, but let’s give as many people as possible an personal invitation to see for themselves and make better informed decisions about their own interests. By placing temporary exhibits or mobile museums in public spaces, they become ambassadors to the museum experience. People who don’t think they belong in museums have the opportunity to change their minds if they find themselves running across a museum unexpectedly.

The concept of the temporary museum has really inspired me and I’m considering creating one of my own in the near future. At the very least, I’ll be doing more research and seeking out examples in my area. One such museum that I'm looking forward to exploring is the SF Mobile Museum and I hope to participate in their next exhibit challenge. If you know of museum popping up in San Francisco soon, please do let me know!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

how we use museums: the RISD museum of art vs. RISD's nature lab

Update: this post has been re-worked and re-published as a guest post on Nina Simon's blog, Museum 2.0

Should a museum be a destination or a place for everyday use? Why don't we use museums the way we use libraries? Nina Simon posed these provocative questions at her presentation and book signing I attended at JFK University last Thursday.

Putting aside the obvious answer to the question (because libraries are free and museums have entrance fees) I began to think more deeply about this museum-library binary. Do I use museums the same way I use libraries? Do I even want to use a museum like a library? I immediately recalled a phenomenon I witnessed as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.

The Rhode Island School of Design was established in 1877 alongside its Museum of Art intended as a resource for students. The Museum hosts collections directly related to the majors offered at the school, including painting, sculpture, and decorative art and design. The Edna Lawrence Nature Lab, was established in 1937 also as a resource for students. Instead of works of art, the Nature Lab offers taxidermy specimens, bones, seed pods, and other natural items. Both buildings are located within whispering distance of one another at the heart of the city-scattered campus. Both are free for students. Both consider themselves museums with curators, a collection, and a similar mission. And yet, the Museum of Art is often overlooked or dismissed outright by students and the Nature Lab is cherished and spoken of fondly.

It was always obvious to me which was the preferred resource. I worked in the Museum of Art for my four years at RISD and when I'd talk about my tour-guide job there, other students would say, "Oh yeah, I never go there," or sometimes they'd say, "I should go there sometime," but I never heard the Museum referred to with the same glassy-eyed endearment that the Nature Lab enjoyed. Lack of appreciation for the Museum became even more apparent when it was announced that the Museum would be undergoing a massive renovation and addition. Students talked about the new plans with disgust, insulted that the money was going to the Museum instead of their studios. Regardless of the fact that the grant was specifically for the Museum and the school did not have the choice of funding studio space instead, clearly students didn't see the expansion as benefiting them.

The Museum tries to engage students with various programs and exhibitions, some more successful than others. The Sitings contest invites students to propose an installation and the two proposals that win each year are awarded grants and displayed in the Museum. Faculty shows tempt students into the Museum to see the work of their professors. The Siskind Center gives students the opportunity to pore over the Museum's massive collection of works on paper. Evening events entice with the promise of music and food. And Museum staff pat themselves on the back and think, "Mission accomplished. We've engaged the students." But a quick informal poll suggests otherwise.

The Museum is open the usual 10-5, Tuesday-Sunday, you can't bring in an ink pen without a permit, and the evening events attract mostly older community members instead of students. As much as I loved spending time in the Museum, drawing the sculptures, chatting with the docents, giving my friends informal tours, and enjoying bluegrass music in the painting gallery, I knew that not everyone felt so free in the museum environment. They preferred the cluttered, noisier, dirtier atmosphere of the Nature Lab. To them, the Nature Lab was much more accessible.

While the Nature Lab does admit the general public, the majority of users (as opposed to visitors) are RISD students and the place is nearly always packed. And effortlessly- no programs, no big exhibitions, just old animal skulls and sea shells. The Lab is open late, the staff is almost entirely students, and they sometimes play music on the stereo. You don't have to sign up to use wet media, you can touch many of the specimens, and you can even check some of them out. Some of the display cases contain mini-exhibitions curated by students.

I was one of very few students who worked in the Museum and we were relegated to the roles of tour guide and intern. I would have loved to be a part of a student curator club and make my own exhibitions with works from the Museum's 8,000 piece collection. And a student docent program would provide opportunities for work-study students to interpret the pieces for fellow students and fellow artists. I understand the security issues and archival issues of loosening up the atmosphere and handling the collection more, but what use are those objects if they aren't being used to inspire the students? And who better to care for them than artists who understand the materials and have a tremendous respect the works?

I'd love to see the Museum absorb the Nature Lab or maybe the other way around. A sort of art-museum-meets-natural-history-museum-with-library-component- maybe an Art-Nature-Museum-Lab. I could definitely see myself paying for a membership to enjoy a museum that also provided a unique space for me to come and create my own work. And anyone who has created artwork in public knows that people absolutely love to see artists at work. It reminds visitors that the art they are looking at was created by a human being and it can inspire them to look at natural objects in new ways and maybe feel less intimidated by the art-making process.

I don't think that all art museums need to be Art-Nature-Museum-Labs. There's definitely a place for white-walled museums with quiet, contemplative atmospheres and I'd hate to see places like that disappear. But the RISD Art Museum has missed its mark where its younger, quirkier cousin the Nature Lab has filled a need. The Museum could really benefit from a long hard look at itself and its mission and take a few cues from the time-honored, student-approved tradition around the corner.

Photo credits, top to bottom: RISD Museum of Art, Frank Mullin, Flickr user onerisd, Flickr user newurbanarts