What constitutes a good exhibition? Last week I attended a seminar on this topic presented by Stephen Foster, an adjunct professor at the Australian National University, and former general manager with responsibility for content at the National Museum of Australia.
It’s a deceptively simple question. To answer it, you can draw on exhibition development guidelines, or you can think about the kinds of things people say in reviews, to come up with a list of criteria for evaluation. It seems a valuable exercise, and long overdue.
What I found interesting about the criteria tabled at this event was that, although some of them were about visitors’ experience, there was no mention of what those Assembling here might consider central to the mission of museum exhibitions – educational value. I’m not thinking here about how well an exhibition lends itself to having a non-formal education program built around it. I mean that an exhibition is itself a program for informal learning.
In that sense, a good exhibition is one that constitutes a good learning program. And for me, whether an exhibition/program is satisfying or deadly dull often depends on whether it involves its audience in the process of meaning-making – rather than simply presenting one thing after another, after another. To rate well in my book, an exhibition needs to generate a dialogue with its visitors. How it does that depends on the:
- content of the exhibition
- creativity and nous of the exhibition developers
But for me, an exhibition should have some kind of in-built audience participation. So that’d be my two-cent answer to the question. (To keen readers seeking a higher-cost rumination on this theme, I offer my doctoral thesis.)
One thing to clearly emerge from the seminar is the need to cultivate a culture of critique around museum exhibitions, comparable to – if distinct from – that around fine art, books, and film. The current paucity of critique contributes to the uncertainty over what constitutes a good exhibition.
In that light, here’s an idea: perhaps we should take inspiration from art mobs. Perhaps Collections Australia Network should offer to publish unofficial audio guides to Australian exhibitions. I’d like to see that. And my hunch is that an unofficial guide would add value to an exhibition or, in other words, help constitute its goodness.