The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

6 November 2013

Transmutation #21 - The Exhibition Lab: change by experiment?

Laura Liv Weikop is a PhD student at the Design Museum in Copenhagen, and she is here today to present an exhibition which she created as part of her PhD. The Exhibition Lab asks people to do things they didn't strictly have the 'professional' experience to do, such as evaluating the exhibition using their own experience. It is an experiment, was of finding new ways to mediate meaning in the museum.

The Design Museum Denmark is located in a beautiful Rococco building, formerly a hospital; the buildings are strangely shaped and protected, giving problematic constraints to work within. It has a limited budget and small staff, but a large tourist footfall. A few years ago, a new and talented director brought a new strategy plan to the museum; but this hasn't reached the majority of the museum staff. The staff who take care of the museum have been there for a long time and are embedded within the institution. They are being asked to act in ways that are new, and that they are not comfortable with. Weikop's standpoint is that there is no willingness to input this strategy, even though there are only three years in which to do it. It is difficult to be flexible and dynamic in such circumstances.

Current exhibition practice is beautiful, but static with a primarily aesthetic focus. It is often thought of as dusty and old fashioned. Mediation and interpretation is very sparce and predominantly textual. The Exhibition Lab is an attempt to rethink these methods of mediation and exhibition creation, and to create debate and document the different behaviours design and mediation can produce amongst visitors.

The budget and timeframe for the exhibition was demanding - it was conceptualized and made within five months, and restricted to three small spaces within the museum. It had a budget of little over £7000 - for an architect, exhibition designer, objects and staffing. It is one display divided into three sub-displays, showing the exact same 25 objects of everyday life. The visitor enters these in sequence, and then entre the Think Tank. Each of the exhibition spaces emphasizes different things, following it's own interpretive ethos.

The ethos driving the first room is 'Attractive things work better', following aesthetic design and mediation principles resembling those of the current practice within the museum; objects appear in glass cases, the text and labels are long and technical. It appears like a classical display; there is nothing new to see here. However, the display of modern objects in traditional fashion makes for a very different experience. It is still, however, seen as dull.

The second exhibition is called 'What You Own is Who You Are', and follows affective design and mediation principles. Here, the objects are placed in a homely setting, and in it people talk, play and explore, spending more time here than in any other room of the exhibition. The text is inviting; things are there to be touched, and the interactive possibilities made explicit. The designers tried to create a dynamic relationship between the scenography of the room and the objects; an audio track of everyday sounds plays to create a natural environment. People seem very relaxed within the space, and the interaction and touching natural, unlike in many other museums encouraging touch.

The third room is called 'Design Fulfills Needs', and this follows more didactic design and mediation principles. The space is styled like a workshop, with booklets enabling the visitor to read about the objects in a great deal of detail. Here, though, people are told not to touch the objects. This part of the exhibition works well in terms of informational content, the evaluation showed, but that same evaluation also indicated that people would have liked to be able to touch.

The final part of the exhibition is the feedback area, the Think Tank, which contains multiple methods by which the visitor might give their opinion and the museum gain an understanding of the visitor's experience.

Naturally, museum objects usually can't be touched; but this exhibition shows how the sense of touch is useful and can be incorporated. Weikop hopes that The Exhibition Lab can promote discussion and change both within and without the museum, so that visitors are included, not alienated, and the museum made not dusty and boring, but new, vibrant and relevant.

This session has been full of interesting projects, run by very daring and determined people. I am astonished at their drive, and feel lucky that they have shared their ideas here today.

I'll be back after lunch with a workshop entitled Electric Elephants. I can't wait to see what that entails.

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