What does a complex museum exhibition look like?

In a keynote address for MuseumNext, Melbourne (2016) – The Importance of And – Elaine Gurian spoke about complexity theory and how museums could use these principles when planning exhibitions. I have quoted from her talk below, highlighting points that stood out to me, and the whole text can be accessed on the MuseumNext website.

… what might a complex museum exhibition look like? The exhibition content, responding to complexity theory, will be multivariate, non-linear, and while there may be a curator-led contingent narrative it will be described as only one way to understand the exhibition.

Like libraries, the system of use will be non-judgmental and filled with material that will seem tangential to some, while not to others. Browsing will be, at baseline, a respected and supported activity. A visitor will be able to wander through a multiplicity of sources that are visual, tactile, verbal, etc. and can personalize interests through surfing, combining and recombining – understanding that [their] idea trail will be unlike others. And there will be ways that the visitor can affect the exhibition and that effect will add to the cumulative ways that the exhibition can be used by others.

Importantly, the creators of the exhibition will have intended it to be that way and their training in exhibition work will, of necessity, be enlarged to include complexity theory and its practical outcomes.

There are obvious problems in this approach. If by multi-varied, we mean keeping unrationalized, and therefore inelegant and conflicting viewpoints simultaneously in mind, we might be creating intellectual overload that leads to stasis rather than action. And however, that frozen phase might come about, it is not the outcome that is useful in a public education space. So, modification for understanding will need to be experimented with.

I hope by example, our visitors will take away not just specific content of interest but will come to appreciate that all systems are complicated, that action steps for amelioration are themselves complex, and multivariate. In summary, museum audiences will become more empathic and patient citizens willing to see incremental activity as useful, and trial and error as essential.

Empathy, wonder and activisim

Gurian notes that one outcome of complexity is that audiences will become more empathetic. I have written about empathy – and wonder – here. As museums are often cited by visitors as places of wonder, it is worth thinking about using this concept as a ‘way into’ complexity within the context of difficult subjects, themes and ideas:

“… [the] connection between wonder and empathy is natural. When you experience a wonder moment and then share it with others (empathy), you are moving up the wonder scale to activation”. (Ausman, et al, 2016, p.106 – references are here).

Visitors and difficult topics

When I was an Osher Fellow at the Exploratorium in 2017 we had many chats about how to talk with visitors about the ‘hard stuff’. In research I have conducted over recent years, not only is it expected that museums will address the ‘hard stuff,’ but visitors also want to be able to have their say in some way. Some examples in this post – Penguins, postcards, pledges: visitors and a “call to action.

As mentioned in my last post about working more productively, we will be looking at some of these issues in a workshop next week and I’ll report how we went.


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