Exhibitions - reflections on Robert Janes's thoughts on an 'intractable habit'

In Robert Janes's recent book "Museums in a Troubled World" he talks about museum exhibitions as the mainstay and one of the defining features of all museums. Along with this, "all museum workers are involved in this enterprise in one way or another and all museums struggle daily with producting exhibitions and marketing them" (2009, 78).
With this as a context, Janes is surprised that museums continue to use methods, techniques and mental models that have remained unchanged for centuries. He thus describes exhibitions as "intractable habits that require rethinking and reinvention". (ibid, 78) More critically, he suggests that this approach to exhibiitions is yet another internal obstacle to achieving relevance and meaning for many musuems.

Harsh words?

In an age where digitisation and online initiatives are often at the forefront of 'future museum' discussions (see ABC Future Tense Future of Museums Part 2), how does the mainstay of museum practice, exhibition, develop? What values do exhibitions embue and how can we balance the need to explore online potential for outreach with onsite exhibition development?

As we all come to terms with falling budgets and fewer resources, the role of exhibitions becomes increasingly complex.

With this in mind, where to from here?

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Comment by Angelina Russo on September 29, 2009 at 11:00
Thanks Patricia. It certainly does seem to be a controversial book and as you say, he has been very successful at implementing change. Interesting to hear that there has been resistance to him speaking at conferences. I guess he might be saying some things which could be difficult to hear. I would also recommend the Palazzo Foundation site for more comments!
Comment by Angelina Russo on September 29, 2009 at 10:53
Thanks Des for such an interesting posting and for the link to the Thomas Campbell interview. I have to say that I was a little surprised to hear that the Met has 17 curatorial departments and yet a great number of their exhibitions are not focussed on their own collections.
It's quite difficult to get a sense of whether this is standard practice across the sector.
Comment by Karen O'Donnell on September 24, 2009 at 19:15
Angela, in reponse to your questions below, yes the curators are involved in developing public programs-sometimes. Many of these curator driven programs are great at value adding to the exhibition: they add elements that we weren't able to fit on the lables or objects or narratives we couldn't fit into exhibitions. But the trouble is, these are still very "expert" focused. The programs lead by our ed/pub prog officers are often more participatory in nature, valuing the contribution that can be made by attendees. However, through some more structured cross-functional projects, each side is learning off the other..like you said we've come a way, but we are still journeying!
With regards to exhibition development, I've put in place processes that encouge and provoke the curators (and in fact all centre staff in their projects) to work with other areas during the intial stages. Previously public programs were the after thought completed by the ed officer , but now through the planning process, the other centre staff have input and can be inspired by the exhibition, hopefully leading to a more holistic visitor experience across all the services at the Centre as well as creating a few more participatory elements to exhibitions. Baby steps though, its important not to devalue the knowledge and skills of any professional! Cultural change needs a consistant, yet sensitive approach!
Comment by Des Griffin on September 24, 2009 at 12:56
There are a large number of comments on Dr Janes' book on the Palazzo Foundation site on which Janes himself gives a summary. Amongst other things I have said, "As Janes admits in the first sentence of par 3, the problem is that he is generalising. And generalisations are a very great problem: think of the generalisations about educational attainment of school students or ‘Orientalism’ as elaborated by Edward Said and so central an issue for us at this time. (By the way, have museums been irrelevant when they have staged exhibitions about Islam, its art and history, as so very many have done since 911?)

"Because many museums which are financially well supported, at least relative to the majority, have been prepared to adopt managerialism, corporatism, tourism, entertainment, universalism and other –isms does not make the museum as a concept irrelevant or flawed, any more than the scientific method is flawed because scientists disagree, theories turn out to be wrong, history tells different stories from 20 years ago or that art is irrelevant because different people have different preferences."

I think that there are interesting perspectives on the future of museums from such recent conversations as the Art Newspaper (Issue 205) interview with the very interesting recently appointed director at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Dr Thomas Campbell and another of the articles in the same issue of the Newspaper dealing with the new Darwin Centre at the The Natural History Museum.

Those colleagues interested may be interested in two other posts on my site posts one of which was entitled "Managerialism buried" my site including an associated essay “Managerialism buried (I wish)” which deal with the totally unproductive rush by some museums to adopt the latest fads in managerialism, that cancerous outgrowth of market economics!
Comment by Patricia Sabine on September 24, 2009 at 12:15
Hi Angelina Many thanks for alerting us to Robert Janes' latest publication. In my view, he is one museum thinker that we should ensure is a keynote speaker at one of our many conferences. I have tried for a number of years to convince various people but he is not well known or read enough in Australia. IN the mid nineties I wrote a review for the MA magazine of his earlier book Museums and the Paradox of Change. This book was extraordinarily helpful to me at the time when as the Director of TMAG I needed to convince both politicians and bureaucrats of the new directions we needed to move in. If I remember rightly Robert Janes cut his museum teeth establishing a new multidisciplinary museum in Yellowknife, a remote North West city of 20,000 on the edge of the Arctic; then he was appointed later to rescue the Glenbow Museum from rampant financial/staffing/collection traumas. His experiences are a better, cultural, physical, and economic parallel to Australia than those of the UK and the US. As such they were very helpful to me when as then Director of TMAG I needed to convince both politicians and bureaucrats of the need to make dramatic changes in structure, budgets and programming. His erudite and profound writing and his practical approachs to solving problems were both supportive and encouraging. I look forward to reading his new book. Many Thanks
Comment by Angelina Russo on September 22, 2009 at 11:22
Hi Karen and thanks for the thoughtful comment. It's great to see that you're developing programs which help to activate exhibitions. I wonder, are curators involved in this and do you see a way in which exhibition development could embed participatory processes so that the public programs are more easily connected to the final exhibition itself?
I agree that the notion of label by and for curator doesn't allow the public to fully engage with the context and content as readily as other forms of communication do. We've come a long way and I guess there is still a long way to go!
Comment by Karen O'Donnell on September 16, 2009 at 23:01
Aside from the endless opportunities that social media and online technologies are opening up, I think one of the significant areas for this rethink are the new work coming out of interpretation and public programs. In effect most museums are trying to be more participatory with their use of public programs to draw in and engage visitors and these can work across broad audience types (as opposed to social media which can alienate less tech savy profiles). Within my centre, we are trying to activate the exhibitions by creating exciting public programs that draw non museum goers in. However, I think even these methods need a rethink. Many public programs still suffer from the "institutional" philosophy of the "experts" telling the audience what they should know. We need more innovative programs that tap into the social media movement of democratic knowledge and mash ups. That is what will keep our cultural centre relevant and help to move us away from the stereotypical dusty artifact in an object case with a label written by a curator, for a curator that means nothing to the general public.
Comment by Angelina Russo on September 15, 2009 at 13:41
It's an interesting thought Beth. I was lucky enough to see the Beatles Cirque de Soleil show in Las Vegas a few years ago. Up until that time, the music hadn't really meant that much to me but this changed my mind! There was a moment in the performance when the voices of the band were used to recreate a music session. It was like ghosts speaking - incredibly moving and gave a human quality to what are now, such iconic pieces of music.
How do you recreate that type of experience with other collections? Janes seems to suggest that until we use new methods, we will continue creating exhibits which don't extend to participation and/or engagement. Does the Beatles music continue to have relevance and meaning through connection with audience in new forms, in this case through performance? Are there opportunities for us to consider how to maintain relevance and meaning through differing communication devices. Is the question of connecting with audiences too broad? Can it be narrowed down to communication which enables relevance and meaning - and what would that look like?
Comment by Beth Harris on September 12, 2009 at 13:36
Wow. What an interesting thought. I take rotating exhibitions as a fact of life in a museum, but of course, it makes sense to look at everything we do in a new light and really open up possibilities. It's the new exhibitions that bring people through the door right? And that's what's most important - or so we think. Our exhibitions are not very participatory though are they? They are very one-way (with the Brooklyn Museum's exception of course). Here's a funny thought. I was playing Beatles Rock Band (which the NY Times contrasted with a museum - "Luckily, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with the widows of George Harrison and John Lennon, seem to understand that the Beatles are not a museum piece, that the band and its message ought never be encased in amber." (see http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/arts/television/06schi.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/magazine/16beatles-t.html) and I wondered, what would it be like for a museum to be as participatory, as fun, as educational, as immersive, as much of a game experience as Beatles Rock Band?

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