Though I’ve been actively visiting museums since I was young, I only really developed a “meta” perspective on museums when I started actively reviewing exhibitions for major art publications. Then when I became a curator I would often try to decipher why other curators had presented the artworks in that way, and what they were trying to convey with their statements and texts.
Since running a series of museum trainings in 2015 with Nottingham University, I’ve begun to look more closely at other kinds of museums, outside of the realm of contemporary art—science museums, natural history museums and history museums to evaluate them for the kinds of learning, thinking and entertainment experiences they can provide.
I am particularly interested in the topic of “interpretation.” For those not down with the museological lingo, this refers to the process of how the specialized language of the curator is translated into a text which is understandable, inspiring, and which takes the viewer on a journey. This is one area where the majority of exhibitions fail. They tend to take a kind of “Wikipedia”-type approach, choosing breadth over depth and completely ignoring the storytelling element. It’s as if curators see actual stories as dimestore novels, something low-brow and which has no place in their hallowed halls, but when we look at learning outcomes we find that stories are a powerful tool that can be used to convey knowledge and make it stick.
The challenge that curators and interpreters face today is how to convey knowledge, while simultaneously using words and stories to welcome the viewer into the space of the exhibition, and entice them to create relationships between the artifacts before them and their own lived experience.