Blast from the Past

I present to you a blast from the past: a paper/exhibition review I wrote for a museum studies class a couple of years ago. I’m posting it because in my last post (ack! there’s gotta be another word for it!), I was writing about trying to get creative with exhibition design, but warned that going too far with it can just be confusing. Whenever I think of too much exhibition design, I think of this.

I attended “The MIT 150 Exhibition” at the MIT Museum. The exhibition celebrated the university’s 150th anniversary by featuring art and artifacts that represented work done at MIT or by MIT alumni and professors. The exhibition was organized by themes like “Academic MIT,” “Entrepreneurial MIT,” “Pioneering MIT,” and “Artistic MIT.” (As an art specialist this last was my favorite.) Themes were color-coded and represented by the color of the walls, text panels, and pedestals. For the majority of the exhibition, this worked well: sections were clearly separated by the colored walls but still open to each other and the larger gallery space, which allowed for a good flow. However, the exhibition’s designers decided to introduce all ten themes in the narrow hallway that was the entrance to the exhibition. Overly bright wall panels introduced the theme with a quote and brief text, accompanied by an object representing the theme, and that object’s individual text label. This was visually overwhelming, spatially overcrowded, and confusing. It was not clear from just that entryway that the themes would be continued in the exhibition; nowhere in the entrance was the thematic organization explained, and it seemed as if every object would have its own colored wall panel. The museum would have done better to put the thematic introductory panels in each section, rather than all packed into the entrance.

The displays were generally quite interesting. Most of the objects were themselves captivating, like a 6-foot-tall computer memory unit from the 1950’s. If I initially found certain objects or photographs dull, a closer look would usually reward my curiosity with a fascinating story, like a tape measure used by a professor to demonstrate the disparity between work spaces given to male and female researchers. Some gallery labels were better written or better researched than others. For example, a label about glass talked about how many hits “glass” gets in a Google search, a rather inane and un-illuminating factoid. There were a few good interactive screens, but some digital displays did not move or interact, making them glorified picture frames. In some instances, videos were not working; in another, a video console was missing.

The exhibition took up one larger gallery and one smaller. More objects were packed into the smaller, second gallery, in part because of a display case full of objects representing the businesses of alumni. This was not unpleasing, but it did create an odd rhythm when I, fully immersed in the show, exited this gallery expecting more but abruptly found the exhibition over. The exhibition would have been much better had the museum been more thoughtful about the experience they create at the entrance and exits.

“The MIT 150 Exhibition” at the MIT Museum, Spring 2011

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